My Life as a Nielsen Family

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 15 1997 3:30 AM

My Life as a Nielsen Family

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       When you become a Nielsen Family you encounter others similarly anointed, like VW drivers honking at each other on the highway. We have this in common: none of us is honest. It's not just Heisenbergian distortion, not just the unconscious influence of being observed. It's that we lie. Some lie on moral grounds, declining to record their viewing of porn, for instance. Some lie on aesthetic grounds, listing shows considered high tone (Homicide, ER), and declining to list trash (anything on the WB or UPN networks). Some reject this distinction, taking a lofty Johnsonian stance--one does not argue precedence between a louse and a flea--and underreport their viewing across the board.

       Years ago, when I wrote for Late Night with David Letterman, a wise producer told me everyone knows the Nielsens are wildly inaccurate, but like many false beliefs--honesty is the best policy, marriage leads to happiness--they have their utility. In this case, the purpose is to set advertising rates.

       However, the Nielsens ignore certain viewers. They don't survey those watching in institutional settings--college dorms, hospitals, jail--who were our core constituency at Late Night. The show commissioned its own surveys to demonstrate that our viewers were just the sort of youthful tire-buying beer-lovers cherished by sponsors. These statistics let Late Night charge more for a commercial than programs with similar ratings. Our 2 is better than your 2.

       In the first few years of the show, we worried that our low ratings would get us canceled. I was scared of losing my cushy job until the wise producer reassured me: our show had another purpose. When viewers turn on their sets in the morning, they tend to stay on whatever channel they happen to be on until you give them a reason to switch. Our minuscule 1 rating meant that the million households who went to sleep with their TVs tuned to Late Night awoke as instant Today show viewers. A one point boost in Today's ratings was often enough to move it into first place in its time period. The network benefited even if our show lost money. I never felt that my writing was more appreciated.

       I've completed my first three days of Nielsen viewing, and I lie too, feeling no obligation to serve the commercial interests of the Nielsens. They virtually demand deception, instructing us diarists: "Please remember ... This may be your only opportunity to tell the TV industry the programs watched in your home. ... This will help to bring you more of the programs you watch." I can imagine few things more hellish than receiving more of the programs I watch. And so, I reward the virtuous (Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist), punish the wicked (Rosie O'Donnell), and log any show where a friend works (Politically Incorrect). It helps the people I care about and, I think, serves the larger society by reminding the Nielsens, the networks, and me to remain skeptical of the phrase "studies have shown."