Secret life of a Nielsen family

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I was, naturally, watching TV when the call of a lifetime came.

My tiny brood had been selected to become a Nielsen family -- a considerable honor for a proud couch potato who in her youth devoured the TV Guide listings. For a single momentous week, it would be our awesome responsibility to determine the fate of fare on the dial.

Since we were not told to keep our new Nielsen family status secret, I couldn't wait to inform a colleague who covers media of my good fortune.

"Great!," he said. "They're wiring you?"

No, I said. We were getting a diary. For a week.

"Diary? For a week?" he sniffed. "That's nothing. You're nothing unless you're wired."


Even so, I couldn't help eagerly ripping open those diaries -- which came with a crisp $1 bill enclosed and a form letter personally signed by Nielsen Media Research President John Dimling. We were now a Nielsen family.

By week's end, I'm not sure what the ratings service learned from us. But we certainly learned a lot about ourselves.

That process started right away. First, we had to fill out a simple-looking chart, listing what channels we have on our cable service and matching them to a dial number.

This necessitated flipping slowly through 60 channels, taking notes. I scribbled while my husband dictated.

"Channel 60, Food Network," he said. "No!" I responded. "We don't have Food Network!" But there it was, in living color. We moved on.

"Channel 53. Disney." Once again I protested. But it was there; our remote control just never rested on it.

In this manner, we were delighted to discover at least five cable networks we didn't know we had -- and still haven't tried.


The second big realization was that Big Brother was watching. If we tuned into a program that was, let's say, less than socially redeeming, we were honor-bound to write it down. So my husband avoided one particular show, keeping the set turned off.

And we were dutiful, to the point where my 5-year-old would call my attention urgently to his channel-surfing -- no matter where I was physically in the house or what I was doing. "Write it down!" he'd implore in the same tone as one would use to announce a four-alarm fire.

So we wrote it down, and after a few days we noticed two things. One, my child was watching way too much animated programming on a particular channel I won't name.

Two: Seeing dark ink scrawls covering many of the pages of the diary, we saw we were watching too much TV in general. Enough, in fact, that one night we opted to turn off the blasted box and make it game night instead.

And so our week as a Nielsen family taught us a valuable lesson: Once in a while, stop watching the Family Channel and start acting like a family.

Ms. Pollack is managing editor of Advertising Age.

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