The average American spends 20 percent of their day watching television.This revealing fact comes courtesy of Nielsen, a global company that carefully analyzes what consumers watch and buy. In the UK it’s a company called Barb which analyzes TV viewing. According to a report published by Barb earlier this year, individuals in the UK watched television for an average of 4 hours a day in 2010. Women in the UK spend more time than men in front of the box: a total of four and half hours a day compared to about 3.9.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my television viewing habits because it so happens that our household is taking part in a Nielsen survey that asks us to fill out a diary of what we watch every day for a week, for each television in the house. The Nielsen people have expended a lot of effort on this rather archaic paper diary that feels like a throwback to 1995. Not only did they spend time interviewing me on the phone before the diary arrived, they also sent me $30 in cash as a thank you for participating. We also got a postcard reminding us to fill it out and a follow-up phone call. These people aren’t taking any chances that I’ll forget about it and throw it away.
I hope my scribblings are worth the $30 they paid. Paying the money up front is clearly a psychological tactic designed to make you feel responsible for providing accurate information. Here’s the problem, though, with any survey that relies on the honesty of the participants: humans have a tendency to lie, or simply exaggerate or downplay what they do. Television viewing is no exception. I am slightly embarrassed by our viewing habits as a household, because I feel like we collectively watch far more than is healthy. Ergo, I’m likely to lie about it a little.
Frankly, we’re hardly a typical household at the moment anyway. There’s my sixty-something mother, a thirty-something brother camped out in the formal dining room, me (nearly 40) and the two kids (5 and 2). Of all these people, only one works full time, i.e. we have a lot of time to fill and not a huge amount of money between us. Since becoming unemployed and moving into my mother’s house in a neighborhood where I have no friends, I’ve learned that filling time is something of an art form you can perfect. My trick is to drag certain tasks out for as long as possible, such as making coffee and reading the newspaper, or learning to get excited about something as mundane as eating lunch. My brother’s tactic is to watch as much television as possible.
There are two televisions in the house (less than the average in America, which hovers around 3 per household) and at least one of them tends to be on for most of the day. So here’s the dilemma: do I tell the Nielsen people that we are walking zombies of useless information or do I just disguise this unappetizing fact and casually omit a few viewing hours here and there, to make myself feel better? I’ve erred on the side of truth, but where the kids are concerned I have felt incredibly guilty about the rainy day when they watched back-to-back television for hours, or the Saturday when I didn’t exactly jump out of bed and got the television to babysit them in the morning. So, um, I kind of lied about this. And because my brother switches channels every five minutes – and there are about 300 of them – I kind of got bored of asking him what he watched and just started copying previous pages.
As a little sidebar to this, the programs we tend to watch most are: Dancing with the Stars (Strictly Come Dancing in the UK), Survivor (my mother is addicted to this crap), Celebrity Ghost Stories (slightly unhinged ‘celebrities’ talk about their brushes with the paranormal), The First 48 (generally, a depressing dissection of how you catch a bumbling, callous murderer), Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (a British chef with a swearing problem and anger-management issues screams at a bunch of dimwits), The Good Wife (a show I never fully understand because it deals with some complicated law things) and a steady diet of shows about property. I’m partly to blame for our addiction to property shows. Since I don’t have a house of my own, I’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with watching people look for their dream properties, often in far-flung international locations, which only makes me feel worse.
Despite the slight cheating on the diaries, I still think the Nielsen people will get a good snapshot of how low our society has sunk in terms of actually communicating to one another over the dinner table. One of the saddest things I’ve noticed is that we hardly ever turn the television off in the evenings and actually try to talk to one another without the distraction of noise. The last time I remember sitting around without the television was when we had the massive blackout in California in September. Instead, my mother, brother and I played Scrabble by candlelight outside. As inconvenient as the blackout was, I remember thinking how much pleasure can be derived from something so simple.