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FIRST-PERSON – Keeping a Nielsen TV diary: a good family values checkup

FRESNO, Calif. (BP)–Not long ago, members of the Wyatt household became a “Nielsen family.” For one week, we held in our hands the fate of television programming in the most technologically advanced nation on earth.

Okay, that’s probably a bit overstated. More precisely, for that week we became part of a relatively small group of people helping the world’s most influential entertainment and information medium discover what American television viewers were watching.

It began with a phone call one evening. The caller said a computer had chosen our home at random — as if somehow that was supposed to make us feel special! She asked if we would be willing to record our television viewing choices for one week to help determine the ratings for local, national, broadcast and cable television programming.

Like many American families, ours often receives telephone solicitations. At times it feels as if the calls come in waves before a calm spell gives the phone ringer a welcome rest. They arrive in cycles, too, like the periodic calls from certain organizations invariably seeking a monetary donation for this charity or that event.

Also, these calls typically occur at mealtime — undoubtedly by design. The callers know they have a better chance of someone being there to answer the phone. Dining out only means the calls are delayed; recorded messages pile up on the answering machine. Sometimes our machine answers and records calls made by other machines!

I try to be courteous when these unwanted phone calls interrupt meals or other activities. But I am not in the habit of divulging personal information to strangers on the phone or in person. Besides, in the entire history of television ratings, never before had anyone in my family been asked to keep a Nielsen diary. I was skeptical.

Sensing my hesitation, the caller volunteered her ID number and a toll-free phone number I could call to verify the legitimacy of the call. I thanked her, hung up and — only slightly less skeptical than before — made the phone call.

As it turned out, the call was legit. I agreed to participate in the ratings process. Soon afterward, we received a Nielsen diary for each television in the house. The instructions asked us to record somewhat detailed information about what shows we watched when and on which TV set. Enclosed with the diaries was a single, crisp one-dollar bill, apparently payment for our trouble.

Looking back, it was probably the worst-paying job I ever accepted. The amount of information we were asked to provide was not overwhelming but required constant diligence. Every time we changed the channel we were expected to record the time, the name of the program, the network, television station, cable channel, which family member(s) was/were watching and for how long.

Not long after my Nielsen experience, I visited a pastor friend in another city. He asked me to hold him accountable for what he watches on television. He had won a satellite TV system in a drawing and soon discovered some of the programs he now has access to contain things he doesn’t need to view.

That request and the week I spent intentionally monitoring my family’s television viewing patterns both reminded me that what we watch on television, like other choices Christians make, reveals a lot about our values and interests. Through our Nielsen experience, I discovered we don’t watch as much TV as the average American household, not even as much as I thought we did, although certainly more than necessary.

That kind of evaluation is worthwhile. I recommend it not only for entertainment practices, but also to check up periodically on spiritual matters as well. Without that kind of honest appraisal, it’s almost impossible to avoid the idleness — and idols — God expects us to shun.
Wyatt’s column, “Mark My Word,” appears in the May issue of the California Southern Baptist and is used by permission. Copyright 2001 by Dr. Mark A. Wyatt.

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  • Mark A. Wyatt