One Man's One-Week Nielsen Ratings

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A few weeks ago, and for the first time in my life, I received in the mail an invitation to participate in a television ratings trial--in effect to have my watching habits tracked and monitored over time so that advertisers and network executives could evaluate the success of their work. I took the $2 cash contained in the packet (my rule being that it's advisible always to take cash when it is sent to you, unsolicited, by mail) but didn't sign up to contribute. Journalistic ethics? Privacy concerns? Laziness?

In any event, now I feel guilty. I watch a lot of television, day and night. And like many other dedicated viewers I've built up quite a few opinions of what I watch. So I have decided herein to give the Nielsen folks their money's worth. They want to know what I watch? No problem. Here's a typical hour (from a typical week).

Channel 2: CNN. Want ratings? Allow Parker to tase Spitzer every time she wants to get a word in. Time viewed: 2 minutes. Click.

Channel 3: "Star Trek." Fellow former Montrealer William Shatner tries again to talk some alien female into letting him and the Enterprise go. Yep, just how I remember it from the reruns I watched in 1986. 5 minutes. Click.

Channel 4: CBS. Shatner again! Forty-plus years after Trek, he's on "Sh*t My Dad Says." Me? I had a dad like that. I would rather watch him on "Sh*t Spock Said." I linger long enough to make sure Shatner's not singing. 30 seconds. Click.

COMMERCIAL: Henry Winkler, the Fonz, cherished icon of my youth, is now hawking reverse mortgages. Breaks my heart. 15 seconds. Click.

Channel 5: ESPN breathlessly reports that Brett Favre has had a bowel movement. What's most compelling, however, is that Chris Mortensen is reporting live from inside Favre's colon. Stay classy, ESPN! 45 seconds. Click.

Channel 6: History Channel. Hitler. Hitler and Saddam. Hitler and UFOs. Hitler and Nostradamus. Hitler and the Klan. Dead Nazis draw big ratings. 45 seconds. Click.

Channel 7: Lifetime. Man bad. Woman good. Yep, just as I remember it from the last time I checked. 30 seconds. Click.

Channel 8: E! Keeping up with the Kardashians. Poor Bruce Jenner, the great Olympian of 1976. How long before he snaps and picks up a javelin? Or a flamethower? I wait 3 minutes to find out. Maybe next time. Click.

COMMERCIAL: Creepy people trying to make money off September 11 tragedy by selling "commemorative" 10th anniversary "coins" said to be minted with pieces of silver from Ground Zero (or something like that). Should there not be a special place in Hell reserved for these folks? 60 seconds of disgust later. Click.

Channel 9: NBC. "The Office." My once-favorite comedy show now, sadly, is virtually unwatchable. Can we please fast forward to the series-ending episode? 60 seconds. Click.

Channel 10: TBS. Re-runs of "Family Guy." What does it say about televsion executives that our nation's most fearless and searing shows are animated? Nothing good, right? This is a great show--time capsule stuff. I watch until third reference to James Woods. 5 minutes. Click. 

Channel 11: MTV. "Jersey Shore." The women act like dudes. The dudes primp like women. What the show needs next season is for Paul Giamatti, or, better yet, Wallace Shawn, to move in. I watch until one of the women touches her hair or her own boobs or until one of the men touches his junk. 1 minute. Click.

Channel 12: PBS. Documentary about Civil War that does not include Shelby Foote? No thanks. 4 minutes. Click.    

COMMERCIAL. Dyson vaccuum cleaners. If this James Dyson guy is so freakin' smart then why hasn't our government recruited him to capture Osama bin Laden? I'd like to see him go head-to-head with Spitzer. 60 Seconds. Click

Channel 8: Back again to E! to see Chelsea Handler. Oh, Chelsea, can't you be serious for just a minute? What are we going to be able to talk about when we grow old together? I guess I'll never know. 2 minutes. Click.

Channel 13: C-SPAN. If young, eager, earnest representatives want to sleep in their offices on Capitol Hill then good for them. But C-SPAN62's After Hours channel goes a bit too far. Memo to Brian Lamb: nice jammies. 5 minutes. Click.

Channel 14: MLB Network. It's January. I don't want to see former players talking about current or future players. I want to see old baseball games. 3 minutes. Click.

Channel 15: FOX: "House." It's brilliant--and condusive to a drinking game. Every time House (or his colleagues) do something legally actionable--like sex discrimination, age discrimination, racial discrimination, etc.--you get to take a shot. But since I usually watch alone I never get to play. I watch until I see Lisa Edelstein as Cuddy. 10 minutes. Click.    

COMMERCIAL: Cisco, the Human Network. It may be a great company, but if the goal is to make us all to think we are part of a human network, why does that young woman's voice in the commercials sound like the voices of the alien women Captain Kirk was always chasing? 60 seconds. Click. 

Channel 16: TNT. "Men of a Certain Age." As a man of a certain age, this show is like catnip to me. I find it honest, accurate and even at times poignant. Good for Ray Romano for doing it. Shame on TNT for burying it on Monday nights. I watch for 20 minutes...then zzzzzzz... Good night, moon. Good night, Nielsens. We're now even for the two bucks, right?

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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