Media Circus: Rating for Godot

Lying our way to better television: A renegade Nielsen "family" tells all.

Published April 7, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

anyone who's had a favorite show canceled for poor ratings has undoubtedly cursed the tyranny of the A.C. Nielsen Company. Now, as you may have heard, the networks are complaining as well. Tired of hearing about their allegedly vanishing audience, agitated network executives have decided they can no longer afford to trust Nielsen as the industry standard for ratings. Bolstered by the news that their $40 million experimental rival ratings system SMART (Systems for Measuring and Reporting Television) will be ready to launch this fall, the majors have finally worked up enough nerve (and, more importantly, enough advertiser support) to stand up to Nielsen.

The networks charge that Nielsen's measurement methodology, well, sucks -- that Nielsen's sample audience of 5,000 homes doesn't fairly represent the American viewing public and that their measurement tools (a combination of tuning meters, diaries and the "people meter" -- a little black box wired to participants' TVs) yield dubious results. As Don Ohlmeyer, president of NBC's West Coast division, recently told the New York Times, "They're trying to measure 21st century technology with an abacus."

Or, more precisely, with my friend Joe. Joe is one of the legendary Nielsen raters. Last year, for a mere 50 bucks and a chance to throw a stick in the spokes of their system, Joe sold the Nielsen people his soul.

Alas, the Nielsen people didn't exactly get the better end of the bargain. You see, Joe and his roommate are not exactly accurate in their reporting. Taking their cultural responsibility as a "Nielsen family" more seriously than they do the Biblical injunction to be truthful, they have decided not simply to report what they do watch, but also what they think they should be watching. Sacrificing his privacy, his integrity, even Sunday football, Joe has implemented a strict viewing policy to ensure Better Television for Everyone. Not only does he not watch "bad" shows, he turns on "good" ones before leaving home.

"We have to be really careful about what we watch," Joe explained to me recently. "No stupid TV allowed."

"What's not stupid TV?"

"Well, the news is fine," he allowed. PBS, some of the time. A&E. But no sitcoms."


"Well, 'Seinfeld' is OK. But no 'Melrose Place.' And no Sunday football," he said soberly.

A former frat boy with a no football rule? I didn't buy it.

"Well, if we have to see the football game, we go to a bar to watch it. But we leave the television on A&E."

Joe subscribes to the old if-I-like-it-this-much-it-must-be-bad-for-everyone-else theory of culture -- the same one my dad used with me when I was a kid wanting to stay up late to watch "The Benny Hill Show." Intoxicated with his power to change the world, he does what so many well-intentioned advocates of change do: lies with impunity. On behalf of the TV-opiated masses, of course.

Aside from the fact that he's perversely derailing a multibillion dollar industry and affecting the history of American culture, it's hard to blame Joe for fibbing. Telling someone what you're about to watch on television in the privacy of your own home is a little bit like going to confession before committing the sin. Who wants to know that somewhere, in the bowels of Nielsen Control Central, is a scrap of paper containing the information that on every Saturday night in March you watched "Riverdance"?

Joe and his roommate pride themselves on not leaving home without first logging an "acceptable" show on Nielsen's people-meter. These are programs that they wouldn't stay home to watch themselves, but ones that they might watch if, say, they were stuck home with the flu, or in a coma. Like "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer."

What else qualifies as "acceptable television"?

"Just about anything with bugs," Joe beamed. "If there's a program about bugs, every button on the box, including the 'guest' button, gets pushed, whether or not we're really watching it."

Wanting to see if his new policy was having any effect, I ran down a list of top-ranking programs according to Nielsen reports from a typical week in March.

"You're a lawyer -- you must watch 'Law and Order'?"

"Only the reruns on A&E."

"'Touched by an Angel'?"

"Never seen it."

"'PrimeTime Live'?"

"Isn't that like 'Hard Copy'?"

I continued through the entire list, but there wasn't a single show about bugs. Joe's entomological fixation was not registering. It was clear that either Joe was not logging in properly, or, more likely, had long ago been written off by Nielsen as a "statistical anomaly" -- which is what he undoubtedly is.

Or is he? Are there thousands of Joes out there, pretending for obscure and unknowable reasons that they actually like "Caroline in the City"? When I called Nielsen to find out how it would affect the statistics if someone in the sample were lying, Ann Elliot, director of communications, brought out the ultimate weapon of Nielsen terror: "If we find what we see as discrepancies, that may cause us to take a home out of the sample."

When I suggested the unpleasant possibility that all of the people in the sample could be lying, she took on a deliberately earnest tone. "We hope and believe that people recognize that being honest in this endeavor is really the best approach."

At first, I felt a little guilty knowing that a friend of mine was intentionally jeopardizing the accuracy of Nielsen's research. But as I flipped through a Nielsen pamphlet smugly explaining how the viewing preferences of 97 million people could be determined from a sampling of 5,000 homes, my guilt was replaced by irritation. "You don't need to eat an entire pot of vegetable soup to know what kind of soup it is," the pamphlet read. Well, maybe not. Maybe Mr. and Mrs. Statistically Average America really do think "Home Improvement" is the greatest television comedy since "I Love Lucy." But suddenly I was grateful for Joe and his ridiculous pin-in-the-system policy. I took pride in the fact that somewhere in the couch-potato soup, my pal was lurking like a hot pepper, secretly spiking the mix.

By Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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