I was a Nielsen rater. For one week, I diligently filled a diary of every program I watched, recording how long I watched it, the stations' call letters and channel numbers, how many sets I have -- one -- and whether I have cable and/or a VCR -- no.
The data provided a number of revelations about my habits and preferences as a TV consumer. Though I've often thought of myself as an indifferent, less than typical viewer, the diary concluded that I watched almost 26 hours of television that week, averaging almost four hours a day. The greatest amount of TV time was consumed on a Sunday -- a day I often imagine spending outside -- and the least on Friday night -- an unwinding time that I usually plan on spending in "Dallas" and "The Twilight Zone."
While I like to think I follow current events closely, electronic news programming -- including "Nightline," "60 Minutes" and fragments of the networks' morning wake-up shows -- accounted for only four hours. I gave more time -- five hours -- to situation comedies, including 30 regrettable minutes of "Mork & Mindy" on a Wednesday afternoon. And though I consider myself a seasoned subscriber to public TV, such programs as National Geographic's "Chesapeake" totaled less than two hours.
In short, the hard data suggested that my perceptions of myself as a TV viewer were vague, sometimes false. Moreover, the Nielsen exercise triggered a number of questions about my relationship with TV: When do I turn it on? What programs do I select and why? What do I perceive from characters, situations on the screen? What influence do they have on me? Though television has been a part of my life for 30-odd years, only now do I begin to try to answer such questions.
As I begin to look into the screen I sense mixed signals. For years I've heard of its indigenous trash content and negative influence on my life. And yet, when I stroll down to the National Museum of American History I discover TV is enshrined in our culture. A display case presents the leather jacket worn by Henry Winkler in "Happy Days," props from "Barney Miller," Archie Bunker's chair and cigar.
When we look at TV we seem to naturally start with the proposition that it's bad. Yet we freely accept it into our lives, and sometimes put it on a pedestal.
I return home and for the first time I truly look at my set, currently sitting atop a bookcase in a corner, serving as a shelf for a backgammon set and a photo album. Sitting down, I discover I'm at eye level with the screen, which is almost exactly the same size as a box of Wheaties.
I pick up the set, '80s man to primal screen, and ask: "What are you?" "Why do I have you?"
"You might want to ask, 'Why do you have a radio?' It's there! It's something we all expect to have in our homes," says psychologist Dorothy Singer of the Yale University Family Television Research Center. "There are," she adds, "some statistics that there are more television sets in homes than there is plumbing."
Singer and other "TV psychologists" who have studied the impact of TV on our lives tell me that I am part of the Global Village of 98 percent of all households in the United States that have television sets, and one of 100 million Americans who watch TV every night. Yet, they add, we rarely if ever question its presence in our living rooms, our motivations for keeping the medium, for turning it on.
And though the average American TV consumer views almost five hours of programming a day, according to the latest A.C. Nielsen figures, he is unlikely to have a conscious perception of himself as a viewer.
"We rarely talk about television -- that is, about its content. Its ecology, which includes not only its physical characteristics and symbolic code but the conditions in which we normally attend to it, is taken for granted, accepted as natural," says Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death (Viking).
"I suspect that most people do have a perception, but they're probably not conscious of it unless you press them as to their motivations of why they watch TV. Out of that explanation will come a self-image," says University of Maryland psychologist Dalmas Taylor, who has studied the impact of violence on TV.
When our motives are solicited, we usually respond that we watch to be entertained and to acquire information. But underlying those reasons may be a desire to both connect with and escape from society.
Through my Nielsen viewing I see myself leaning more toward escape than seeking information or cultural catharsis. Often I found myself approaching my TV with little or no thought of what I was going to watch, or why. And often I took a final spin with the dial when I had decided to turn off the set.
"If you want to fill your mind with something other than the negative experience or boredom or anxiety," says Robert Kubey, a psychologist and communications professor at Rutgers University, "you instinctively learn that television can cut that boredom and anxiety pretty well. TV may well be the most readily available, inexpensive escape yet known to mankind except for dreaming or day-dreaming."
When we enter the TV world, our own worlds change. We may feel passive, happier and experience lower than usual concentration levels. We are presented a constantly mix of colorful images -- the average length of a network shot is only 3.5 seconds -- often with mood music.
In the midst of my Nielsen week, I realize that although I still think about work and paying bills, my thoughts are disrupted by TV. But I don't give full attention to the screen either, often reading a newspaper or magazine, particularly and ironically while watching TV news.
"People often turn it on just to have noise in the background, or they will watch whatever is on," says Taylor. "You do a lot of idiot-type things that permit you to look up and watch the screen every now and then."
Filling my Nielsen diary with feet up, I realize I'm most often in a leisurely position when I watch the tube. I don't stand in front of the set, questioning it. It doesn't seem to demand anything from me.
And, says Taylor, we seldom demand anything from it.
* A 1982 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study supports the often-heard contention that we as TV consumers do little interpretive thinking. through telephone interviews immediately after viewing what thoughts they had while viewing, one out of four could not at first recall any thoughts. Typical responses: "A show like this gives me a chance to rest my mind and think about other things," or "Nothing really . . . my mind was quite blank."
"I think certainly the attentive index goes up when people are watching programs they are committed to, such as the soaps that are on every day," says Taylor. "They follow them religiously and are glued to them in every detail. I would say the same thing for people who are into public television programs like the MacNeil/Lehrer report."
Though we more often watch television than television programs, says Kubey, we do select to varying degrees, have idiosyncratic reasons for our choices and do some interpretive thinking during these programs.
"Many people may enjoy watching the 'Waltons' or 'Little House on the Prairie' because they enjoy the warm family life that's portrayed, and maybe because the idyllic American family doesn't exist anymore. Television is a cultural artifact and presents to us reflections of ourselves that are more or less accurate -- often less accurate -- but still mean important things to us.
"People are not completely stupefied and half asleep when they're watching TV, but still deriving very personal experiences from television shows."
Though I now see some motivations for plugging into particular settings and some previously hidden connections to characters, I don't see any deep personal experiences coming out of my set. We more likely copy TV life styles and personalities than relate to them, say Singer and Kubey, and tend to lean on the medium for familiar company.
"These are one-way relationships, as TV really doesn't talk back," says Kubey. "A number of people watch TV as much as they do because it's a parasocial experience where they have complete control. People who may be seriously socially inept watch because they have this sense of not being alone."
When we do analyze TV content, it's often in a political sense. Women are concerned about whether they are always being portrayed in clerical or domestic situations, says Taylor, and blacks whether they are depicted as villains, chauffeurs and butlers. "For sure, television can raise stereotypes. So in a political, more cognitive sense, there is that critical analysis.
"A lot of television is in the category of priming, where we are encoding imagery, much of which is subliminal and comes to the surface with the appropriate prod or cue. Take the slogan, 'What'll you have?' When you're at the bar the bartender will say, 'What'll you have?' and unless you're a connoisseur of beer, you're likely to come up with the word 'Pabst.' "
The impact of behavior on TV, violence for example, is often relayed, he adds, in the same conditioned-response manner. We store repeated and dramatic elements of television, then after stimulation, release them in some similar but inhibited way.
"It becomes a part of your repertoire, so that when there's an appropriate opportunity to be violent, appropriate by your standards, then you will be so," says Taylor. "But watching violence can also be cathartic, satisfying . . . in some vicarious sense."
Heavy TV consumers, according to Singer, often tend to have a frightening view of the outside world. "They overestimate the statistics, the amount of crime, and think there are more policemen than truck drivers in the United States."
Perhaps a more subtle, underlying effect of television is its shaping of our expectations. Do we expect our problems to be solved in 30 minutes or an hour since everybody's problems on TV are solved in 30 minutes or an hour? And do we always expect them to be resolved?
As I watch the "Cosby Show" I notice that laughter immediately follows every expression, question or quip. Humor is spontaneous but also automatic. Reds are redder, blues are bluer, and the walls seem to be void of shadows. The characters are bright and personable. And in each episode they usually provide a valuable life lesson, often a fresh parental insight. I feel a little smarter and buoyant as the closing credits bounce off the screen.
The TV world is also more often upbeat and cheery, says Kubey, and may encourage us to perceive our daily lives as downers. "There is some concern that the people on television say more interesting things than your wife."
Postman suggests that our ability to carry on conversations has been tainted by TV. Television discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, he says, and presents us with a conversation in images, not words.
"Think of Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter or Billy Graham, or even Albert Einstein, and what will come to your mind is an image, a picture of a face, most likely a face on a televised screen. Of words, almost nothing will come to mind."
However, "People can learn social skills and ways to cope with their everyday existences via television," says Kubey. "One reason that the Mary Tyler Moore program was so popular is because it showed a person in a work and social situation not too dissimilar from our own. We've all known a Ted Baxter.
"Sometimes people express themselves as though they were on TV. They've learned from television how to be a television guest, how to talk in televisionese."
Until Nielsen solicited my views of television, I had never explored such questions and took my TV for granted. Now I consider getting rid of it, although I am reluctant to lose the Global Village awareness and the source of instant information and entertainment.
"People who have made the conscious decision to rid their homes of television," says Taylor, "have gained a higher quality of interpersonal relations because they have to deal with each other. They can't both sit and blankly stare at a screen and ignore each other."
Others, says Kubey, haven't fared so well. "Some became more abusive in the family, drank more, had a shorter temper-fuse around the house. People are more or less addicted to TV because they are gratified by television in so many subtle and small ways."
It is partly that curious subtlety of TV that will keep it, for the time being, on my bookshelf. But as a result of my Nielsen week, I have a more conscious perception of myself as viewer. I am better able to pick and choose and try to determine the value of what I'm watching. And I can avoid the mindless excursions, or even take them if I choose.