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The XX Files

Read it and sweeps


In November many American citizens exercise their most important right. I'm not talking about elections; I'm talking about the one thing we can all agree on: TV. November is sweeps month. That's when TV shows put on the dog and thousands of people --- including my family this year --- are asked by Nielsen, the TV-ratings firm, to keep track of their TV viewing in a journal.

Finally, I'll have a say in something! My voice will be heard! Compared to the depressing exercise of voting for a losing presidential candidate, it's gratifying to think about the power of my family's viewing habits. The whims of our remote control will have an effect not only on the future of the shows we watch, but on the rates charged for the ads and the... Wait a minute...

We don't really watch much TV. During the school week our kids get no screen time (that's parent shorthand for TV, computer, and video games collectively) and my husband and I only watch news, fake news, and the occasional science special. I guess we're not going to have an influence on the future of commercialized entertainment after all. Come to think of it, why would Nielsen even want our paltry data? The average American watches 4 hours of TV a day and sees over 200 million commercials in her lifetime. We don't even rate.

Even before Senator Kerry lost the election, I had an inkling that my family was out of the cultural mainstream. And it's not just our pathetic TV viewing habits. It's our lack of a personal relationship with Christ, inability to furnish our house with anything that matches, and frumpy Swedish cars. This is how out-of-touch I am: I actually thought Kerry would win; I was devastated when all 11 states voted to ban gay marriage; and when voters told exit pollsters they voted based on moral values I thought that meant, "Let's return to the days of helping our poor, waging war only as a last resort, and accepting those who are different from us."

It turns out I don't know the language of the land. "Moral values" means exhibiting a perverse insistence on controlling what other people do with their bodies. "Faith" means drawing a line around our country and treating everyone outside of it as an enemy until proven otherwise. I could go on. Well, actually, I can't. I have so much to learn.

And learn I will. This Nielsen journal is my golden opportunity to get acquainted with America through its greatest cultural ambassador, the television set. Rather than continue with wonky TV choices, I will, like a surgeon on one of those reality beauty shows, makeover my family's television habits and dutifully record them for Nielsen.

This won't just be a nip-and-tuck job --- liposuctioning out, say, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and implanting The Simple Life and The Apprentice to make us more fun at parties. We need nothing short of a drastic makeover, a The Swan-ification of our television intake. The only way to comprehend our country and our leader --- who admits that he hasn't read a newspaper since 2000 --- is to make deep and lasting changes.

Since the average American child gets more than two hours of screen time a day and 50 percent of households have three or more television sets, we've got our work cut out for us. First, we'll surgically hang lightweight screens from our foreheads (set to Fox, natch), and wire our eyes open. Then we'll implant tiny earbuds and pipe in Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter 24/7 via a radio transmitter device attached to our backs (I'll email Karl Rove for tips). During dinner we'll bond in front of the 72-inch projection television, sharing the prime-time values of cynical reality shows and brutal crime dramas with our children.

President Bush won because he understands the things my family will learn from TV. Silly me, I thought gays should have the same rights as the rest of us. But TV teaches us they're just here for our entertainment. That wacky Will & Grace! Those loveable Queer Eye guys! The gays are so funny and fashionable, don't you think?

Bush, like TV, gets it that America loves guns. But not just to defend ourselves. We love them when they're spraying a crowd with bullets or pinging off a cop's car on TV. Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang! Although we love all the cool killing on crime shows, don't look to TV for evidence of the real killing in Iraq. Such a downer!

I can't wait to learn more about why the abortion rate is higher now than it was during the Clinton administration. The pointy-headed so-called experts say it's because of the drop in women's wages during the past four years. Apparently women are less likely to carry a child to term when the economic outlook is so bleak. But I'm hoping TV will provide a more entertaining explanation or, at the very least, a pleasant diversion from these hard truths.

On Election Day I cast my vote for a loser. When I fill out the Nielsen journal with all the new shows my family is going to watch I'll be throwing my lot in with the winners. The don't-worry-be-happy crowd. They --- like our president --- know that TV has all the answers. Or if not, it certainly has all the fun stuff. Whee!

I'm counting on television to close the divide between me and my country. I will be more like Bush. Like America. I will learn what CSI stands for. I will love Raymond.