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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Reflections from the heart
Inside Out In a Family Way
by Yvonne Zipter
2000-02-02

This article shared 1054 times since Wed Feb 2, 2000
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Imagine, if you will, what it might feel like to meet Xena: Warrior Princess and discover that she's a real person—not Lucy Lawless, playing a character, but a true ululating, butt-kicking, mini-skirted warrior. Now you have a sense of how I, as a TV aficionado, felt when we were selected to be a Nielsen family. The Nielsen family is the Xena: Warrior Princess of TV addicts: mythic, said, like winners of Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, to exist, yet who among us has ever actually met one? And now, Kathy and I are destined to become, in a couple of weeks, a Nielsen family. When the woman on the phone confirmed it, I pictured a team of workers in spotless white coveralls showing up to connect some sort of tabulating device to our ancient Sears TV; Kathy and I would be wearing matching mod outfits, with a colorful schoolbus parked out front. Then I realized ( 1 ) they just give us a TV "diary" to record what we watch and ( 2 ) we're going to be a Nielsen family, not the Partridge family.

Once the giddy sense of excitement and acid flashbacks subsided, I was overcome with an onerous feeling of responsibility. If I go to my happy place, I can believe that we are simply recording what we watch that week or two, and nothing more. But the truth is that Kathy and I will be accountable, directly and indirectly, for the fates of countless television shows. Granted, our TV-viewing habits will make up only a minuscule percentage of the ratings that are engendered by the many families like ourselves across the country. Nevertheless, our votes will be counted. and you may have us to thank for the mercy killing of Suddenly Susan or Cosby, which have lost their creative zest and are now painful to watch.

The sense of power is awesome —in the biblical sense of the word. Ethical issues spring up like moral weeds: Do we make a point, during our time as a Nielsen family, to watch every single show that has a gay character, even if it's a show that we don't normally watch, in an effort to get the networks to turn TV more queer? Do we try to make ourselves look better than we really are, claiming to watch every Masterpiece Theater and opera thing on PBS, even though we never do, and pretending that we don't occasionally watch Cops on Saturday night while we eat dinner? ( Cops, by the way, is downright uplifting, if you're not familiar with it, because no matter how bad our week has been, at least we're not on TV drunk, in our underwear, and we have all our teeth. ) I want to believe that we will present ourselves honestly, but how do I know that we won't be enticed, by the knowledge that someone will be looking over our metaphorical shoulders, to watch a retrospective about Van Gogh instead of King of the Hill or Newshour with Jim Lehrer instead of reruns of Friends? How can I be sure of our motives if we drift, in anyway, from our usual nightly lineups?

Worse still is the temptation to willfully and knowingly destroy certain shows. Not that we are vengeful people, mind you, but we have never forgiven Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place for taking Ellen's time slot when they yanked her off the air. My guess is that the show is already diminished—even its name, for instance, has been shortened to Two Guys and a Girl—but I find myself wondering if there is a way to let the Nielsen's know which shows we have specifically opted not to watch. But I suppose if we watched instead, for instance, the Bulls pregame show, that might get the message across. There's also Martha Stewart: Does she really need her ego further pumped up ( not to mention her stock ) by scoring high ratings for Martha Stewart Living? If we do happen to watch her, maybe we can "say" we watched People's Court, since we know Kathy's gramma will be.

I guess only time will tell how we hold up under the weight of these moral issues. I think I'll start rehearsing, though, for our time as a Nielsen family by watching some TV. Let's see—Teletubbies? Or Ricki Lake?

yzipter@journals.uchicago.edu .


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