Ace: My husband insists, paranoid soul that he is, that there are hordes of spies out there (somewhere) checking on the specific TV programs we are watching. He says we give credibility to such folks as the Octomom by viewing a program on which she’s appearing. He also suggests our political preferences are noted by those same spies when we watch MSNBC. I don’t agree. HELP!—Kookoo Channel
Dear Ms Channel: Ace can immediately see who is the brains of your wedded outfit. Does your husband also wear aluminum foil on his head to keep out the alien radio interference? In fairness to your husband, the question he raises is a good one, even if his assumptions about television espionage are a tad paranoid. The truth is that television networks only wish they had the capability your husband ascribes to them. Believe it or not, network honchos would pay millions to know exactly what Ace watches from the couch while he cleans his gun or darns his socks, but fortunately Ace is not a member of the mysterious “representative sample.” See, Nielsen Media Research tries to keep tabs on what everyone in America (or at least the 99 million people with TVs) watches by assigning a “black box” to 5,000 random households. This black box, called a “People Meter” by those in the ratings business, transmits information about what “the sample” watches and when they watch it to those who pay dearly for the info in order to secure advertising dollars.
Do 5,000 people out of 99 million make an effective statistical sample? Perhaps not, but Nielsen tries its hardest to make it so by following up data with phone calls and TV diaries. Local People Meters and Portable People Meters are two more recent advances in television spy technology, but unless your husband has agreed to be a network guinea pig, his TV-watching habits remain an enigma to the folks at NBC.
If you really want to mess with your husband, place an old modem next to your television set and plug it in every time you watch TV together. Ace predicts he will go ballistic when he sees the flashing red light and he will quickly change the channel from “Rock of Love Bus 3” to PBS.
You can ask Ace yourself. Intrepid investigative reporter Ace Atkins has been chasing readers’ leads for 20 years. If you have a question for Ace, e-mail it to email@example.com.