Television is accused of many things, from corrupting our morals and co-opting our republic to undermining our families and making pudges of our children. For all sorts of reasons, TV routinely gets kicked around plenty. And now’s a great time to kick it altogether — at least, for a week.
That’s the idea behind TV-Turnoff Week, which for the 11th year is inviting everyone to “Turn off TV, turn on life.” From Monday (April 25) through May 1, you can join as many as eight million other viewers in pulling the plug on TV, the Internet and video games.
“We want to encourage people, especially parents of young children, to control and limit screen time in the home,” says Frank Vespe, executive director of the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based TV-Turnoff Network.
Raw numbers suggest a little encouragement is needed.
A Kaiser Family Foundation survey released in March found third-graders through 12th-graders devoted, on average, nearly six and a half hours per day to TV and videos, music, video games and computers.
Not only does TV-Turnoff Network’s Web site explain how to participate in a group turnoff, it also offers for download a brochure called “Turn It Off! Real Tips from Real Parents to Limit TV,” which looks beyond a week’s abstinence: Applying limits for TV use, such as no TV before school or at mealtime. (Half the 2,000 kids in the Kaiser survey said their families had no rules for TV viewing.)
“As parents stop making TV a focal point of the home, they find the kids become active in a lot of other things,” Vespe says.
TV as culture's default modeTaking no position on what’s “good” and “bad” programming, TV-Turnoff Network holds that excessive screen time, whatever the content, displaces healthier activities such as play and exercise, while much TV advertising promotes an excessive and unhealthy diet. (And not just in the United States: This year activists in at least 10 other countries — including Brazil, Great Britain, Japan, Italy and Mexico — are promoting TV-Turnoff events, Vespe says.)
Vespe’s organization argues against TV as the culture’s default mode, challenging the ever-more-entrenched assumption that illuminated screens should always be within sight.
With that in mind, TV-Turnoff Network fights two different battles: In the home, where TV, whatever the dosage, is self-administered; and in the rest of the world, where TV is a forced-fed intravenous drip.
In public spaces — whether stores or schools, arenas or elevators, airline seatbacks or downtown sidewalks — TV has staked its claim as an electronic overlay, mediating and often competing with the real life that accompanies it.
Declares Vespe: “As much as people like TV, I think you can find lots of them who would say, ‘I don’t like TV all the time, everywhere.’ But almost all the cues in society are encouraging us to spend more time with the screens, and encouraging us to think that watching TV is a consequence-free activity.
“How hard is it to say to your child that TV is not appropriate all the time,” he adds, “when everywhere the child goes, there are TVs?”
For anyone troubled by television’s growing presence, the issue is one of control — or lack of it.
Little wonder, then, that a device called TV-B-Gone got a hearty welcome when it hit the market last October. The size of a keychain fob, TV-B-Gone is a $15 counterweapon that works like a universal remote control, turning off any TV within its 20-to-50-foot range.
“TV is appearing more and more in public space, and we’re being marketed to in so many ways everywhere we go,” marvels Mitch Altman, the San Francisco-based inventor of the gadget. “TV-B-Gone gives people a little bit of control, or a sense of control, over that.”
No, it can’t dispatch a panoramic video display pulsating over Times Square. But it can quickly extinguish any TV in a bar or airport waiting area.
“Just point and press,” the package says. “The power is in your hands.”
And without anyone being the wiser that it’s you.
Altman, a 48-year-old former TV addict who hasn’t owned a TV since 1980, says he has sold 40,000 units, primarily through his Web site, despite an advertising budget of zero. The product seems to tickle the fancy of those who learn about it (including the media, which have given it lots of publicity). If the greatest corrective for TV is the “off” switch, here is an “off” switch that could change the world.
TV-B-Gone “makes it fun to turn off the TV,” says Altman. “And in so doing, it gets people talking about turning off TV.”
In fact, he plans to talk about it himself at several Bay Area classrooms during TV-Turnoff Week, an eye-opening initiative whose message his product validates: With your television off, you can see TV more clearly for what it is.