It required all sorts of difficult preparation like clearing off my coffee table and rearranging my weeknight schedule of karaoke singalongs to Billy Holiday and thrice-weekly baths for my bunny rabbit to make room for some real grunt work.
I also needed to lay out two sharpened No. 2 pencils (I'd had some experience with that from my college blue-book days) that wouldn't get lost in the shuffle of newspapers and magazines that make my living room look like the bane of Pottery Barn's existence.
Ah, but for one week it wasn't the living room at all. It was the TV room dedicated to the sole purpose of my assigned task: to keep a TV diary for 168 consecutive hours.
Yep, I had been chosen to be a Nielsen girl, like one of Charlie's Angels (preferably Sabrina) on a special assignment.
But don't be beguiled by the seeming prestige of being a Nielsen girl (or guy). It's not as easy as you think. There were decisions that had to be made tough ones. "Jeopardy" or reruns of "Friends"? "Chicago Hope" or "Frasier"? And the toughest of all: Leno or Letterman? (Letterman was, of course, in the hospital recuperating from quintuple bypass surgery. But because he's my hero, I felt compelled to watch his reruns.)
Plus, there was the sign-on bonus: one crisp greenback. Nielsen suggests using the money to "brighten the day of a child that you know." Yeah, right, where can I get a PlayStation cartridge for a buck? Selfishly, I pocketed the cash there's no telling how a dollar could brighten my day.
I received my diaries two because I lied (for the first time) and said there were two TVs in the house on Feb. 9. I couldn't wait to get started. I did, however, have a few questions. I was happily surprised when I phoned Nielsen's 1-800-number and reached a real-live person. Her name is Alice (she asked that I not reveal her last name because to do so would be a breach of national security), and she's been fielding questions like mine for the Nielsen ratings for more than 20 years. Alice explained that, despite my belief, I had not been chosen because I represented the last vestige of people clinging to basic TV no cable, no premium channels, no satellite dish, and usually no working VCR. Instead, I was a bit bummed out to learn mine was a random solicitation, she says, pulled from a computer.
The next day, Thursday, I had hoped to get home early from work to carefully read over the instructions before showtime: 6 p.m. Time for the local news with Gene, Sabrina and Jim. But I missed our date.
As fate would have it, I didn't get home until just before kickoff time for a new "Friends" with special guest star Reese Witherspoon. I wrote carefully in the lines marking out 8 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. exactly as the example showed, listed the call letters for the local NBC affiliate and printed the program's name in the ledger-lined space to the left: "Friends."
I repeated this process, tediously, with each show recorded in my diary.
And as I watched the "unmissable" episode of "ER," in which Lucy Knight met her untimely demise, I felt a sense of great and glorious belonging: Was not the whole world watching along with me as Lucy's chest was cracked wide open in a Sweeps Week stunner? I marked off that hour in my diary with a deliberately hard bearing down.
I filled out the blue grids in my diary, keenly aware that I had to document every five minutes of TV that I watched. What's more, I had to record whenever the TV was on, even if there was no one in the room.
This is when I felt my power of the pencil and the diary get the best of me.
Suddenly, I felt a responsibility to represent those who had no voice, i.e. family members that don't reside in my "chosen" household. What's more, I started feeling sorry for the shows I knew were likely to get the ax, and soon.
Still, I just couldn't bring myself to plug Blair Underwood's new "City of Angels" by x-ing in the blue block just because I want him to be a big star again like he was on "L.A. Law."
Of course, I plugged my favorites: "The West Wing," "Will and Grace," and even this season's insufferable "Ally McBeal." But, I'd be lying to say that my earnestness sustained me for the entire week.
On Friday night at 8 p.m. I made my first falsification. I was at home, and I did have the TV on, but I did not really watch "Providence" for the entire hour. I recorded it that way in my diary, though, because, well, it's my brother's girlfriend's favorite show. She adores it. So there: one rating point for Kelly.
The next infraction occurred Sunday night. A sucker for anything my grandmother used to watch, I felt the unmistakable gravitational pull of schmaltz: "Touched By an Angel" was calling me 8 p.m., CBS. I did turn the TV on, watched as Della Reese sang and Roma Downey flitted across the screen. My grandmother loved this show for its sheer sweetness and I'm sure because she believed Roma Downey truly is an angel. That got a big hour-long X in my diary.
Then there's Monday night. "Everybody Loves Raymond." The title must be true, because even though I virtually never watch the show, I had to tune in. Doesn't he seem like the nicest guy?
Just five days into my role as media giant, the entire system was crumbling. Somewhere along the way, I decided I just didn't care. What had happened to that vote that in the beginning seemed to count for so much?
For my last two days I trudged through. I finished my diary, more or less, as I was instructed to do. And the very next day I mailed it back to the folks at the Nielsen Ratings home office. (I confess I did hang on to the extra diary, just because they seemed overly insistent on getting it back.)
Ultimately, though, my weeklong assignment taught me that I couldn't control TV anymore than it could control me. What's more, it turns out my job was, simply, not that important at least not to me. At the week's start it was. I felt there was something I could help preserve. But now with David Letterman back where he belongs, any fear I might have had that TV might lose its grip on reality has been assuaged. It's no longer up to
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