In March 2020, just as the lockdown closed down my daughter’s production of The Outsiders and the next couple of shows she had already lined up, and my school went to virtual teaching, my wife got a call from the Nielsen Ratings company.
My household had been selected as one of the representative families whose media consumption habits are used in TV Land to determine what shows are renewed and cancelled.
All four of us were given what looked like 1980s beepers, which we clipped to our clothes or kept in our pockets. The devices listened to subliminal audio signals, which are apparently broadcast with TV or radio programs (at least, those programs that participate in the Nielsen ratings program).
If we wore the meters for a certain number of hours per day, we earned a few bucks. If all four of us reached our quotas for the week, the whole family brought in a total of about $100 per month.
Every few months we had to answer survey questions about who was living in our household, what was our employment status, and whether we’d been in touch with anybody who worked in TV or radio.
I disclosed that I worked for a radio news station about 35 years ago, and that in recent years I have occasionally performed in radio plays, and thus I was in regular contact with radio station employees. (This actually caused the Nielsen worker to freak out a bit.)
I just don’t watch much TV. I make an effort to listen to the NPR News Summary at least once a day (5 minutes well spent), but I never have the TV on in the background, and I haven’t followed any current shows for years.
I’m not going to take up space here being a culture snob. I play mindless video games, I just finished rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation, I’m slowly working my way through Stargate-SG1 with my son, and through Avatar: The Last Airbender with my wife and daughter.
But when I have time to myself these days, I’d rather see a live local play, or teach myself something in Blender3D, or write a blog post. Recently, when my son wasn’t feeling well and asked me to put on a DVD for him, I realized I didn’t know how to. (I figured it out, but I realized I had never put on a DVD for myself, at least not in the years since we bought this current DVD player, so I never bothered to learn the procedure so I could follow it automatically.)
So overall, it felt very strange to be chosen as a Nielsen family.
The extra cash was nice, as I felt less guilty splurging on take-out food, or paying our Amazon or Netflix subscriptions.
In the past, Nielsen families had to fill out logs, or remember to push a button on a gadget every half hour to indicate who was watching. But literally all we had to do was pluck the little device out of its charger in the morning, wear it during the day, and plug it in at night.
This was sometimes harder than it sounds. I lost several devices because the clip popped off, or the thing slipped out of my pocket into cushions of an armchair or car seat. My daughter would take off her device during a dance class, or my son would change into shorts and leave his device in his sweatpants.
When the device was running on a low battery, or if a member of the family started slacking off and wasn’t wearing the meter much, I’d get an email telling me how important our data is to the media industry. If we met our quota for the week, we’d get a “good job!” email.
During a couple years of chaos, including the COVID-19 lockdown, a summer of #BLM protests and images of police violence against demonstrators and journalists, and the mob of insurgents attacking the U.S. Capitol, it was actually kind of comforting to get steady affirmation from strangers for remembering to clip a device to my belt every morning.