The high numbers giveth, the low numbers taketh away. Both came and went as I worked as a writers’ assistant on a television show called The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Each week, the morning after broadcast, the token peppy junior associate producer would bustle up and down the hallway shouting, “The numbers are in! The numbers are in!” And all the peppy li‘l junior-associate assistant-producer-looking fucks (such as myself) would emerge delighted from our offices to grab hips and get in queue as “The numbers are in!” went a-bunnyhopping down the stairs and out into the studio lot, where we’d merge with identically bounding production personnel from other inexplicably popular sitcoms, all doing the same dance, wearing the same clothes and scents and so on, and head out into the streets of Hollywood to join the parade and receive the mayor‘s weekly handshake and another set of keys to the city.
“The numbers” meant the Nielsen ratings, the gospel of audience-mesmerization statistics upon which media buyers and sellers dicker over advertising rates. Our show got high enough numbers that, at the end of the first season, the head bunnyhopper forced me into a dark room with a VCR, a monitor and the complete Donna Reed Show library on VHS. Several days later I emerged with the requested plot summaries, of each and every single fucking episode, so that next season’s fresh writers could emulate (“refer to!”) (head bunnyhopper spoke only in italic exclamations) Donna‘s trailblazing plotlines, thus freeing up more time for said writers to spend their criminally high salaries on anything but raises for their nannies.
Congratulations. Last week I was a Nielsen Family. At last, Nielsen Media Research Inc., the proprietor of high-end television-ratings data, sent me the following information on a post card, printed on both sides with shocking 100 percent magenta ink and addressed to “TV RESEARCH HOME”:
Nielsen TV . . . we produce the TV ratings!
It is my pleasure to tell you that your household has been chosen to be a “Nielsen Family” . . . for a one week TV survey!
In a few days . . . you will receive a long distance phone call from us to explain this exciting opportunity. Please be assured that we are not attempting to sell anything to you. Our only purpose is to learn which TV programs you and your household watch during the week of the survey.
We will telephone you soon. Thank you.
[authentic magenta signature]
John A. Dimling, President
Nielsen Media Research Inc.1
Then came the phone call, three days later, from someone claiming affiliation with this same Dimling. Telling me about the many valuable cultural rewards I’d receive in exchange for doing their marketing research for them, and how wonderful everything is, in general, everywhere.
Do I have to? I asked. Is it like jury duty?
Do I get paid?
No, said Nielsen. You don‘t get paid. But you don’t have to do it.
Well then I‘d like to do it, I said. I just wanted to know if I had options. I appreciate this opportunity to serve my free country as a Nielsen Family. God bless you — especially your supervisor — and I look forward to receiving my Nielsen TV Diary in a specially marked red, white and blue Priority Mail envelope soon.
Exactly one week later, the second post card arrived, this one printed in shocking yak-shit-brown ink and addressed to me, Dave Shulman, personally:
Nielsen TV . . . We’ve produced TV ratings for over 50 years!
In a day or so you will receive a Nielsen TV Diary.
Please look for it in a PRIORITY MAIL red, white and blue envelope.
In the Diary you write down the TV programs you watch and mail it back. The Diary is to be kept for just seven days.
Your Diary is very important2 regardless of whether you watch just a little bit or a lot of TV. Please fill out and mail back the Diary.
Thank you very much.
[authentic yak-shit-brown signature]
John A. Dimling, President
Nielsen TV Ratings
Nielsen sucks primary sales data from telepatriots by installing metering equipment on demographically diverse TV sets, VCRs, cable boxes and satellite dishes in private homes. (They ask first.) This data is sent to a regional “black box,” which classifies it and forwards it to Nielsen‘s central computers in Dunedin, Florida. The diaries, mailed out to different, algorithmically selected households, supplement the primary data with ageracegenderincome infoporn.
My diary arrived three days later. After ripping open the envelope of exciting opportunity, I found that Dimling’s telehenchperson had lied on both counts. Not only was I getting paid, I was getting paid the same amount for a week‘s work as a day’s pay for jury duty: For tucked somewhere amid the diary, the cover letter and the Q&A guide lay not one, not two, but five uncirculated American one-dollar bills (serial numbers C52958309H, C52958344H, C52785005H, C52785041H and C52785076H).
What the fuck?
The enclosed money is a “token of our appreciation” for filling in your Diary. You may wish to use it to brighten the day of a child3 that you know. Your name and Diary information will be kept confidential. No one will ever try to sell you anything because you returned your TV Diary.
No one will ever try to sell you anything because you returned your TV Diary. Fair enough. I kept my diary all week, describing the particulars of my three hours of viewingrecording (four episodes of The Daily Show, one network crime-drama) and my once-or-twice-hourly brood-shuffles through the sight gags and gunshots of basic cable — the Lard-Ass Snack-Worship Channel, the Helicopter Chase With Jesus Network, News With Tits, the Peppy Young Hipster With Money Channel, the Donna Reed Rewrite Network — and mailed it back to my new boss at the ad agency. I did my duty. I held up my end. And now I sit and wait for no one to try to sell me anything.
1 TV Turnoff Network (www.tvturnoff.org)
2 Kill Your Television (www.turnoffyourtv.com)
3 The Center for Research on the Effects of Television (www.ithaca.educretv)