Adieu, My Arbitron Mistress…

This is the second installment of the continuing saga.

Circa 1988 – Installation Day

The Arbitron unmarked installation van pulls into my driveway.


Clandestine, unmarked Arbitron tech van

Friendly Arbitron technicians descend upon my home. They drill wires into the house from the outside. It’s a CBS house, so it takes a good while to drill through the stucco, wire mesh, cinder blocks, and poured concrete. They don’t build houses like this 1956 beauty any longer.

The local telephone company also arrives and installs a second phone line.

The technicians configure equipment in three separate rooms. There is a box on my main TV, another contraption at the phone jack, and something under my VCR. They slap a sensor on my VCR too. They eventually hand me a new remote that I must use. The equipment remains on all day and night.

Most of the wires connecting the Arbitron equipment, my TV, and the CATV box are secured to discourage removal and tampering. Any reconfiguring a customer might do could be detected by technicians when they return to a home to do repairs, upgrades, or tech support.

There is a box with a modem that uploads data daily to the Arbitron mainframe. My daily viewing habits are tracked on equipment in my house, saved, and captured by Arbitron daily. The techs tell me that they must wire all TVs anywhere in the house. A second television in the bedroom gets the same treatment, but it does not have a VCR.

The large box right under my CATV equipment intrigues me, so I must ask about it.

“What is this thing? How does it work?” I ask one installation technician.

The Arbitron tech says he doesn’t know exactly how it works, but proceeds to brief me to the extent of his knowledge.

“Are you certain you don’t have any other televisions?” Another tech asks.

“Well, there is an old TV in another room, but I never watch it anymore,” I reply.

“We need to hook it up too,” he insists.

“I don’t use it, really,” I explain.

“Well, we need to secure the plug then,” he insists.

“Sure, go ahead,” I gleefully respond.

And though I no longer use the second TV, they insist on configuring it. The installer wraps the cord and secures it to make it difficult, but not impossible for me to plug it in. No worries. I cooperate fully with all requests.

Arbitron, I love you. I will write a thesis paper on this experience. This is so cool.

They work on installation for several hours before they finish. I watch for a while, but the wiring work is pretty standard, and I understand Telco and COAX wiring, it looks pretty basic to me.

The techs wrap their installation, do testing with their home office, and finally run me through a training session on what and what not to do. Then they hand me the remote.

“I have the power!” I think to myself while sporting an evil grin.

“If you have any problems, if you buy a new TV, or if you want to move your devices around, please call us and we will configure everything for you,” the head technician directs me just before his departure.

“No problem, thanks,” I call out as the team heads back to their unmarked van.

I am a willing and cooperative Arbitron meter dude. God, this is great! I thank them again and wave as they back out of my driveway. The clandestine installation is complete.

I always felt the white van should have been black with a batman insignia. Oh sorry, the nerd gained control of the keyboard again.

Prior to installation and during our first meeting, I am instructed by the Arbitron mistress not to tell people I am an Arbitron home. I sign some documents about maintaining silence as I recall. It’s all a secret. I feel clandestine and powerful. Is there a hazing ceremony or something? God this is great.

The techs are gone and I am alone now with my new retro-looking remote control, clunky boxes, and spaghetti wires under and over my TV and VCR. I don’t care, I am in love with it all.

Remote Control

My clunky-retro Arbitron remote

“Every show I select counts for thousands of customers,” I think to myself and an evil laugh escapes me.

The rest of the night, I graze from channel to channel, exercising my power. Every station I land on, even for a moment, I imagine the advertising sales team and corporate executives praising my wise choice, and thanking me for my patronage. The power is intoxicating.

I know that every time I turn on my TV, and even the VCR, Arbitron is tracking my habits. Statistics leverage my actions as I represent thousands of households. For several days, I am very aware of my voting powers, but it wears off eventually. I wonder if they discard the first few days of newly metered homes for this very reason.

Wires and boxes everywhere

But, I never lose my awareness that this is all so cool. So what if my TV, VCR, and living room entertainment area look like a tech bench, I don’t care. I’m a geek anyhow. I used to collect phone wire as a kid and wire stuff together. It’s chic.

I will soon deliver many stories and great lectures in my entertainment business and media courses, which I do for two plus decades thanks to my Arbitron experience.

The years pass and Arbitron comes to love me. I never complain. If the equipment fails, I call immediately for repairs. They do scheduled maintenance, and I fully cooperate with their requests. I ask tons of questions. And I never mess with their equipment. I am a role-model statistics soldier. The Arbitron tech crew is like family to me now.

For several years I serve dutifully as an Arbitron metered-household, a long, long time in the meter world. I learn from my friendly Arbitron Mistress that most households call back within a week or two and ask to have all the spaghetti wire, boxes, and whatnot removed. Most people want nothing more to do with it. In fact she stated, and the technicians confirmed this, most people want it out of their homes because they think the equipment is watching them and sending audio and video back to the home office. Wow.

Wait a second, I better look for a camera just in case. I do watch from the couch in my underwear. Nah. Who cares! Snap away!

At the time of my meter experience, Arbitron and Nielsen are testing “people meters” that detect people when they enter or exit a room, but they do not place that technology in my home. I ask about it. I do volunteer for any of the latest and greatest gear. No luck.

The ratings companies experiment with people meters so folks who turn the TV onto CBS channel 4 for example, and then go out to dinner, or perhaps on vacation,but forget to turn off their set don’t rack up the points for CBS shows unfairly. After all, if no one is watching, it’s not fair that CBS gets to goose their CPM (cost per thousand) advertising rates next reporting cycle.

Being a responsible, role-model Arbitron soldier, I can never do such an irresponsible thing such as leaving the television unattended for an extended length of time. It is a media sin. Well, okay, maybe just once.

Yes, I can now confess I did it one time. My undergraduate Alma mater James Madison University, is playing a televised basketball game. It is rare to see JMU on the local cable networks in South Florida. I am out for the day, so I kinda leave the TV on, you know, to boost their numbers. With great power comes great temptation, and I succumb, once.

The installed meter equipment is bulky, ugly, and very buggy. The repair crew returns many times, replacing boxes, changing wiring, troubleshooting, performing scheduled maintenance, etc. I don’t mind. I am serving my Arbitron mistress faithfully. I never complain, always thank the techs, and engage the staff on the phone politely. I do probe all the Arbitron staff with as many questions as possible. It’s all grist for future lectures.

Eventually, I learn that I am the longest-serving meter house in the area. I don’t remember if the Arbitron mistress meant all of South Florida, or the sample market. But it was pretty cool to know. I outlasted everyone. I wish they gave out medals. I would wear it proudly if they did. I served in the Arbitron Army!

I discover a few secrets by accident. One time, Arbitron sent the telephone company to my home to check on a problem, but the repairman accidentally switches my personal line with the Arbitron modem line, oops. I wasn’t receiving personal calls, and starting at 2am one night the phone starts ringing.  I pick it up and get the modem handshake. Readers older than 30 may remember the screaming modem tone.

Well, Arbitron and I finally figure out the mix up, get it resolved, and the love affair continues. I learn the phone number, and know the download occurs daily at 2am. I feel like one of their technicians pitching in to problem solve during the ordeal. We work together, my Arbitron Mistress and I to overcome all challenges. We are a good couple.

Arbitron even sends me a check monthly for $10. Well, they do that for every metered household. I almost hate cashing the checks. I feel like I should pay them for so much fun and learning.

The Arbitron statute of limitations is long expired, so I can also reveal that the PBS station in Miami owes me at least dinner and drinks at the Mai Kai, my favorite restaurant.

Rum Drink

Mai Kai Rum Barrel drink!

WPBT channel 2 is my favorite fare during my Arbitron years, and I probably bring them great joy as their ratings remained strong during my tenure as an Arbitron soldier. I am not a heavy commercial television consumer, and prefer books, journals, and documentaries. Nerd, that’s right!

I do watch my share of Cheers!. One of the producers on the syndicated show, Phoef Sutton is a fellow JMU alum. I met Phoef in my Scriptwriting class at JMU. He spent a day with our small class. It was my goal to write for that show upon completion of my undergrad, but the sudden death of my mother the last year of college changes those plans. Oh, and Kelsey Grammer went to my old K-12 in Fort Lauderdale. You’re welcome, Cheers! for all my statistical support!

Maybe John Ratzenberger will buy me a beer someday for all my trouble. Actually John, we can meet at the Mai Kai bar for rum barrels.


Where’s my Rum Barrel, John, or shall I say “Cliff?”

I love the whole Arbitron experience and soak it all up. Eventually, I leave South Florida for a full-time teaching job at my undergraduate alma mater, JMU. I dread saying goodbye to my Arbitron friends, and mistress. I hold out to the last-minute, reluctant to surrender the remote and my voting power. But the relationship ends amicably, and we part company.

Bon voyage my sweet Arbitron Mistress!

I occasionally wonder what my Arbitron Mistress is doing these days. I need to search for her. Maybe she is FCC commissioner now, or a CIA director. I still pine for the glory days. My entertainment industry understanding, all the media related courses I subsequently teach, and my college students are all richer thanks to our long-term relationship.

Now, back to 2016 and Nielsen ratings!

To be continued in part 3…

Go and conquer the day!

Oh, and please cancel your cable tier package subscription. Don’t feed the mega corporate media monsters, thank you.

Yours truly,

The Jurassic Media Professor

“Copyright ©  7MAR17 by Steven A. Schwab”