A decade ago, Edward and Susan Madrid of Aguanga,
Calif., plopped down in front of the television set almost every night
to watch three hours of shows. But as their young children grew older,
the Madrids found the choice of acceptable programs dwindling for a
family committed to Christian values. The family watched only three
shows a week, but even then the commercials exposed the children to
the box: Teachers sponsor a project in which pupils receive colored
strips of paper for every book read to cover up a TV set.
"There was nothing on anymore that was edifying,"
says Susan Madrid, 37. "Everything was either stupid or putting
down the family, marriage or God."
In 1997, the Madrids, including their three girls
then ages 11, 7 and 2 accepted the challenge of TV-Turnoff
Week to give up watching for a week. Next week, the Washington, D.C.,
group is sponsoring its eighth annual turn off the set week, urging
Americans to participate in screen-free alternative activities such
as writing letters, taking walks, listening to music, tackling household
repairs or, perhaps most importantly, talking to other people.
More than 70 national organizations are endorsing
the organizations TV-Turnoff Week, April 22-28. Since 1995, more
than 24 million people have participated through schools, clubs and
churches. In conjunction with the event, dozens of elementary school
teachers are involved in a monthlong "More Reading, Less TV"
challenge to spur pupils to put down the remote control and pick up
books outside the classroom. At the end of four weeks, students celebrate
their achievements with an ice cream party or some other fun activity.
"Rather than saying the junk on television
is a problem that Congress or broadcasters can solve, we put the focus
on individuals to get control of their lives," says Frank Vespe,
35, executive director of the TV-Turnoff Network.
No other habit undermines school performance the
way excessive television watching does, Vespe says. He notes that multiple
studies have indicted frequent tube gazing as a contributing factor
to lower academic achievement, violent behavior and growing obesity
in children. "Kids need to read, exercise and spend time with other
people," Vespe says. "They need to experience real life."
Robert J. Thompson, Syracuse University communications
professor at the Center for the Study of Popular Television, says examining
something that has become a natural habit is in order. "Its
a good thing now and then to pay attention to anything that is part
of our daily life so intimately and so invisibly," says Thompson,
42. "Trying to turn it off for a week lets you know what role television
really plays in your life."
Nearly 99 percent of the U.S. population own TV
sets. Studies indicate that children spend an average of three hours
a day in front of the tube; for adults the daily average is four hours.
"I find people all the time who have turned
off their TV sets and discovered they have children or a spouse in the
house," says L. Brent Bozell, president of the Los Angeles-based
Parents Television Council, which urges the TV industry to adopt more
family-friendly entertainment. "A whole new life emerges as a result."
Television programming increasingly promotes "cultural
sewage," according to Bozell, 46. "Every time I think the
networks have gone as far as they can go, a new taboo falls," Bozell
says. He cites January episodes of Foxs Boston Public dealing
with pedophilia and child pornography.
A PTC study released in January showed that cable
shows on networks such as MTV and Comedy Central had a significantly
higher rate of foul language and violence than series on broadcast networks.
Thompson concedes that swearing, violence and sexual
situations are as prevalent as ever, largely because the traditional
networks are trying to compete with racier cable shows such as The Sopranos
and Sex and the City. He says more selective viewing is whats
required. Thompson argues that now there simultaneously are some of
the best and worst programming in television history.
"I can turn on my digital cable box and go
from the sacred to the profane, from the educational to the insipid,
from the entertaining to the stupid in the flick of a dial," Thompson
says. "There is a lot of wonderful programming that brings the
world to us as never before. Without television, you miss out on part
of being a citizen."
Bozell is disturbed by NBCs "deplorable
decision" in January to abandon family-oriented programming because
traditional families "dont have the upscale demos" required
to make programming profitable. "That is a worldview that says
the family audience is boorish and dull," Bozell says. "What
the network is saying is, We want hip 17-year-olds who dont
have any morals. "
A majority of American children 54 percent
have a TV set in their bedroom. For children older than 7, Vespe
says 95 percent of television watching is done alone and unsupervised.
"If children are alone with the door closed parents dont
know what theyre watching," Vespe says. "Allowing a
set in a childs bedroom is essentially inviting a stranger into
Vespe says he isnt on a crusade to do away
with television. "However, rather than being the default setting
for what we do with our free time, it should just be one of many choices,"
Both Bozell and Thompson say ditching television
completely would be a mistake. "What happens when an important
news story or a nice movie is on?" Bozell asks. "Every once
in a while deep in the bowels of television land there is good entertainment."
TV-Turnoff leader Vespe disagrees. "Folks who
are TV-free are most often happy about their decision and they
dont feel like theyre missing out," Vespe says. "The
idea that folks who dont watch TV are somehow out of the loop
just doesnt fly."
The Madrids likewise say life without television
can be fulfilling. They found a week without television so refreshing
they quit watching permanently. Now they play games, read together and
have friends over to their home.
Susan Madrid, upon seeing commercials in February
for the first time in five years when a friend invited the family over
to watch the Super Bowl, realized they had made the right decision.
"They all seemed so tactless and tasteless," she says. "Not
being exposed to television has kept us more pure and focused on things
that have more value."