Meet the Nielsens

They’re like any other demographically-correct American family, except that everyone’s watching them. Dennis Mahoney visits with the Nielsens to chat about The Company, TV statistics, and what, exactly, doesn’t make them so darn different.

The home of Carl and Miranda Nielsen is like a million other homes in America. Family portraits line the walls. Faux Waterford crystal fills the buffet. And the den is dominated by a 38-inch Sony KP-48S70 projection television with a 4:3 aspect ratio and Surround Sound. This is why I’m here.

Carl and Miranda are the proud parents of a Nielsen Family. You’re probably familiar with the TV ratings from Nielsen Media Research, which indicate the audience size and composition of America’s television programs. Every week, millions of people devour these ratings, checking to see if Judging Amy beat Frasier, CSI beat Law and Order, or this week’s ER beat last week’s ER. But what do these numbers really mean, and where do they come from?

Carl, Miranda, and their two children, Sean and Katelyn, live in a cozy suburb of ‘A County,’ a geographical market section with over 85,000 households, and one of the 21 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. None of the windows have blinds. A forgotten basketball hoop, nailed to the garage, has no net. And a thick cable runs from a telephone pole to the back of the house.

But it’s not just any cable. It’s CABLE.

I meet Carl at his front door on a sunny Saturday afternoon. He introduces himself as a 25–54-year-old White Male Professional or Manager with an annual salary of $50–75K. ‘A classic target demographic,’ he says with a smile. ‘My viewing habits matter. A lot more than Al and Ginny Jones’ over there.’ He points his chin to a man and woman across the street, easily 55+, well beyond their earning and spending prime. ‘Around here,’ Carl says, ‘the Joneses have to keep up with us.’

Carl is a balding man with the humped back of a desk jockey. His glasses glint. I thank him for agreeing to meet me, despite his never having heard of The Morning News. ‘I don’t find time to read as much as I used to,’ he says with a shrug. ‘Is it anything like The Today Show?’

‘Pretty much,’ I say.

Miranda meets us in the living room wearing a floral dress and a comfortable smile: the Nielsens are used to the eyes of strangers. Sean and Katelyn flank their mother. Katelyn says hello but Sean, the younger child, doesn’t speak. ‘He’s shy around people,’ Miranda apologizes.

The Nielsens lead me into the den, where I am seated in the center of the couch—the best view of the big TV. Sean and Miranda settle on my left. Carl and Katelyn sit to my right. I have to turn my head from side to side in order to see their profiles. Sean looks up and whispers under the sound of a Clorox ad, ‘Are you from the Company?’ I shake my head no. The boy is instantly relieved.

Sitting in a row and watching television is a curious way to conduct an interview, yet it’s also rather intimate. I instantly feel like one of the family. The kids are nuzzled up against my legs. Katelyn’s thighs are bare. She’s an attractive girl, with sullen eyes and pouting lips, and emanates perfume that only high school could inspire, or late grammar school, or maybe even college. It’s hard to tell. Females 12–17 are a volatile, complicated demo. The prevailing wisdom in the television advertising industry is ‘Steer clear of teens. You don’t know what you’re in for.’ I pull my leg away.

I ask them how they first became a Nielsen Family.

‘Actually,’ Miranda says with pride, ‘The Company contacted us.’

‘By telephone?’ I ask.

‘No,’ she says. ‘By television.’

‘Beg pardon?’

‘One night,’ Miranda says, ‘Carl fell asleep during a 2AM rerun of MacGuyver. The next morning, he said that Richard Dean Anderson had told us that the Company was coming for a visit—and that we were being called upon for a very special duty. Naturally we laughed it off, until the doorbell rang that afternoon. Isn’t that right, honey?’

Carl’s eyes are wide. He nods in sympathy, watching Arnold Schwarzenegger duck the Predator.

‘Go!’ he shouts, then promptly changes the channel.

‘How do the ratings work?’ I ask. ‘And how does NMR collect the data?’

‘Why, Sean gave a speech at school just the other day,’ Miranda says. ‘Sweetie, why don’t you give your speech for Mr. Mahoney?’

Sean is unresponsive. He looks to Katelyn for assistance, but his sister’s hands are cupped around her eyes like blinders, blocking out the room and focusing on the tube. She leans toward the screen, exposing a glimpse of cleavage. She is easily sixteen. One can see why advertisers court the teens in spite of their capriciousness and low earning potential. But even with Miranda urging Sean, Sean defying his mother, Katelyn shielding her eyes, and Carl in a sudden state of cathodal Zen, I look away, certain that I’m being watched.

‘Sean!’ Miranda snaps.

‘But it’s the end of JAG!’

‘It’ll be on again,’ Miranda says.

Sean sighs and rolls off the couch to deliver his speech, all the while facing the screen. He’s a typical Kid 6–11. His shirt is bunched, revealing a roll of baby fat above the belt. Now and then throughout the speech, he bounces on his foot and subtly grips his penis, otherwise ignoring his urge to pee. He’ll wait for the commercials.

Sean explains that there are an estimated 100.8 million households with a television in the United States. Of these, only 5,000—the National Sample—are being measured at any given time.

‘People think that every television in America is scrupulously monitored,’ Miranda interjects, ‘that every viewing choice is noted in a great permanent record. But television doesn’t work that way. This isn’t the Internet.’

Sean explains that when a family agrees to work for Nielsen, an electronic metering system, called a People Meter, measures three things in the home: the tuning of the TV set (on, off, time), what channel/station is being tuned, and who is watching. An alternative means of data collection is paper diaries, in which case each of the household’s members logs whatever channel or show they watch in the course of a week.

‘And which method are you using?’ I ask.

‘The People Meter,’ Miranda says. ‘But we also keep diaries.’

‘They have you use both?’

‘No,’ Miranda says. ‘We keep our diaries for fun. Katelyn, would you show your diary to Mr. Mahoney?’


‘Katelyn. Show your diary to Mr. Mahoney.’

‘But it’s my diary!’


Katelyn jumps off the couch, grabs her diary from the table, and drops it in my lap. ‘I hate being in a Nielsen Family!’ She storms out of the room. Her diary is typical for a teenaged girl. Entries range from ‘TRL on MTV, Friday, 3:30PM,’ to ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer on UPN, Tuesday, 7:00PM,’ to ‘Julie is such a slut. Her ass is totally fat.’

‘I’m sorry about Katelyn’s behavior,’ Miranda says. ‘She’s at an age.’

‘Exactly how old is Katelyn?’ I ask, but before I get an answer, Miranda flips to VH1’s Behind the Music on Leif Garrett. Katelyn slinks back into the room and sits beside me again. She has never heard of Leif Garrett. She is mesmerized.

‘Sean, honey,’ says Miranda. ‘Finish your speech.’

Sean is manhandling his crotch. He’s had to pee for a while now. He explains that Nielsen projects the 5,000 measured homes up to the total TV household ‘universe’ of 100.8 million. This means that if one-tenth of the measured homes watch CBS at 8PM on Tuesday, Nielsen assumes that one-tenth of all TV households did the same.

‘It’s a God-damn motorcycle!’ Carl shouts.

A rating, continues Sean, is what percentage of the total universe viewed a particular program. In the previous example, one-tenth of the measured homes—and therefore one-tenth of America—viewed CBS at 8PM on Tuesday, so the household rating for that time period is 10, or one-tenth of 100. The same is done for demographics, with each demo having its own distinct universe.

Sean explains that Nielsen publicly releases only the top national numbers. Fuller access to the data is big business, with advertising agencies and TV networks paying hefty sums for detailed information. Nielsen also keeps a tight lid for fear of influencing the general public, which could alter viewing behaviors and skew the accuracy of their results.

‘Their logic is perfectly sound,’ Miranda says. ‘This isn’t a game, after all. This is hard science—like genetics. You can’t start mixing DNA and hope to get a perfect clone.’

‘Let’s make sure I’m understanding this correctly,’ I say. ‘Nielsen Media Research monitors this home, and about 4,999 others like it, as representative of the 100.8-million homes in America with television sets. Based on those projections, billions of dollars are spent producing more television, in order to garner higher ratings, in order to sell more ads, in order to sell more products, in order to make more money in every sector of the economy.’


‘So if Carl and 999 other Nielsen-measured Americans decided to watch nothing but the Spice Channel for a few months, the entire U.S. economy would assume that national interest in pornography had jumped twenty-percent?’

‘Carl wouldn’t do that,’ Miranda says.

‘Not according to Dad’s diary,’ says Katelyn.

‘Audio Daily Double!’ Carl shouts.

‘And everything you watch,’ I say, ‘is carefully measured and calculated. Even if you only watch a couple minutes late at night, eating ice cream in your underwear, glad to have some time alone, in actuality a team of data analysts is sitting right here next to you, knowing that you lingered on an episode of Crossing Over with John Edward? Isn’t that a bit unnerving, Mrs. Nielsen?’

‘It’s not as dramatic as you make it sound,’ Miranda says. ‘Besides, if you really wanted to keep a secret from the Company, you shouldn’t be a Nielsen Family to begin with. After a few days, we didn’t even think about the People Meter. We interacted, spent time together, and watched whatever we liked. It’s just that what we watched was closely monitored. At the end of the day, you see, we’re a lot like every other family in America.’

Sean has wet himself. Urine fills the ridges of his corduroys. Miranda falls abruptly silent, settling into an episode of Iron Chef. I slip my arm around the back of Katelyn’s waist. No one seems to notice. The evening light is dim and I remember watching TV as a kid, staying up late until the broadcast ended for the night, when the American anthem played and the station turned to fuzz. Now, television airs around the clock.

Katelyn cozies up. Carl, sitting forward with a jerk, shouts, ‘Look at that!’ and tumbles back insensibly. We sit with tired eyes and grave attention, waiting for the fuzz that never comes. Someone far away is watching what we watch.