You've probably noticed a surge in ratings for Saved By The Bell: The College Years. This is because I am a Nielsen household. Yes, it's true. You've heard of the Nielsen ratings, which calculate how many people are watching each TV show (also known as "VH1's arch enemy"). And I have been selected to be part of the survey.
Like most people, I had never given much thought to how America's television viewing habits are calculated. And I didn't know much about the Nielsen ratings system, other than that the company was started by legendary B-list actress Brigitte Nielsen.
I was chosen at random, just like how Roger Goodell was picked to be Commissioner of the NFL. First, I received a postcard in the mail, announcing that I would be receiving a phone call. A few days later, I got the call. The Nielsen representative asked me a few personal questions. And then a week or so later, I received a TV Viewing Diary, which required me to fill out more questions about my lifestyle. So, basically, the difference between being a Nielsen household and the victim of a Nigerian Internet phishing scam is... well, I got five bucks for being part of the Nielsen survey.
I always assumed that Nielsen families were given some sort of electronic box that hooks up to your TV and tracks what you're watching- sort of like the tiny government cameras installed in everyone's bathroom mirror. But, no, I've been given a paper "diary." And, for one week, I'm supposed to write down what and when I'm watching. Advertisers are not interested in the "people who don't own a pen" demographic.
The viewing diary is very specific. It's broken down into fifteen minute intervals, and for each time block, I'm supposed to record anything I watch for at least five minutes, along with the station name and if I recorded it and how many people are in the room at the same time and whether or not those people are alive and... oh, it's all just so complicated. I don't think the Nielsen people get it; I watch television so I don't have to think. I mean, if people had to use their brain while watching TV, then the ratings for The Talk on CBS would plummet.
The diary grid also has a space to check "TV On But No One Watching." But a more accurate ratings system would offer something in between "watching" and "not watching." How about sort of watching? Right now, as I write this essay, I'm about seven feet from my television set. Robot Chicken is on. I guess I'm sort of watching it. I'm looking up at the screen every once in a while. Americans enjoy sort of watching their favorite TV programs. I mean, if we had to give our full attention to some of the crap on the air, we'd throw our television sets out the window. I'm talking to you, Celebrity Apprentice.
Nevertheless, I'm taking my responsibilities as a Nielsen television viewer very seventy-percent seriously. My diary week started two days ago, and so far I've been pretty good about writing down the accurate information. I don't think I'll lose interest in doing this for at least another day or two. Coincidentally, that's the same thing Larry King said about his wedding vows.
Advertisers pay a lot of money for the Nielsen ratings information- and not just how many people are watching each program, but what specific social categories of people are watching that program. Hence, it's not a coincidence that if you watch 60 Minutes, you're likely to see commercials for, say, arthritis medication that relieves pain. Older people watch 60 Minutes. Whereas, when you watch a show aimed at teenagers, you're more likely to see an ad for arthritis medication that gets you high.
I am in the "35 to 44" age group. One day I will be among the 45- 49 age category. I used to be part of the 25- 34 group. But luckily, I am still of a worthwhile demographic, which is to say that sponsors value my viewing habits. I am worth advertising to, as it is assumed that I am willing to switch brands and buy new products and services and that I can still be manipulated by the images beaming from my TV screen. This is not true, however. I am an educated, intelligent adult, and I can't just be brainwashed by... OMG I can save up to fifteen percent on my car insurance?!
But the older you get, the less important you become to television networks. This is because corporations think that older people are set in their ways and won't try different products. The most valuable television programs are not necessarily the highest rated, but are the shows that most appeal to younger viewers. The final age group demographic, according to my Nielsen TV viewing diary is "65 and Over." Nielsen sees a big difference between ages thirty-four and thirty-five. However, whether you're sixty-five or, say, a hundred, Madison Avenue thinks of you as basically the same age. That's a pretty wide range. What Nielsen really means to say is "65 to Dead."
65 and Over spans over forty years. Well, I know many people in their sixties. And I'm willing to guess that their TV viewing habits are different than the average 102-year-old. (note to self: Pitch my new sit-com script, 65 and Older, to the TV Land Network. Do you think Richard Dreyfuss might be interested in doing television?)
People in their sixties and their seventies and even their eighties might be justifiably insulted by the fact that the TV networks focus most of their time churning out crappy Friends rip-offs pandering to college kids... who don't even watch television, and when they do, they're watching SpongeBob SquarePants. But the issue is not ageism, exactly. It's that the television and advertising industries lack an understanding of what guides the sociological life course.
What should really define a demographic is not biological age. Rather, people of any given generation are more accurately classified by their social experiences. In other words, it's not that old people like Wheel of Fortune; it's that the sort of people who happen to be eighty-five right now like Wheel of Fortune. I don't watch Wheel of Fortune now. And when I'm elderly, I still won't watch it... except to occasionally check out the Pat Sajak/Vanna White cyborg. Twenty, thirty, fifty years from now, I'll still be watching the same kind of stuff I watch now. And my consumer habits will still be eclectic and flexible. Yes, it might be true that old people used to be set in their ways. But those old people are dead now. New old people are a different breed. New old people relish the modern world and they appreciate change.
People who listen to Rihanna and who play video games and who have tramp stamps are aging. They're already too old for James Woods to date. And one day, in no time at all, they will be in their sixties and seventies. And they will "understand" rap music and they won't be confused by new technology and they will contradict all the clichés of being a senior citizen.
And who else defies those "old people" stereotypes? Americans who are currently in their sixties and seventies. Despite what the advertisers believe, sixty-five-year-olds didn't grow up during the Depression. These are people who watch The Walking Dead and The Big Bang Theory and they're not in rocking chairs and they might even be willing to try that new pretzel-flavored Pepsi- if only there were a few actors over the age of forty in the commercial. How about giving Lindsay Lohan a job?
The concept of a "65 and Over" television demographic is outdated, ignorant, and actually a little offensive. But more importantly, it's bad business. And how does The Voice keep getting such good ratings? I don't know anyone who watches that show.