THE BLOG
08/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

TV Watchers and the Watchers Who Watch Them

If you're like me, you have spent sleepless nights wondering how the television industry calculates how many people are watching each show. When I was young, and up until last Tuesday, I assumed that my cable service transmitted a signal that could detect WHEN I was watching, WHAT I was watching, what I was THINKING while I was watching, what I was EATING, and that it was my third piece.

Now I know better. After all, this is America, where unauthorized spying is not allowed. But I digress. Out of an estimated 113 million channel surfers, I was one of the chosen to keep a seven-day TV diary -- compliments of Nielsen Media Research, the same folks who, since 1950, have been watching us watch whatever the heck it is that we're watching. As a research participant, I wanted to give voice to the viewers who demand more stimulating content than The Apprentice Bachelorette Survivor gets voted out of Bloomingdale's, and who don't understand why there are four channels of Law & Order instead of eight.

With hundreds of TV stations, Nielsen has a whole lot of tracking to do. With food shows like Martha's Kitchen featuring guest star Emeril Lagasse, or Emeril Live featuring guest star Martha Stewart. And educational programs like Ocean Science discussing the mating habits of hermit crabs and other marine gastropods. And replays of Golden Girls that should never have aired the first time. And under-promoted movies like Psycho Beach Party III (Beach-girl Chicklet worries she may be a killer when her alter ego emerges at the sight of hermit crabs mating). And my favorite, the Do It Yourself channel, where guys, girls and toddlers in tool belts are tearing down walls and remodeling bathrooms like they're playing with LEGO's: "Just rip out the old shower, pry up the linoleum, and you're ready to install the executive home theater with 12-speed Jacuzzi and motorized mini-bar. Next we'll convert the doghouse into a high-rise office complex."

Born in 1897 in Winnetka, Illinois, marketing pioneer Arthur Charles Nielsen formulated the granddaddy of all rating systems and then waited patiently for someone to invent the television. The first Nielsen ratings were released 57 years ago, when the most watched program was Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. And thanks to Nielsen's documentation, we can see how far TV culture has come when in 2008 the most watched program for the fourth consecutive year was American Idol.

Whatever we watch, Nielsen wants to know about it, because viewer data = advertising gold. Show me ESPN, I'll show you ads for Bud Light, Gas-X, and fast cars. Show me a daytime soap, I'll show you ads for Jenny Craig, Sara Lee, and fast cars. Show me a snappy satire like South Park, I'll show you ads for Girls Gone Wild and Psycho Beach Party box set HD-DVD. And fast cars.

The diary is just one of Nielsen's survey methods. Another approach is cold-calling households during primetime to gather data about all the ways TV viewers can hang up on them. Another is the family-approved installation of a TV "set meter" that monitors their household viewing for two years, the electronic simulation of being stalked. And new research developments hold promise for reviewing the phone conversations of the general public about our TV habits, also known as The Patriot Act. But I digress. I have to complete my diary now. Let's see, how do you spell gastropods...?