Column: Drugs and TV-viewing habits

So, we know who the Nielsen Ratings people are, right? They bring little boxes to a lucky few of us, set them on top of our TVs and code what we watch. Through a very high-tech system, they can track who watches what and when. If little 8-year-old Jimmy watches Recess every morning at 7:30 while he eats cereal, then General Mills, Kellogg’s and every other company with a sugary cereal to market had better start running commercials weekdays at 7 a.m.

In its latest attempt to guess how we live, AC Nielsen Corp. announced at the end of May that it would begin tracking what drugs we buy and why we buy them. That seems just a tad like an invasion of privacy, if you ask me.

With the FBI restructuring itself to watch when we eat, sleep, breath and pray, Nielsen has bad timing. I don’t want some pencil pusher figuring out that every May I suffer from allergies. (Sneezing, watery eyes, you know the drill). Because, while I’m trying to watch the season finale of Friends, every five minutes I’ll be subjected to a Tylenol Sinus ad that tries vainly to convince me that only its medication will alleviate my symptoms.

According to, the aim of the new tracking system is “to help the pharmaceutical industry more effectively address America’s growing health care needs.” Right, this is all for our benefit.

And even worse than knowing my Advil-buying habits (Yes, my medicine cabinet is always full.) the Nielsen system will also track people’s use of prescription drugs. The system will be able to track ailments, remedies purchased and remedies used, according to the Nielsen Web site.

In all fairness, I’m sure the questions regarding drug use will be optional on the Nielsen questionnaire, and if someone is stupid enough to answer them, they deserve to be inundated with commercials about runny noses, headaches or nausea. But the rest of us don’t, and we will all pay for the way they fill out those surveys.

And chances are the TV-viewing public will see no change. The Nielsen ratings still hold some sway in Hollywood and are very reliable when tracking who watches what the most. But the system has proved inconsistent when tracking different people watching shows in the same household. Advertisers rely on this kind of information to determine the best time to run their ads, but the system relies heavily on conscientious participants.

Many times the chosen families are required to diligently keep track of who in the family is watching TV, what they’re watching and when they watch it. Everyone has a different code, and most faithfully log in and out when they are watching TV.

The new Nielsen system to track over-the-counter and prescription-drug use among people will probably do nothing, but the fact that they have the ability and the right to track something so private bothers me.

Again, if the questions are optional, no one is technically in the wrong, but whatever happened to the days when businesses determined how well their products were selling by how much was actually sold? I guess in today’s technology-driven world, the easy answers aren’t good enough.

And our privacy suffers for it.