What if your vote counted for a lot more than just one measly person? What if your vote was extrapolated to represent hundreds of people? And what if your vote, instead of changing the course of monetary policy, civil rights or which countries get invaded and how hard, counted for things that impact you much more closely: Whether your favorite television shows get canceled.
As a TV critic, as just a fan of the medium itself, I’ve long held a grudge against TV ratings. They killed Terriers. They killed Firefly. They’ll probably kill Last Resort.
But last week, I opened my mailbox to discover a mysterious envelope addressed to a “Daniel Morales” at my apartment number. And it’s from a company called “Nielsen.”
“We’ve produced the TV ratings for over 50 years!” the envelope proclaims.
It was every TV fan’s dream: I, or somebody who shared my first name, had been handed the power of life or death over television. For once, whether or not I watched a program would actually matter.
Inside were five crisp 1 dollar bills, presumably a hefty sum 50 years ago, but an insulting sub-grandparent-birthday-card sum today. Also inside was a paper salmon-colored booklet that appeared to be printed on the same material used for SAT tests.
But that’s where the catch came in: Right on the Nielsen Viewing Diary booklet’s front it said: This Diary is for the TV in room: ________.
That’s a trick question. I don’t have a TV.
Despite watching hours and hours – months if you add them all up – of television programs, the notion of watching them on actual honest-to-god teevee set feels as old-fashioned as making movie-popcorn using a fire pit and butter churn.
This is the age of downloads and streaming, Netflix and Hulu. These are the days where a TV fan in Seattle can finish watching an episode of Sons of Anarchy before the “Previously On” sequence even starts on the West Coast.
“Unlike a newspaper or magazine, where a publisher can count how many copies or sold, there is no simple way to know how many people are watching any program,” a brochure in the envelope read, “The Nielsen Company measures the audience of TV programs with the information gathered from people like you.”
Imagine that. The Nielsen Company was asking me to sit down, in front of a physical television set, pick up a pencil (do they still make those?) and manually record every single show that I watched on which channel and when.
It seems stunningly inefficient. The diary wanted me to record any show that I watched, even only for a minute. If, say, I watched Gossip Girl because I just HAD to see if Blair and Dan were going to patch things up, that doesn’t mean I would want to admit such embarrassing habits to the Viewing Diary. It’s a system easily overturned by fraud, inaccuracies, omissions and just plain laziness. The Nielsen Company had randomly assigned homework -- optional homework -- and an entire medium hinged on which viewers completed it.
And for people like me, without a TV, it was a moral quandary: To make any impact on the television landscape I would have to lie. For one, I would have to pretend my name was Daniel Morales. I would have to pretend that I had a TV. And I would have to go through the effort look up when which show airs where and weave an elaborate alternate history where I had plopped in front of a flat-screen, instead of a laptop, for hours at a time. I would have to cross-reference, making sure that television programs I’d supposedly watched didn’t actually occur at the same time.
To do so could a help save a great but low-rated shows like Last Resort and Parks and Recreation. But it would also mean putting a lot of work into what, ethically, was equivalent to voter fraud.
Ultimately, I couldn’t do it. First of all, it was wrong. And more importantly, I was lazy.
It might seem like the Nielsen system was hopelessly outdated. It a way, it was. But the point was never to measure which television shows were being watched. It was to measure how much of commercials in between certain TV shows were being watched.
The modern way of watching television – cheap, nearly commercial free, and often illegal – doesn’t make make much money. To the business model of television networks, it’s essentially irrelevant.
Yes, the paper booklet and gift of five $1 dollar bills are relics from another time. But so is the TV industry.