I don't know about you, but I always assumed that the TV ratings were based on the viewing habits of people who could easily fit their cerebral cortices inside a standard cold capsule. I based this opinion on such evidence as the extreme popularity of the show "Wheel of Fortune." Every time I tune it in, there's a contestant frowning with intense concentration at a group of letters like "H-A-P-P-Y B-I-R-T-H-D-A-(blank)," then guessing that the missing letter is: "W." Then the lovely Miss Vanna White, displaying the poise and talent that have made her one of the most respected, if not THE most respected, bimbos in the Free World, turns over the blank to reveal -- Oh no! -- a "Y," causing the live studio audience to react with an outpouring of grief of the type normally associated with the loss of a popular family member.

The TV ratings people claim that a large number of their representative sample households watch this show regularly. So I figured that the way they selected these households was by looking for people who meet the following three criteria:

1. They attend tractor pulls.

2. But they show up on the wrong night.

3. But they stay and watch anyway.

Well, I was wrong. It turns out that the ratings people sometimes select highly intelligent and cultured sample families. I know this because the Nielsen TV ratings company recently selected my own personal family, which has always displayed a high degree of intelligence except for the time we deliberately invited an Amway distributor into our home.

When you are a Nielsen family, they send you a little diary for each TV set you own, plus something their letter calls a "token" of their "appreciation" -- two crisp one-dollar bills. "You may wish to use it to brighten the day of a child you know," the letter suggests. They have a heart as big as all outdoors, those Nielsen people.

Every time you watch a TV show, you're supposed to write it down in the diary, and at the end of the week you send the diaries back to the Nielsen people, who send the information to the TV networks, which send the Nielsen company, as tokens of their appreciation, dumpsters full of money. "You may wish to use this money to buy yourselves a fleet of Mercedes-Benzes," suggest the networks.

I found that one of the benefits of being a Nielsen family, besides the $2, was that it gave me a chance to analyze my own personal viewing habits. In keeping the diary, I discovered that I prefer a category of television programming that can best be described as: "A Whole Bunch of Shows at the Same Time." This kind of programming is made possible through the miracle of remote control, which enables you, if you have cable TV and a quick thumb, to watch, in less than one minute: people committing adultery in designer clothing on "Dallas" (THUMB), a televised Christian giving out his toll-free number (THUMB), hilarious beer spokesdog "Spuds" MacKenzie (THUMB), a person on the 24-hour Weather Channel giving -- I swear -- the forecast for the Soviet Union (THUMB), invertebrate journalist Robin Leach whipping himself into a semisexual frenzy at the sight of a rich person's bathroom (THUMB), people committing adultery in designer clothing on "Falcon Crest" (THUMB), Geraldo Ri(THUMB), one of the numerous commercials that leave you with the strong impression that American business executives, who once pretty much ran the world, now spend virtually all their time agonizing over what kind of telephones to buy (THUMB), hilarious beer spokesdog "Spuds" MacKenzie (THUMB), Judge Wapner explaining, gently, to a woman plaintiff that perhaps the reason she looks so unattractive in her daughter's wedding pictures is not so much because her dressmaker was incompetent, but more because she is the size of Reno, Nev. (THUMB), clothing designers on "Knots Landing" committing adultery with hilarious beer spokesdog "Spuds" MacKenzie (THWACK), my wife, who hates it when I do this, rendering me unconscious with a wrench.

Unfortunately there was no way to list all these shows in the teensy spaces provided in the Nielsen diary, so I left most of it blank.

Anyway, having supplied my input to the TV industry, I now have these two dollar bills to spend any way I want. I was going to use them to brighten the day of a child I know, but the kinds of things that brighten his day cost a minimum of $79.95, not counting batteries, at the Toys "R" a Humongous Industry store. So I think I'll buy a beer instead.

"Bartender," I'll say. "Give me a bottle of anything that is not represented by popular spokesdog 'Spuds' MacKenzie." Knight-Ridder Newspapers