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Nielsen Ratings? We're Taking Bids

This week I was a proud participant in democracy at its finest. No, I didn't do something silly, like voting. I exercised real power and joined America's cultural elite: the Nielsen television ratings households. TV producers and network executives will be at my mercy for an entire week. It's a wonderful feeling.

Once you've been selected -- DNA tests? Childhood report cards? Secret kickbacks to the Nielsen folks? -- the company calls to find out how many people are in the home and how many televisions there are. In all the hustle and bustle, I accidentally miscounted the three people in my house as 479. This may help explain why Alias will end up notching an 85 share in the 18-34 demographic next week. The company then sends you a diary for each television, which you fill out with a good old-fashioned pen or pencil. For each entry you're required to list the station or network, the show title and who in the house is watching.

Obviously, the first duty of any true television fan is to jot down the best shows as soon as you get the booklet on Tuesday. So even if you're dismembered and eaten by the Rally Monkey on Friday, The Simpsons will still grab its ratings. One curious side-effect of the diaries is to emphasize how much time one spends just flipping through channels. Technically, you only need to record shows you watch for five minutes or longer, but the Nielsen folks have their spiel down pat: woe be the family that doesn't meticulously note every single channel it lays eyes on. With this kind of constant pressure it's easier to just set the remote down and suffer through the commercials.

The diary radiates an unmistakable aura of power, one that easily overwhelms most people. Especially those of us who are sweeps month households. The responsibility is almost too much to bear and the temptation to abuse the system is overwhelming. Not being particularly principled, I did what any sensible American would do: set up an eBay auction.

That's right, Hollywood weasels, you can now bid for my Nielsen diary entries. Prime-time starts at $1,500 an hour for the 18-34 year olds, but the 50-and-over demo is a bargain at $500. Bartering is also acceptable. This means you, J.J. Abrams: a chance to woo Jennifer Garner away from that Felicity wimp trumps anything Dick Wolf and his Criminal Intent gang could offer up.

In addition to the enormous profit potential, the possibilities for revenge are quite heady as well. Sorry Joss Whedon, but to punish you for last year's Buffy debacle, Tuesday night's entry reads JAG. And in protest of the addition of Elizabeth Rohm to the cast of Law and Order, the Nielsen folks will think I spent Wednesday night reading a book.

While the whole ratings system is tried and true, there is definitely room for improvement. For example, it's lucky girls club was canceled, because there wasn't enough room in the 9:00 p.m. Monday night slot for me to scribble: "If David E. Kelley creates another show about lawyers, I will run him over with my car." There should also be a negative ratings slot, one where you can jot down the shows you refuse to watch. The negative points would then be subtracted from the positive ones to get the real rating. Just think of the wondrous possibilities: 8 Simple Rules would go from a Top 20 show to -98th place.

It's also hard to believe any subjective statistic that relies on self-reporting. The Nielsen people want you to record everything you watch, but that's hard to do when you know someone will soon be reading your choices. I'll bet 95% of PBS's ratings are from people too embarrassed to admit they were actually drooling over VIP.

It's unfortunate my Nielsen experience will soon be over. Hopefully, by the end of the week, I'll have learned a little something about the principles of democracy, responsible choices and scoring some serious payola swag. And hey, 24 producers, your 9:00 p.m. Tuesday bid just got topped by Haunted.


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