Giving our all for TV diaries

The Baltimore Sun

If you ever had any questions about the accuracy of the Nielsen TV ratings, it probably won't help to know that my family is now serving as a Nielsen sample household.

This all began a few weeks ago when the phone rang and a voice on the other end said something like: "How would you like to perform a tremendous service for your country by being a Nielsen participant and keeping track of all the mind-numbing, soul-sapping junk you watch on TV?"

Sure, I said, because I don't have a lot going on in my life.

Plus, it was about 160 degrees outside and gas was going for $8 a gallon or whatever, so I couldn't go anywhere.

Then a few days ago, a packet arrived in the mail containing four Nielsen TV Ratings Viewing Diaries, one for each TV in the house.

And basically each member of the household was instructed to keep a record of every program he or she watches. Then, after a week, we mail the diaries back.

In the packet, Nielsen also sent us - get this - a dollar to thank us for helping it with its research.

Yes, one dollar. A whole buck. So technically, I'm on the take for these people.

I took the dollar and used it to buy gas, and you know how far that got me.

So I drove home and called the Nielsen people back and said: "Hey, I need 44 more of those dollars to fill my gas tank. So send along some more dough and I promise we'll do a bang-up job for you guys. In fact, we'll be the best Nielsen sample household you ever had."

But they said no, we can't send you any more dough, what kind of game are you playing here anyway?

So that was the end of that.

You can't even get a Dunkin' Donuts gift certificate out of these people - that's how cheap they are.

Here's the thing about being a Nielsen sample household: You find yourself watching a lot more TV than you normally would, just so you'll have something to write in the diaries.

And because you don't want the Nielsen people thinking you're low-brow, you watch Senate hearings and discussions on "The Future of the Global Economy" on C-Span, the BBC World News on PBS and whatever's on TLC and the History Channel.

The other night, for instance, I watched Dateline NBC at 10.

Look, I don't even like that show.

But it was up against Everybody Loves Raymond reruns and Psychic Kids: Children of the Paranormal and Date My Ex: Jo & Slade, whatever that is. So I figured I'd look like Henry Kissinger by tuning in to Dateline.

Luckily, the topic was pretty interesting. It was all about the dangerous world of tower climbers, the crazy people who climb these 2,000-foot structures to install and repair high-tech communications equipment.

But maybe I'll write in my diary that it was about opera or U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

At this point, I should probably mention that the rest of my family is not exactly wild about us being a Nielsen sample household.

My wife thinks the whole thing is an incredible hassle. And when you ask the 17-year-old to jot down the name of the program he's watching, he acts like you're making him break rocks in the hot sun.

When I got home the other day, he was reading a book that was assigned as part of his school's summer reading requirement.

This drove me crazy.

"How many times do I have to tell you to put down that book and turn on the TV?" I said to him. "We need to have something to show the Nielsen people!"

Then I explained the importance of providing timely and accurate information about our nation's TV viewing habits to Nielsen Ratings, so they could turn this information over to the network executives and cable moguls, thus ensuring that a steady stream of mind-numbing, soul-sapping new shows would again be broadcast this fall.

"Now get with it," I told him. "Go watch TV. And if I catch you doing any more reading, you're grounded for a week."

Me, I think I'll be tuning into PBS again tonight.

I see Artworks This Week is on at 7:30, with Nova scienceNow at 9.

That ought to look good in the old diary.

The Nielsen people have no idea how hard I'm working for them.


Read recent columns by Kevin Cowherd at

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad