• Mike Matson

Swept Away

This column was published October 1, 2022 in the Manhattan Mercury.


Addressed to “Manhattan Area Household,” what I thought was junk mail, turned into a vehicle to lift up change. A hard copy survey from Nielsen, seeking to discern my radio and TV habits.

As a former broadcaster, ratings were the key to whether I would get a raise, or in some cases, even keep my job. When I saw the return address, my first thought was, “Surely, Nielsen no longer relies on hard copy surveys sent through the U.S. mail.”

They do not. And don’t call me Shirley. Or Laverne.

Nielsen ratings started with the birth of the industry. Little booklet-form diaries were sent to select households. Viewers would write down whether on Tuesday night at 9:30, they were watching Marcus Welby or Archie Bunker.

On radio, surveys counted listeners each quarter-hour if they were tuned in for at least five minutes. We poor, overworked, underappreciated entry level deejays would “hot track” the quarter hour with a hit song from the Adult Contemporary playlist. Spin Streisand or Air Supply at the quarter-hour and keep the listener until they were counted.

The resulting data was the lifeblood that drove literally everything in TV and radio, beginning with revenue streams. The better your ratings, the more you could charge for commercials, increasing the chances of a pay raise for that poor, overworked, underappreciated entry level deejay.

Later, when I transitioned to television news, we would purposefully save our best stuff – investigative, in-depth multi-part reporting for “sweeps week,” so named because Nielsen collected diaries first on the east coast, then worked their way west, sweeping them up.

c. RetroNewsNow

Sunday nights, families were planted in front of the tube at 7 p.m. for Ed Sullivan. If we were introduced to Keith Partridge’s new crush at 7:30 Friday night, and I didn’t tune in until 7:40, I had no idea to whom he was crooning “I Think I Love You” at 7:55.

Today, the assumption on which all those premises were based has done a complete 1-80. I decide what I will listen to and watch from thousands of choices. More importantly, I decide when. Technology has given the power to the consumer. No longer am I held hostage by programming decisions made by network execs at 30 Rock.

Back to my erstwhile junk mail. My second thought was, why me?

Nielsen says my home was selected because it statistically represents the total population of my community and that my household’s participation ensures that ratings represent everyone in town.

You’re welcome, Manhattan. Buy me lunch one of these days.

Fifteen short answer or multiple-choice questions. They want to know what I watch and listen to, in broad content buckets (comedy, drama, news, sports, other). They ask, in a typical day, how many hours of TV I watch. Put me down for less than two. And I can be counted on to nod off sometime within the second hour.

Like Mary Tyler Moore and Seinfeld, “sweeps week” has been retrofitted into the fond memory zone. Nielsen now gathers this data 24-7-365. Given the technological tectonic plate shifting that has occurred since the days when Laverne & Shirley duked it out with The Waltons for eyeballs on an analog television, my guess is today, Nielsen knows exactly what I’m watching and how long I’m tuned in. They may even know the exact moment I nod off.

A generation from now, after the brain implant, the ratings surveyors will detect my decelerating heart rate, rapid eye movement and slow delta brain waves. Then, an overworked, underappreciated, entry level content provider will seamlessly weave into my dreams a narrative bought and paid for by a canny advertiser who knows the perceived gaps in my life, and plants in my subconscious an impression of myself that deep down, I want to see.

I hope that dude gets a pay raise.