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How One Family Undertook Their Nielsen Ratings Duty

It all began with The Phone Call. Would we like to be a Nielsen family? I was surprised. Was it really this easy to be one of the elite, 5,000 families that determine which shows will be supported by some $46 billion in advertising revenues yearly? Apparently.

Why us? I asked, assuming the company, which has held a virtual monopoly on tracking TV-viewing habits for decades, would screen a tad more thoroughly. After all, since Nielsen Media Research estimates 98 million homes with TV sets nationally, each Nielsen family represents 19,600 others. That's a bit of responsibility.

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We need a family in your section of the map, he said. Nothing personal, he added. OK, I said. When? We'll contact you, he answered mysteriously and hung up.

The next call was in a month. Did you agree to be a Nielsen family? a woman demanded. I played my cards close the chest. Maybe, why? We're sending the diaries. Do you know what to do with them?

I was disappointed. Diaries sound like a lot of work. What happened to those coolly efficient people meters with buttons? Only long-term families get the electronic measuring devices, she answered. And in only 36 of Nielsen's 247 markets. You're on for just a week.

And a sweeps week, at that, I laughed. Doesn't that skew results? Nielsen treats all periods equally, she purred. We hope you will do the same with your viewing modules. Right. We take our viewing modules very seriously. No problem.

Soon, four TV Guide-sized diaries came, labeled living-room TV, bedroom TV, kitchen, and office. And we got another call. A voice asked, Do you have the diaries? Yes, I said, feeling conspiratorial. Fill out every space in every diary for every day. Send them all back at the end of the viewing period.

At this moment surfaced the first of my Nielsen-week epiphanies: You get what you pay for. With the diaries were two crisp dollar bills, "for your two children." This, on top of the privilege of being a Nielsen family, would be our only compensation for tedious record-keeping.

Step 1: Describe the family, who we are, our viewing habits, our televisions. Four times (once per diary). Next, profile the TV stations on each TV. In our area, that amounts to over 60. I ripped the listing page from our TV guide and taped it in.

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Day 1 was fun, although my husband, demanding to know how much we were being paid for our time, would not take part.

The diaries had a slot for every 15 minutes of the 24 hours of each day. We had to say: Was the set on or off, who watched which set, how long, did they switch, leave, come back, why, what did they watch, why? Also, any guests? Names and profiles, please. In the back, there was a separate space to note shows taped for later viewing - original airdate, why we taped it, and when we viewed it.

Day 1 was accurate in all four diaries. But the novelty was gone by diary No. 4 of that first night. Day 2 we were busy till bedtime, so the the kids filled them in next day, running through the house demanding of us what shows we'd watched last night, for how long, and with whom.

Day 3, we rented videos. The TV was on, but no broadcast was received. Is it on or off? Nobody knew. We described it in the back (four times).

Day 4, we were gone, then it was school, and suddenly, another day gone and the diaries were empty. My seven-year-old boy, with little affection for small muscle work, had deserted the diaries entirely, leaving them to me and my 11-year-old daughter, whose eyes glazed at their sight. "Mom, could you do it, pleeeeze?"

Sure, I answered in possession of epiphany No. 2: Nobody can be trusted to keep track of their own TV viewing habits.

Finally, it was the last day, at which point I sat down with all four diaries and filled them in as best I could. Not-quite-perfect memory and extrapolation of past viewing habits created three days' worth of 15-minute viewing slots.

I mailed them back, experiencing my final epiphany for the week: In an era of computer-guided smart bombs, is this any way to wage a ratings war? After all, this is the contest that determines what fills our airwaves - an outcome that should be of interest to all sides.

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