Note: This essay was mostly written on September 17, 2015. It is being posted today because Nielsen prefers its families to refrain from publicly discussing the experience for at least one year after participation. I have a little character, so I decided this could wait. Also, I forgot.
Today a Moroccan man came to my house, played with my cats, and took out a garbage bag full of electronics. Although we had just had a home invasion the previous month, it was thankfully not the same person. This man worked for Nielsen–the television ratings people.
A few years ago, after a quit my job at the worst nonprofit organization in Washington, my savings had dwindled and there were no further job prospects. I had to come back home. It was a rocky return, but once I settled in, I began to find greater purpose as a writer. That first summer back, my crowdfunding campaign #BlackVampireProject was in full swing and Birth of a Dark Nation was well on its way to being born. The postcards with the new cover had just arrived and I was already addressing them to send to my supporters.
One of my next-door neighbors, an elderly woman, handed me a card one day. Apparently a woman had come to the house. She was from Nielsen, and she wanted to talk to us about enrolling in the program.
THE program. RATINGS.
But my mom never called them. To be fair, who knows who anyone really is these days? Why go looking for trouble?
About a week later, I was at home alone and the woman came back. She was only a few years older than me, or so it seemed. She was an attractive, very well put-together African American woman, and she had a trainee with her, a taller black woman who was equally well put-together.
I didn’t invite them in, because still, they could be murderer-rapists, but we sat on the stoop and had a really long, really excellent conversation.
I believed quickly that they were with Nielsen, mostly because I asked them to produce some identification. We chit-chatted, they asked me what I did, and they were intrigued that I was now a “full-time writer.” Even if they knew in their hearts that really meant I was a bum, at least they didn’t say so.
Then came the sell.
They said they really, really needed more African American Nielsen families to participate. Each household represented about 50,000 television viewers in the community. That meant whatever I watched at night (or during the day) would be representative of 50,000 other people.
I don’t know if it was Nielsen’s intent to send the black women to recruit black families, but I think it’s a tactic they should keep. In the midst of our conversation, I told them I felt like it was a lot of pressure to watch the “right” programming, especially during sweeps. It seemed like I was always watching shows that would get cancelled mid-season. When it came to programming, I always zigged instead of zagged. But now, things I watch might actually stay on the air!
I immediately thought about Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta.
“Joseline Hernandez will NEVER go off the air!” I thought to myself.
No, really, I was super-excited to officially be able to say yes, college educated black people are watching Love & Hip-Hop, so take THAT respectability politics.
So admittedly, the sell was easy. There were added incentives, though, like modest cash stipends every now and then. The amounts were very low, though, all things considered.
Also, our first field rep used to bring us cheesecake. That part was awesome.
So after you enroll, they ask you a ton of questions about who lives in your house, how many televisions you have, how many cars you drive, what some of your eating and drinking habits are, how long you surf the internet–I mean they are fundamentally a survey company, so it was not surprising that they’d ask questions like this.
They installed the hardware next. What I found most interesting is that the process is analog, not digital. I would rather not share details of that, since it seems proprietary. But I am sure you can google how the people meters work.
After we were set up, all we had to do was use the Nielsen remote controls after we turned the tv on. Each person in the house gets their own code, and guests get a code. At first it was a hassle to remember to use the Nielsen remote, but it became a habit.
While participating in the program, I definitely felt a huge sense of obligation to watch more television.
It’s important to stop here and discuss my relationship with television and social media. I love both. I don’t really “live tweet” shows that I am watching, but I will post a Facebook status with non-spoiler and then discuss it in the comments. In more recent years, I have come to “watch” shows like Big Brother with a small circle of friends. For a few years now, the ten of us will eagerly await the season premier of Big Brother and rabidly discuss it like most others would discuss sports. (We do this in a secret group so as not to disturb people who are doing other things on social media.) We tried very hard to find another collective show to watch after BB went on haitus, but we never coalesced around a specific show.
We sometimes had more than fifty percent of group members watching other shows, however. We also would introduce other shows to one another. Here are the shows we watched of the top of my head:
- Black Ink Crew
- How to Get Away With Murder
- Love & Hip-Hop Franchise
- Married to Medicine
- Real Housewives of Atlanta
- The Returned
Of the shows that we watch, all are still on except The Returned.
All of us are black. All of us attended college. Most of us are college graduates, and a few hold masters degrees.
So I had to do some research to see which shows premiered in Fall 2013 that I was determined to watch.
- The Blacklist. Watched the pilot. It was okay, but I didn’t stick with it. It’s still on the air.
- Brooklyn Nine Nine. To be honest, I didn’t start watching this until the second season. I do enjoy it and it’s still on the air.
- Crisis. Watched the first few episodes. Didn’t like it. Stopped watching. Show was cancelled.
- The Michael J. Fox Show. I enjoyed the pilot but didn’t continue watching. It was cancelled.
- Resurrection. I FREAKING LOVED THIS SHOW. It lasted for two seasons but was cancelled.
- Sleepy Hollow. Loved it. It’s still on. [Cancelled now.]
- The Tomorrow People. I watched the pilot and enjoyed it! I don’t know why I didn’t continue watching it. It was cancelled.
And the same for Fall 2014:
- Gotham. Loved it. Stuck with it. It’s coming back.
- Selfie. I liked it, but nobody else did. Cancelled.
- Red Band Society. I really enjoyed the first two episodes, but I am loyal to SVU and a few other shows that aired in the same time slot. It was cancelled.
- black-ish. Love it. It’s returning.
- How to Get Away With Murder. I do not like it, but everyone else does. It’s returning.
- CSI Cyber. I really enjoy it and apparently it’s coming back. [Cancelled now.]
My family’s two years with Nielsen flew by. I developed a friendship with one of our techs and we’re connected via social media to this day. I never did see the black ladies again.
And one of the people in my circle of ten also got invited to join Nielsen, coincidentally.
At the end of the whole experience, I was sad to see my commitment come to an end. I would still be doing it today if they would let me. Like I said above, I felt like I was watching more television than I used to, but it felt purposeful. I felt like, in some small way, I was helping the struggling shows hold on just a little bit more.
Nielsen is like jury duty for couch potatoes. If you’re black and you get approached, I definitely recommend doing it. You’re representing 50,000 households for goodness sake.
But be ethical about it. Do as they ask and don’t tell people you’re in the program. Be authentic in your viewing choices.
The only gripe I have about Nielsen is that they really need to be paying the families a real stipend for their participation. This is neither a charity nor a nonprofit organization. Nielsen is paid to do this, so why shouldn’t the families be paid. The money’s out there. I saw this in equity, not greed.
I hope this helps someone who is in the midst of making the best Nielsen decision for their own households!