Sunday, March 18, 1990



There comes a time in the life of every American citizen when Duty calls.
"Hey! YOU!!" are Duty's exact words, and unless you're some kind of flag-desecrating pervert, you're going to stand up, as Americans have stood up for more than 200 years, and you're going to say, "Yes, I will participate in the Arbitron television-ratings survey."

I answered The Call one recent afternoon. The phone rang, and it was a person informing me that I had been selected to be an Arbitron household based on an exhaustive screening process consisting of being home when my number was dialed at random. As you can imagine, I was deeply moved.

"Do I get money?" I asked.

The reason I asked this is that a couple of years ago I was a Nielsen ratings household, and all they paid me was two lousy dollars, yet they wanted me to write down every program I watched, which was virtually impossible because I'm a guy and therefore I generally watch 40 programs at once. Guys are biologically capable of keeping track of huge numbers of programs simultaneously by changing the channel the instant something boring happens, such as dialogue. Whereas women, because of a tragic genetic flaw, feel compelled to watch only one program at a time, the way people did back in the Middle Ages, before the invention of remote control.

Anyway, it turns out that $2 is also all you get for being an Arbitron household. But I agreed to be one anyway, because, let's face it, when anybody connected with the television industry asks you to do something, no matter how stupid or degrading it is, you do it. This is why people are willing to openly discuss their secret bodily problems in commercials that are seen by the entire nation. These people become famous for having secret bodily problems. When they go out to dinner, large celebrity-worshiping crowds gather to stare and point and whisper excitedly to each other, "Look! It's Elston V. Quadrant, Hemorrhoid Sufferer!"

At least these people get paid, which is more than you can say for the people who go on the syndicated TV talk shows and seek to enhance public understanding of various tragic psychological disorders by candidly revealing that they are total wackmobiles ("I'm Geraldo Rivera, and these men are commercial-airline pilots with live trout in their shorts").

So I figured the least I could do, for television, was be an Arbitron household. This involves two major responsibilities:
1. Keeping track of what you watch on TV.
2. Lying about it.

At least that's what I did. I imagine most people do.

Because let's face it: Just because you watch a certain show on television, that doesn't mean you want to admit it. Let's say you're flipping through your 8,479 cable channels, and you come across a program called Eat Bugs For Money, wherein they bring out a large live insect, and the contestants secretly write down the minimum amount of money they would have to be given to eat it, and whichever one has the lowest bid has to actually do it. Admit it: YOU would watch this program. In fact, right now you're saying to yourself, "Hey, I wonder what channel that's on." Unfortunately, at present it's still in the conceptual stage. It's based on an idea from my editor, Gene Weingarten, who has publicly stated that he would eat a live adult South Florida cockroach (average weight: 11 pounds) for $20,000.

My point is that you'd watch this program, but you wouldn't tell Arbitron. You'd claim that you watched a National Geographic special with a name like The Amazing World of Beets. In my Arbitron diary, I wrote that our entire household (including Earnest, who is, legally, a dog) mainly watched the network news, whereas in fact the only remotely educational programming we watched that week was a commercial for oat bran, which by the way is clearly no more intended for human consumption than insects are.


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