News: The Great Television Turnoff

Next week is a chance to break TV's power

Apr 16, 2003 at 2:06 pm

Ben Jacks and his wife Peggy Shaffer used to have a television set, a small black and white model. That was 13 years ago.

"When it died, we just gave it up entirely," Jacks says.

The absence of TV distinguishes Jacks, Shaffer and their two children as a rarity in the United States. Watching TV is Americans' third most time-consuming activity, behind working and sleeping.

The average American watches four hours, 36 minutes of TV a day, according to 2002 numbers from Nielsen Media Research.

Any activity occupying that much time is bound to have consequences. Research shows a steady increase in TV viewing is a primary reason for the national decline in civic participation. TV viewing sometimes mimics drug addiction and encourages obesity and diabetes.

Next week — April 21-27 — many people will at least temporarily break free of the lure of our new national pastime, participating in TV Turnoff Week.

Why we're fat, sick and lazy
TV brought the invasion of Iraq into our living rooms. It gives us unprecedented access to news, sports, weather and other cultures. It's a window to the world.

TV also serves charitable purposes. In 2001 local broadcasters provided more than $9.9 billion worth of free airtime and other support for public service announcements and fund-raisers, according to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).

That generosity isn't optional, of course. In return for the use of airwaves, Congress requires broadcasters to provide public service and educational programming. But the arrangement is highly profitable. In exchange, American TV and radio broadcasters reaped more than $72 billion in advertising dollars in 2001, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising, a non-profit broadcast industry trade group.

Detractors argue that the benefits of TV are more than compromised by its steady stream of commercialism and empty entertainment, which is increasingly directed at young children.

Further, TV news often only provides incomplete, out-of-context reporting. TV nurtures physical and mental passivity, and its commercial messages often push things we don't need.

We see a lot of TV commercials for unhealthy snack foods but not so many for broccoli, according to Frank Vespe, executive director of the TV Turnoff Network, a Washington, D.C.-based interest group.

Not surprisingly, then, some studies have linked excessive TV viewing to obesity. Women who watch more than 40 hours a week of TV are twice as likely to become obese and develop diabetes as women who watch one hour per week or less, according to a study in the April 9 edition of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

"Given the strong relationship observed between sedentary lifestyle and obesity and diabetes risk, public health campaigns to reduce obesity and diabetes should not only promote increasing exercise levels, but also decreasing sedentary behaviors, especially prolonged TV watching," the study says.

The average household has a TV on for eight hours and seven minutes each day.

That's too much for children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

"The academy recommends no more than two hours of quality screen time," says Miriam Bar-on, vice-chair of the APP's education committee and a professor of pediatrics at Loyola University's Stritch School of Medicine.

"Screen time" includes TV, computer and video games, Bar-on says.

If that kind of limit sounds tough, it's because TV use mimics certain aspects of chemical dependence, according to Robert Kubey, director of Rutgers University's Center for Media Studies, and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In "Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor," an article in the February 2002 issue of Scientific American, they compare TV use to drug abuse.

Unlike listening to a radio or reading, TV exploits an innate human attraction to sudden movement in order to hold our attention, Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi wrote. Humans are predisposed to watch nearby moving objects, and the flashing images on TV trigger that response.

The attention given a TV set is attention taken away from other activities. TV is mostly to blame for the 25 percent decline in voting in national elections since the 1960s, according to Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Harvard University Professor Robert D. Putnam. He also blames TV for a decline of 25 to 50 percent in participation in civic clubs, unions and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

Even the NAB admits that aimless channel surfing is not a good idea.

"People need to think of television programs as investments of their time," according to the NAB's "TV Viewing & Kids."

A new kind of screen art
TV is no longer a household-only device. Restaurants, airlines, minivans and even schools have TV sets. Eight million school children across the country watch 12 minutes of Channel One each day. The network offers free video equipment in exchange for captive audiences for its news and entertainment programming, which includes two minutes of commercials.

Some Cincinnatians — such as Jacks, an architecture professor at Miami University, and his wife, Shaffer, director of the American Studies Program at Miami — are fed up with TV entirely.

Jacks keeps up with news through National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corporation. The couple's children — a 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son — sometimes watch films at relatives' homes.

Instead of watching TV at home, the family cooks and eats meals together. Their daughter builds forts from blankets and chairs. She also draws a lot. The nights end with baths and stories, according to Jacks.

"There's never a shortage of entertainment," he says.

Surprisingly, he doesn't think much of events such as TV Turnoff Week.

"It's not something I particularly want to carry as a political agenda," he says.

Parents shouldn't need a promotional week to realize TV isn't in their children's best interests, Jacks says.

Lyn Barton, a teacher at the Cincinnati Waldorf School in Winton Place, is organizing alternatives to TV. Her 11-year-old daughter has never watched TV.

"What TV does is separate you from the real world in many senses," Barton says.

The Cinergy Children's Museum at the Cincinnati Museum Center is helping kids create artwork to cover TV screens.

"There's just a mountain of evidence that makes clear our TV habit ... really has negative impacts for our families, our education, our health and just a variety of things," Vespe says.

For more information, visit the TV Turnoff Network at, the National Association of Broadcasters at, the Adbusters Media Foundation at and White Dot — an international campaign against TV — at