They say everything happens for a reason.

If by that they mean that things happen which cause other things which eventually somewhere down the line causes something of note, yes, they do happen for a reason. But if they mean every little action happens with the intent of one day causing something at least tweet-worthy, well that’s simply not true.

But every once in a while, something magical happens — against all logic and reason, in the face of overwhelming odds, fate sees fit to put two things together as though they were meant to be.

Some people call it destiny. Some call it coincidence. Some call it luck. Me? I just call it right.

This is the story of how I was a Nielsen household.

It Was the Best of Times

I have a Bachelor of Arts in RTVF. That fancy acronym stands for Radio, Television, Film. While that sounds like I should be some kind of media guru, what it actually means is I’m a Film major who is vaguely aware that the other two exist. I only took as many Radio and TV courses as was necessary to fill my degree’s requirements, which with my inability to register for classes on time was several.

This one semester I thought it was probably a good idea to learn about Film Law, since copyrights and permits and all that are half the battle in production. But the class was long-filled and I really needed to be considered a full-time student, so I took Media Sales instead.

The course description was pretty vague. My best guess at the time was it had something to do with pitching and marketing shows. I was in the right ballpark but I was in the wrong section. Turns out it was a crash course on selling advertising time. When I said the wrong section, I meant the concession stands. You know, sales.

It was a great class though. It could’ve been miserable, but the professor was great. He really…. sold it. [Ed. note: Son of a….] I came out of that semester with a thorough understanding of TV ratings, from what they mean to how they’re collected to how they’re used. Also a ‘B’ (score!).

Like most things I learned in college however, I never expected to use them.

It Was the Worst of Times

Fast forward to a few years down the stream. Like most college graduates, I’m unemployed, I’m broke, and I’m moping around the house looking for something sweet to stuff in my face to smother the sobs. There’s a knock at the door so I figure it’s probably a good idea to put some pants on before I answer. I hide my unwashed nethers and open it.

The first thing I saw was the gift basket.

You know how in cartoons a character will be so famished that his portly comrade will start to resemble an oversized undercooked steak? That’s what I felt like. Only it was an actual oversized gift basket brimming with treats like sweet potato chips and caramel popcorn. And it was talking to me.

At some point I snapped out of it and realized there was a lanky latino lad holding the basket asking if he had the right address. For a split-second I was afraid the bundle of joy in his arms was meant for the neighbors and mentally prepared myself to lie to his face, but the numbers, “One… six… zero… seven,” left his lips and saved me the trouble. The goodies were mine.

As I understand it, these things used to be a normal occurrence in business transactions. Initially it was an opening incentive until the market realized just how much people really like free stuff and it graduated to common courtesy. Eventually it must have backfired because it stopped altogether and the once booming basket-weaving market collapsed like an under-soaked rattan triple twist on flimsy spokes a really crappy basket. Now it’s back to novelty status.

Like many mothers in the world, mine’s favorite means of expressing her love is through food, so I assumed the collection of munchies was her tender, heartfelt way of saying, “Get your shit together.” But it wasn’t. It was a real life complementary gift basket just like I saw in that one episode of ‘The Office’ that one time. They may not work on the suits anymore, but they sure do on jobless 20-somethings. I was all buttered-up and ready to hear anything he wanted to say, even if it was about Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

But it wasn’t. It was something else entirely.

The Golden Thread

Here’s a quick rundown on how Nielsen actually works:

Out of all the households in the States, the company randomly selects samples by geographic markets. Regardless of what kind of TV you have and what service you use, they monitor what you watch, how long you watch it, and who’s watching. Those samples create the foundation for their ratings.

Pretty simple. To the untrained ear, it sounds really Big Brotheresque, so I can see why they need to ease people into the idea with presents. The rep they sent to my house had a slight somberness to his tone, as if this wasn’t his first explanation of the day and if I said “no” it wouldn’t be his first rejection. Luckily for both of us, I had no intention of turning down this opportunity. When I cut him off and told him I knew all about it and was in, I could practically see the weight being lifted off his shoulders. Or maybe it was the tantalizing gift basket he finally handed over.

So he came in to get the details that would determine my demographic. It was a pretty quick and painless process that wasn’t nearly as invasive as you’d think. The bulk of the information they get is all the stuff advertisers want to know: age, approximate income, car make and model, and recent purchases of soft drinks, fast food, etc. This helps companies decide where their ad dollars are best spent, which is why Grey’s Anatomy is littered with commercials for predominantly female products and why at any given moment SpikeTV presents a laundry list of poor life choices — they know their markets.

When media outlets report the ratings, in addition to overall performance they often note “key” demographics, which are adults 18-49 and males 18-35. Those groups are the ones advertisers find the most valuable, so even if two shows have identical overall ratings, the one with higher numbers in the key are considered more valuable. If that sounds sexist, that’s because it is, but not how you might think.

Males ages 18-35 tend to have the highest disposable income and are the most prone to commercials influencing their buying habits. If all TV watchers are sheep and advertisers are lions, we’re the plump, easy-pickings of the herd. Sick of ads flaunting half-naked women prancing around on your screen? Too bad, because nothing makes 18-35 males pay attention like Kate Upton wearing another frickin’ bikini.

All that in mind, my household was a veritable treasure trove of fatted calves ready for the slaughter.

Epoch of Incredulity

Within a week or so, they sent out a guy to set-up the monitoring equipment. It took a little bit since they had to scroll through and check which channels we were getting, but it required nothing on my part so I didn’t mind. When he was almost done, he gave the original rep a call and he popped in to make sure we were all set.

And in his hand, the cash.

As it turns out, TV networks will sometimes engage in shady business by identifying Nielsen households and paying them to watch their shows. Higher ratings means better ad dollars so gaming the system can be a lucrative practice. That is, provided you don’t get caught.

Obviously the last thing they want is to have people cooking their books, so if they find out you’re selling bits of their soul to make a little extra on the side, they’ll pull out faster than [redacted]. It’s a lose-lose situation: you lose the opportunity for your opinion to actually matter and they lose time and money invested in retrieving your sample. The shady networks kind of win though since Nielsen doesn’t penalize them for being dishonest and there are always more households to bribe. So it’s a lose-lose-win situation, like a rich businessman who finds two willing girls who need the money to [redacted].

Nielsen opposes this underhandedness with an initial gift per household member and subsequent monthly “thank you” gifts. Essentially, a counter-bribe.

That’s right, they pay you to watch TV.

If that sounds like heaven to an unemployed film student, that’s because it was. It wasn’t an earth-shattering amount of money, but it was enough to get myself something nice and offset a good portion of the cable bill. Generally speaking, getting paid to watch movies and play video games suck because you’re forced to watch and play things that might suck and then talk about how much they suck afterwards. Not me. I was getting paid to watch whatever I wanted.

Okay, technically that’s not correct. They weren’t paying me to sit there and watch TV. I could’ve watched no TV at all and they still would’ve paid me. A significant factor in ratings is determining  how many people have their TV’s on at any given time, so having it off doesn’t hurt them in the slightest. What they were really paying for was my honesty.

But they didn’t get it.

‘Tis a Far Better Thing I Do

Here’s the thing: when you’re an RTVF major, you’re forced to become more aware of your taste in media whether you want to or not. And since you spend hours and hours being taught by men and women who have spent years honing their senses to be acutely aware of their opinions, you naturally (or perhaps defensively) turn into…. well, a media snob.

Suddenly there’s a spotlight on the flaws of your favorite things. You realize that actor you always liked plays the same person in every movie. The show you always watch relies on the same gimmick episode after episode. That one band you’re always blasting does sound like a worse version of an older one.

Ever wonder why critics always seem like assholes? It’s because they’ve paid thousands of dollars to be told everything they love is stupid and the only thing that comforts them is ripping your childhood in twain. But for all their spiteful vitriol, nothing crushes a critic’s soul like having their beloved TV shows cancelled out from under them.

You see, everything on TV (with the exception of premium cable and non-profit stations like PBS) is funded by advertising. Everything. That’s how the business model works. Networks have shows, you watch the shows, you buy the products, the advertisers pay the networks for the shows and the cycle starts over. So no matter how well-made a show is, if no one’s watching it, it’s not making money, and unprofitable shows get cancelled. Not the best model for inspiring originality.

That’s why people are quick to heap bales of hate on popular shows. They’re probably not that bad, but they’re literally taking money away from shows that are more creative and experimental. There’s no telling how many awesome show ideas were crushed by the Reality TV boom of the 2000’s or a long-running series that was overstaying its welcome. Those ambitious upstarts deserve better. At least a chance to prove themselves with a sophomore season.

That’s where I came in.

Like the Robin Hood of the airwaves, I stole viewers from the rich and gave them to the poor. Not enough to have any adverse affect on the ratings giants but enough to keep the little guys trucking. And really, I didn’t even steal anything. I just gave the things I watched a little extra oomph. I only clocked in people who I knew were watching or would be if they weren’t otherwise indisposed.

Was it dishonest? A bit. But I doubt those mega-corporations and their bottomless ad budgets noticed a discrepancy. Advertising itself is one big gamble that may or may not pay off. All I did was make my favorite bets look a little more appealing.

Winter of Despair, Spring of Hope

A few weeks ago they came and took my Nielsen box away. Not because they discovered my shenanigans or anything like that. They just typically don’t monitor households for more than a few years to keep their samples fresh, and my time was up. To be honest, I was a little disappointed. This Spring is a crucial season for a number of my favorite shows. I like to think I’ve helped them avoid the axe up to this point and would’ve pushed them through another year. But I can’t. At least not through traditional ratings.

As time goes on, networks are beginning to find other ways of monitoring a show’s success. DVR plays and internet hits are supplementing ratings, and syndication and merchandising potential are becoming bigger factors in whether to keep or expand a show. Even just expressing your opinions on social media is free advertising they’re taking into consideration.

Even if this is the end of my favorite shows, we’re still in the midst of the so-called Golden Age of Television, so there will always be something else to watch. And if all those shows end…. well, I was more of a film snob anyways.

So thanks for knocking, Nielsen guy. We had a good run. You were a light in my darkest hours, a beacon of hope for a better life. You opened my eyes to other doors and made my opinion matter. They say you always remember your first time, and I’ll certainly never forget my first…

… gift basket.

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