Internet changing my TV habits

“Hello $2.”

That was my first thought when I checked my mailbox a few weeks ago and saw the letter from Nielsen Ratings.

My second thought was, “I’m a Nielsen family again.”

I’d been here before when I was in college. I remember it well, not because it was some amazing experience, but because it was so cut and dry. I answer a few simple questions (the most specific one being, “Do you work for a TV station or network?”) and fill out a book saying what I watched and what station I watched it on. For my troubles, I received two crisp $1 bills with my TV diary.

A few days later, the $2 came, and so did the introductory phone call. They needed to know the number of people and television sets in the residence, so they could mail the books immediately.

Here’s what I figured out on my own: Advertising on TV is kind of like a casino, and Nielsen is the best card-counter advertisers have. They pay Nielsen a lot of money to let them know how many people in specific demographics (age, race, size of family) are watching a particular show while it’s on the air, and Nielsen pays some of that to people in exchange for feedback. More crisp bills come when the diaries are shipped; it’s not enough to change your life, but it can knock out a small grocery trip.

I’m about halfway through the week, and I’m discovering just how much the Internet is changing TV ratings. The first time I filled out the diary, I was putting in a lot of sitcoms.

Now I’ve only put in a few live sports events, and I’ve used my TV for streaming services or recorded shows instead. I didn’t have to watch “The Office” because it’s on NBC.com for the next few weeks. I didn’t have to tune in for the Tim Tebow interview on ESPN’s “First and Ten,” because somebody would put it up on YouTube.

During the phone call, I specifically asked about Netflix and DVR programs, and the rep said Nielsen isn’t concerned with that — just what you’re watching, while it’s being broadcast.

The process makes me wonder. Maybe TV ratings are less valuable because they show you’re probably now reaching a smaller audience than you did 15 years ago. Media reports about declining ratings unfairly reach the conclusion that television quality is slipping, without noting the outside factors that have killed ratings.

But you could also take the perspective that these ratings are more valuable, because the information is getting scarcer.

Whatever the answer, I can say I am enjoying another chance at this feedback thing because of a simplicity that’s getting rarer. I simply have to write down, “College football: Oklahoma State at Iowa State,” and I don’t have to get into a long debate about why this game somehow proves somebody else deserves to play for the national championship. I don’t have to decide between one and five stars, or give a “thumbs up” sign. I won’t be recommending something strange based on that one thing I watched.

Perhaps I should have sent them $2 — nah.