TV By the Numbers

The Hawthorne effect suggests that a subject that’s aware it’s being observed will alter its behavior accordingly, that the act of study itself can taint results. When I was contacted by Nielsen to participate in an eight-day study of television viewing habits for sweeps week, my mind immediately fantasized of staging a coup upon all the crap television that tops the weekly ratings and replacing it with the quality programming I watch — that my viewership could single-handedly inject a much-needed shot of taste into the American (Idol) public’s palate.

I keep an occasional eye on the weekly ratings, discouraged that none of the shows I watch, be they broadcast or cable, are even in the top 20 (except for NFL when in season). If you limit this to the 18-45 demographic, I watch two or three at the ass end of the top 20, and several of the most-popular DVRed shows on cable (to me, this implies intelligent viewership). Half of this is explained by my oft-documented disdain for reality television. Still, as this resident of the #32 market counted his five crisp one-dollar bills as payola and began logging the paper diary (not the cool set-top box that some households get), I learned a few things about myself.

I’m a commercial-skipping DVR fiend (you must document both the watched and original times). Over 90% of my time spent in front of the tube is done commercial-free. If I’m unbusy when an HBO series is on, I’ll often watch it at its original broadcast time, recording it anyway, just in case. (I subscribe to HBO strictly for their excellent original series, as nearly any movie I care about has already been Netflixed well before then.) But network and cable programming, even if I want to watch it the same night, I always time-shift it a little. I wait until at least seven minutes past its airtime to “play” a sitcom, or quarter-after for an hourlong drama, which means by the time I catch up with real-time, I’ve been able to FF through the commercials. NFL Sundays, I’ll skip the first hour of a game to get some other tasks done, then restart and power through it in two hours. (I recently read that an average football game contains 11 minutes of snap-to-whistle action; wow.) And not one single minute of local or national news/weather programming was logged.

While I take pride in this efficiency of tube-time, I still watched 18 hours this week. That’s more than I thought, and doesn’t count the two Blu-Rays I rented. And it seemed a fairly typical balance of shows that are in and out of season. As predicted, there were only a few instances of “channel surfing,” though I perhaps did even less than usual because I found myself not wanting to have to log them.

In the end, I doubt my eyeball lobbying for Caprica, Community, Archer, or Big Love will give them even a sniff at the top 20. But you know what they say: if you don’t vote, you can’t complain.

About Gordon

Gordon Highland is the author of the novels Flashover and Major Inversions, with short stories in such publications as Word Riot, Black Heart, Noir at the Bar Vol. 2, and Warmed and Bound, among others. He lives in the Kansas City area, where he makes videos by day and music by night.
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