We watch... so you don't have to.

The Nielsens Next Door

There is a family that lives next door to you. They have 1.18 kids, of whom 0.19 are over over 18 and still living at home. There are 2.19 cars parked in the driveway of their thirty-three-year-old house. They make $49,650 a year, smile when they're out washing the car, curb their 1.2 dogs, and paint their white picket fence every other year.

They are the Nielsens.

On the surface they seem like a nice family. But if you look a little closer -- if you peek out of your blinds and into their windows late at night, or prowl past their basement door listening, or happen to glance into the trunk of their 0.19 car one night when they're unpacking the groceries -- you begin to see that the Nielsens have their dark side, too.

Dad has thinning hair. Mom's antiperspirant leaves a flaky white residue on her cocktail dress. One of the kids is smoking marijuana and neither parent has spoken to them about it. Mom makes dinner from a packet, only sometimes adding beef or chicken to make a complete meal -- when it doesn't come wholesale from the microwave, that is. The adults are stubbly. The children have acne and their friends talk behind their backs at school. Everyone eats breakfast and lunch at McDonald's, drinks Budweiser, drives while intoxicated, and has headaches and hemorrhoids which don't require surgery but are eased by over-the-counter remedies. And down in the basement, unbeknownst to anyone, senile old Grandpa is drooling into his lap and watching CBS prime time.

Nor is Gramps alone in this family in suffering from what can only be described as a combination of advanced mercury poisoning and cretinism. Everyone in the entire household, 1.2 dogs included, is a microcephalic, squint-headed imbecile, barely sentient enough to grasp their genitalia and flail around the instant the Baywatch opening music begins.

This is the family that the networks and cable upstarts use to gauge the popularity of their programs; this is the family advertisers use to set the fees they pay those networks. Whether a show shambles on in a shallow imitation of life or dies a horrible, painful death is determined by this family. The Average American Family.

No one needs a degree in statistics to know that there's no such thing as the Average American Family and no one needs that degree to tell that the Nielsen ratings system is a pathetic sham. The Nielsens are based entirely on 5,000 households; anyone can see, with an American population of over 250 million, that this number has no hope of being representative. More people are abducted by UFOs every year than are polled by Nielsen. According to the March 1999 issue of Brill's Content, $50 million of ad revenues are in the balance every time four viewers -- only four viewers -- tune in, or don't, to a network show. Tracking of these viewers is impossibly shoddy, too. The very best in 1950s technology is being used right now to fashion large rectangular chrome house-cleaning robots, design flying cars with fins, put a raygun in every spaceman's holster, build geodesic domes on the moon, and, oh yes, meter Nielsen family viewing. And that's where Nielsen has advanced beyond the pen-and-paper diary method. Quick: What did you watch last Wednesday at 7:30? This writer suspects his TV was tuned halfway between VH1 and Comedy Central and moving fast.

Worst of all, however, is the fact that Nielsen families are self-selected. What this means is that when Nielsen calls up to ask a family to keep records, the only families that agree are the ones that want to. This means that all of America's viewing tastes are being modeled on people who are willing to keep track of everything they do with the TV and tell someone about it. You know these kind of people. They're the people that save their movie ticket stubs in chronological order. They're the people that talk to people they don't even know when waiting on line at the supermarket. They're the people who actually fill in their car's service record in the owner's manual. They label all the food in their refrigerator, empty cereal boxes into airtight plastic containers as soon as they get them home from the store, cut coupons out along the dotted lines, save TV Guides, and wash their bathrooms daily. They are, in short, psychotic. And just four of them have the power to kill your favorite show.

It would feel good, wouldn't it, to blame all this on some Commie plot, or on the Visitors, or on Ronald Reagan. But the blame for the Nielsen rating system cannot be laid at these convenient doors, partly because Reagan himself is a plot by Commie Visitors. No, we must walk a little further down the hall and drop our steaming burden on the already crowded threshold of the deserving: The Networks.

It's not as if there haven't been alternatives. It's not as if Nielsen were the only way to go. It's not even as if a viewer rating system is the only possible solution to the question of determining advertising rates. But the Networks crave hard numbers at low cost, and if the numbers don't relate in any known way to reality, well, at least we have something. So what if this causes the repeated airing of programs known to cause brain hemorrhaging in macaque monkeys? So what if this monumental short-sightedness causes viewers to desert like rats leaving a sunken ship, preferring even to drown someplace else?

And all of this is increasingly painful given the widespread subscription to cable and satellite broadcasting. The purpose of the Nielsens is to set ad rates; these ad rates are set to generate income; and the income is generated by these ads because originally, no viewers wanted to pay for television. Now, the viewers are paying for television -- and still watching ads. They're paying in four ways: First, the monthly bill for cable or satellite; second, the cost of the time they spend watching ads; third, the cost of the time they spend watching twaddle because the Powers That Be can't figure out who is watching what when and so must program to the lowest common denominator -- in this case, a dyspeptic and retarded Australopithecine; and fourth, in medical bills for trauma incurred while watching said twaddle.

There's an easy solution. It's high time we moved to a pay-per-view system for all television. And why not? NBC's much-questioned decision to renew the abysmal ER -- knowing full well that the few remaining compelling cast members would be sure to bail out within a couple of seasons -- at the enormous price of $13 million an episode doesn't look so stupid when you realize that the estimated 35.7 million viewers tuning in would only have had to pony up 37 cents a piece to watch it. An entire season's worth of even heavy prime-time viewing -- say, three hours a night every night, with four hours on Friday and Saturday -- not that I'm speaking from personal experience here -- might only run forty dollars a month, which is about what most people are paying for cable anyway. And this way, they'd only pay for what they wanted to watch, which would, one imagine, be classier than what's playing now. Classy like most pay-per-view events these days.

Classy like professional wrestling.

Maybe there's something to the Nielsens after all.


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