Thursday, May 18, 2006

TV: The Rating Game

Upfronts, schmupfronts. You want to meet the real power in TV, baby, you talk to me.

Unnamed Media Research Company (UMRC) will be including Chez K in its ratings for the next eight days. As May sweeps ends we’ll be keeping a diary of what we watch, and the information will be used to ... tabulate something. The details are a little fuzzy.

My TV diet consists mainly of movies and baseball. The one show I never miss, The Office, has already wrapped its season. (And how, with a great episode written by Steve Carell.) And the juggernaut that is the American Idol finale doesn’t need my help.

Still, I’ve been waiting for years to do this. Not because I want to play havoc with the airwaves. But because UMRC owes me.

I used to work there, when I first graduated from college. UMRC HQ was just down the road, always hungry for fresh meat. I signed on as a telemarketer, calling people to ask if they’d be willing to complete the TV viewing diary.

Did I hate that job. I preferred being a movie theater usher, where my primary responsibility was cleaning up ungodly messes in the dark.

The calling process was fully automated; as soon as one person hung up another would be on the line, and I’d launch into my spiel anew without pausing for breath. The spiel was also pre-programmed. I’d key in what the caller said and the computer would prompt me with a response. Every conceivable objection had been factored in.

No job has ever required less of me. I’m sure UMRC has R&D working on technology that will eliminate the human element entirely.

One night I was talking to John from Philadelphia. John thought I was conducting a survey about television, so he offered his opinions on current network fare.

“And there are too many blacks on TV,” he said.

Did I mention that there was no way for me to end a call? Only the computer could do that.

“I have to see them all day at work,” John continued, “then I come home and they’re all over the TV. It’s not fair.”

The software hadn’t seen that one coming. I’d stopped following the prompts anyway, thanking John for his time, trying to get him to hang up.

It only got worse. John started thanking me. “It really means a lot that you wanted my opinion. I always think that the TV people don’t care about guys like me. You made my night!”

Finally, mercifully, John said goodbye, and Cindy from Moline was on the line. Hello, Cindy. Do you own a television?

A few nights later I called Martha in Alaska. She sounded no-nonsense, self-reliant. I was certain I’d interrupted her in the middle of canning something.

“Yes, I own a TV,” she said, “but I never watch it. I absolutely loathe what’s on now. Television is a disgrace.”

The computer had my comeback ready, but I knew Martha wouldn’t fall for it. So I went off script.

“Ma’am, I agree with you. Which is why you should do our diary. If you don’t watch a single program, you’ll still be included in the sample. You’ll lower the totals for the week. It won’t be by much. But it’s a chance for you to communicate your feelings to the networks in the only terms they understand.”

After a pause, Martha said, “Send me the damn diary.”

UMRC would pick telemarketers at random and monitor ten of their calls. As it happened, my supervisor was listening to my chat with Martha. He stopped by before my break – again dictated by the computer – and told me how well I’d done.

Funny how I didn’t feel good about that.

The following day my supervisor asked to see me. He was so impressed with how I’d swayed Martha that he wanted to make me a telemarketing trainer. Thus marking the first and so far only time I have ever been offered a promotion.

The first thing I said was, “Thank you.” It’s always the first thing I say. That’s what Catholic school does to you.

The second thing I said was, “But I’m not interested. In fact, I have to turn in my notice.” Which came as a surprise to me, considering I didn’t have another job lined up. But I’d learned an important lesson as I embarked upon adulthood: sometimes in this life, it is possible to be good at the wrong things.

Ever since, I have wanted to be the person at the other end of the line. At long last, it happened. The script hasn’t changed much.

I’ll post what goes into the diary. DVDs and On Demand programs don’t count, but anything on the DVR does. For the next few days, I control the vertical and the horizontal. And don’t you forget it.