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We're a Nielsen family again

Feb 6, 2012 - By Randy Tucker

Most of life is a series of gradual changes, slight shifts and largely unnoticed adjustments to routine that we rarely take notice of.

We received a call a few weeks ago, followed by the arrival of a neat little package containing five small booklets and two crisp $1 bills.

For the second time in 30 years, my wife and I have been selected as a Nielsen family.

For those of you unfamiliar with television marketing, the Nielsen ratings grade programs from popular to nearly non-existent. With those ratings come prodigious television advertising dollars.

Super Bowl ads sell for millions of dollars a minute while just about anyone can afford to run a 30-second spot in the middle of the night on an obscure cable channel on the local system. Money makes the advertising world go around.

The changes in the world over the last 30 years have been dramatic. The changes in our lives have been just as diverse.

We were selected in early October 1982 to record our viewing habits for one week. We were still newlyweds, married just four months and renting a three-bedroom, two story home just a few hundred yards from Lusk High School.

The Nielsen Company packed two quarters into a little cardboard slot to reward our efforts in chronicling our TV viewing for a week. The four-fold increase to two bucks we received this time is just one of the monetary differences between 1982 and 2012.

Many wonder why the small token is included in the self-addressed, pre-stamped mailers that come with the viewing book. The money is a form of insurance. No matter how small the amount, people feel obligated if they are paid to do something. The idea is that the return rate is much higher with the cash.

Speaking of cash, our cable bill was $11 a month in 1982. We paid an additional $22 plus long distance charges for our phone. The Internet hadn't been invented by Al Gore yet (something he never actually claimed to have done, by the way). It existed only in the realm of a few computer science graduate students spread across America.

Jump ahead 30 years and our monthly phone/Internet/cable bill exceeds $150.

We weren't a good indicator of national trends three decades ago, and we sure haven't improved in that respect since.

In the 1980s corporations didn't control the world as they do now. Local television stations routinely purchased syndicated programs and played them throughout the day. In the modern era, TV Land, Nickelodeon, Hallmark, TBS, USA and TNT control almost all television programs in syndication.

"MASH" was still one of the most popular weekly shows on CBS in 1982 and was entering its 10th year of production. The early episodes were already in syndication and so popular that stations everywhere quickly purchased the rights to the series and showed them throughout the day.

Sue and I were big "MASH" fans. When we started filling out the Nielsen booklet we were a little embarrassed, on a couple of days we watched MASH four times on different stations.

Lusk cable had 20 channels in 1982, with stations from Denver, Rapid City, Scottsbluff, Casper, Cheyenne and Hay Springs, Nebraska on the dial.

The only other program we watched religiously was "Hill Street Blues."

Without any children yet, coaching and teaching took absolute center stage in our lives. As she does today, Sue spent most of her time in class preparation. Coaching football, basketball and track took most of my time, as did feeding a voracious appetite for history books.

Now the Nielsens come knocking again. We don't have children this time, either, at least not at home. They've both gone on to their own homes and their own lives.

Sue still preps for school, or practices the piano or organ in every spare moment, and now I'm writing about football, basketball and track rather than coaching it.

Our viewing choices have risen exponentially over the last 30 years. We now have hundreds of stations to choose from, but we still don't find much worth watching.

We're now hooked on "Law and Order" as we once were on "MASH" and "Hill Street Blues." We watch PBS and I'm fascinated with "How It's Made" on the science channel, along with "Modern Marvels" on the History Channel. Strangely enough, we listen to music via cable TV more than we watch it.

Still, probably not the fare that Madison Avenue is hoping for in this time-honored national survey.

Our single television has multiplied as well. We now have three just on the first floor with three more upstairs, one in the basement and another one in my shop. They're almost always turned off.

I guess the adage is true. The more things change, they more they stay the same.

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