Updated November 20, 2007
I really didn't like TV-Turnoff Week except I did notice
that my grades went up and I was in a good mood all week.
The one function TV news performs very well is that when
there is no news we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there
I find television very educational. Every time somebody turns on the
set, I go into the other room and read a book.
Study: TV-free families have more time, are happy and active TOP
WASHINGTON, DC-- Families who watch little or no TV have more time to talk than most Americans, are overwhelmingly satisfied with their lives, and are active in their communities. These are among the findings of a new study released by Professor Barbara Brock of Eastern Washington University entitled "TV Free Families in America" and featured in Time on October 16, 2000.
Brock surveyed 280 families, including 500 children, who spend less than six hours per week watching TV. Ninety-six percent reported watching less than one hour per week.
Brock's Study is on the Web
In the summer of 2002, Public Agenda conducted a study of more than 1,600 American parents with children between the ages of 5 and 17.The 2003 report is titled What Parents Are Saying about TV Today based on Public Agendas broader research on families published last fall, 2002. The new analysis outlines parents concerns about sex, violence, and profanity on TV and profiles some of the important differences among various groups of parents those with young children vs. those with teens, for example. It chronicles parents sometimes frustrating efforts to regulate their own childrens viewing and suggests why many of them are not as successful in this area as they hope to be.
Parents say that television is an inescapable presence in society today, even as they worry about what their children learn from it. The 10 page report is fascinating. Click here to read it. (If you want to download the file to your computer, just right-click the link and choose "Save Target As...")
The research was sponsored by State Farm Insurance and the Family Friendly Programming.
I've tried to summarize and explain my experiences below. Enjoy.
When I first started telling people that I didnt watch TV, I often heard Then, what do you do with your time?
I wasnt initially expecting that question. I was used to hearing people complain how they were so very busy and had so little time. But then, the national average is 4 hours of TV per day. You may think that is more than you personally watch, but if you logged virtually ALL your TV watching, I think you will be surprised by your TV hours. Dont forget to add Letterman and Leno, the news, award shows and fruitless surfing. A couple ball games or movies on the weekend often makes up for a busy weeknight where you remember not watching anything. Binges bring up your average.
When I quit, I initially found myself with the often sought after abundance of time. I have since learned that the terrifying word boredom has an important function. You MUST actually reach a certain level of boredom before you will motivate yourself to get off your duff and go do something. After a while, you realize you must do SOMETHING! So you do.
That is the problem with TV. It is so accessible, it is so easy to turn it on, it is so easy to avoid that certain level of boredom, that you rarely reach the get off your duff point. TV encourages you to stay on your duff. Have a spare moment? Turn on the TV. Boredom vanishes. You now have something to do.
That keeps you locked in a routine: Do what you are obligated to do (work or school), then watch TV until you are required to return to work or school. TV too easily occupies the free time you say you dont have (4 hours per day on average) and keeps you parked on your duff so that the advertisers can push their products. It occupies your brain with audio and visual images in the name of entertainment so that you dont have to worry about occupying your brain with your own ideas or entertainment. What a deal! All this, and free advertisements, for only $75 per month! (almost $1,000 per year.) Your cost may vary locally. CALL NOW for special prices!
When I quit, I had the time to learn to keep myself from being bored for long. That in itself was a new skill. I got off my duff, expanded my interests and tried new things. Now, Im back to having little free time, even without TV, but Im accomplishing many more interesting things than watching the tube. Im actively shaping my life the way I want it through education and activities. It feels right.
Way up here in the backwoods boonies I sometimes see local kids walking down the street in ghetto clothes. Baggy pants belted just above their knees, tattoos, piercings, you know the look. They walk and talk like a ghetto rapper but they live in a pure white neighborhood hundreds of miles from the nearest ghetto. They feel that they are making a statement. They are. They are stating that they watch lots of TV. The look is not local, its from the tube, nowhere else. Radio might play the music, but it cant show you how to dress and walk.
TV conditioning is not limited to youth. Most people define almost all national, political, sports, historical, and successful figures from TV. Research supports this statement. How did you get your impressions of George Bush, Michael Jordan, Julia Roberts, Desert Storm, Sister Theresa, Donald Trump, the latest news? You MIGHT get your impressions from other sources but you PROBABLY got them from TV, selected by some nameless editor to fit in the allowed time slot.
TV defines reality and normal for us by regularly pumping images (4 hours per day) into our homes regardless of whether the sources of the images actually deserve national exposure or not. If any source can afford to buy airtime, regardless of our local values or interests, they can send their nationally syndicated images, their message, their values, their interests directly into our homes, directly into our eyes, the shortest possible route to our brains. We sit there and let them do it.
We dont really know exactly what is coming or when, but we hold our eyelid doorways open till the wee hours of the night and let them in. If they can put their incidental message into entertainment, well watch, well get the message. So will our kids. All at the expense of the other reality we would have created for ourselves by doing local things instead of watching those 4 TV hours each day.
What if there were no advertisements allowed on TV. How many shows would be canceled? How could they survive? How would anyone get paid?
TV has essentially one objective; to keep your attention long enough to show you a commercial. Whatever it takes to get market share will be done, MUST be done, or the advertisers take their operating revenue elsewhere. If it takes fantasy, sex, violence, music, shock, cartoons, comedy, controversy, deviate behavior, gross images, or sports theyll do it. It makes no difference what the content is. What makes virtually all the difference is what the market share is.
Whatever people will watch, regardless of the morals, is what MUST be broadcast. You might think that people just wont watch offensive shows, they, the broadcasters, should just take them off the air. But get real, obviously people watch those shows otherwise the shows would already be off the air. Whatever gets you to watch, even if you are watching only because you are shocked or outraged, is good TV to an advertiser. Whatever still sells products is what is still on TV today.
How can a new movie break attendance records (synonym for dollars spent) the first week it is in the theaters? Does the first viewers experience travel THAT fast? Nationwide in only a few days so that all time records can be broken by the first weekend? Wow, whatever network works that well should be used for education. Just think how smart we could all be if we could circulate educational information that fast.
What REALLY drove the movie attendance record? It was the hype from TV (and the action figures from McDonalds). You dont have to see the movie to know that it is good. You dont have to know anyone who has recommended the movie. TV already told you it was great, way better than average, and that you NEED to see it the first week it appears. Never mind that it will be available on VHS and DVD for the rest of your life. Never mind that NO ONE you know has actually seen the movie yet. TV said that it is way better than average so it probably is. Lets go!
Hype is what TV sells best. Whether it is for cars, beer, Coke, feminine hygiene products, or antidepressants, TV will be sure to let you know what is the latest and greatest. To insure that you see the commercials, they will even hype the programs that bring you the commercials, like TV special programs award shows and the ultimate hype opportunity: sports championships.
My lack of TV has caused me to lose interest in professional sports. I still like sports, but I cant bring myself to be loyal to a team from Chicago or Detroit or wherever when the team players arent from the city they play for. Increasingly, pro players come from anywhere in the world and jump from team to team. To say Chicago is playing Detroit is mere stadium geography, not competition between city teams. It is just as accurate to say that team 12 is playing team 7. Chicago gets to cheer for team 7 because that is the team they bought (with tax dollars for the new stadium).
High school teams are still local. What if high school teams were like professional teams? What if my local Marquette high school team was going to play our long time rivals from Negaunee. To ensure the highest level of competition between the two schools, Marquette contracts with downstate Lansing to bring up 5 of their best players to play for Marquette. The local Marquette players sit on the bench and watch. They will not get to play. Actually, they might as well sit in the stands with the rest of the audience, with the parents and neighbors who regularly come to the games to show support for the local team.
Negaunee hears that Marquette is getting players from Lansing so they recruit a few players from California and a few more from Texas. There are a few positions still open at the last minute so Negaunee promises a college scholarship to the best Marquette players to suit up for Negaunee instead. They accept. So Marquette makes some calls and fills their void with players from Japan.
The game starts. Is Marquette REALLY playing Negaunee? Do we really care who wins this game? Does it really matter? Are we suppose to riot after we win, riot after we lose, or both? I forget. Werent those championship game commercials great!
That is how I feel about pro sports and most televised college sports mostly hype. If our best Chicago player signs up to play with Detroit, is he still one of us, like a neighbor kid, or is he now one of them? Are we cheering for the players or are the players just tools for ego dividends on our stadium investment. What is gained by winning the game? The value of the game has been converted to something TV can handle, market value ($50-$75 per pro game seat, plus pay-per-view, plus merchandising), and we all get the privilege to pay to play. Ill stick with the local high school games and neighborhood players, at least until the schools and other amateur sports get smarter about recruiting. Then Ill stop watching.
By living without TV I think Im better able now to view the hype packages more objectively, more critically, better able to separate hyperbole (exaggeration and overstatement, the source of the word hype) from reality.
Actually, there are more alternatives to TV today than ever before. Libraries are bigger. Bookstores are mammoth. Radio offers an alternative. But by far the best alternative is the Internet. You can order nearly any informational resources, watch video, listen to radio from around the world, log in to government documents, search compiled laws, read newspapers, alternative news, mainstream news, magazines, locate research, surf private sites and sites of almost any organization you can think of. The possibilities are endless. You can chat with like minds or argue with people who are out of their minds. Every perspective is available with just a click or two. In most cases, when you find an interesting site it links to other related sites. You can keep going until there is nothing more to know. It's fast. It's easy. And it is essentially free (thus far). There are consequences to the Internet too, but I'll save that for another paper.
Surprisingly yes, a very few things, within limits, but Im not sure the value justifies having a TV in your house. Its kind of like a credit card, it can be useful within limits, but woe are those who cant control it. TV is harder to control than a credit card. It seems so innocent, just sitting there flashing entertainment at you when you are tired and want a break from reality.
What TV can offer that is valuable is documentaries and raw news images of important events. Most educational programs are in the form of documentaries. Educational TV is an extended series of documentaries. But both documentaries and news have to be viewed with the full realization of TVs inherent limitations described in Four Arguments. Below I consider the obvious challenges. Read Four Arguments for the less obvious.
Over the years many brilliant and dedicated people have spent months if not years creating excellent documentaries. Millions and millions of dollars were spent. In most cases, the documentaries were broadcast once or twice, then they disappeared. Consider how many documentaries have been created since TV became popular in the 1950s. It has to be thousands, maybe tens of thousands over that 50 year period. Where are they all? They are not at Blockbuster, I checked.
Yes, TV documentaries have value, they can offer images, interviews and actions recorded with the intent of helping people understand things better. They often achieve that purpose, often at great expense to either an individual or an organization, but then they disappear. It is as though TV just uses them up! They are gone.
So, is keeping the TV justifiable for watching these once in a lifetime documentaries? Well, no. You can still watch the occasional documentary without having commercial TV in your house. The BEST solution is to have someone tape it for you (before it disappears forever) or if you are feeling guilty about copyright, buy an official copy (if you can find it for sale good luck). Then you can watch it on YOUR schedule, as often as you like, pause, rewind or fast forward as necessary.
You might even share the tape with someone else or offer it as an educational opportunity to another generation. We are talking real value here, without the danger of having a commercial TV in your house. All you need is a VCR setup.
I called it a TV documentary, but it is really just a documentary, the TV descriptor is optional.
But then, there ARE alternatives to even the documentary. A documentary is not the end of information seeking, it is not all the answers, it is merely the beginning, or maybe a mid step. There will be other perspectives to explore and those will come in other forms of media or conversation. Documentaries dont replace the others, they are merely one of many alternatives. They are nice but not necessary.
Here is where we start to get very gray. Documentaries are created to achieve a specific purpose, to discuss a topic that was important to someone, and hopefully to you. A series, like educational TV, suggests a valuable continuum of educational documentaries but in reality this idealism is short lived. The value of the series decreases over time.
The important topics that prompted the series in the first place (a popular genre of documentary that suggested high viewership for advertisers or fundraisers) soon covers what is truly important, then struggles to fill its regular time slot.
In other words, an educational program on Lincoln would be interesting at first, but 50 weeks of Lincoln would be just too much. The series could be expanded to The Presidents but then much is already available and not ALL the presidents were so interesting. So the series could be expanded to include The Presidents Scandals, then The Scandals in the Presidents Extended Family, and finally What the Presidents knew about Scandals in Other Peoples Families. Pretty soon it is more junk than education.
If the producers cant think of a grabber to keep viewers hooked on the educational series, if they cant compete with the non-educational fantasy entertainment TV, market share falls and funds might be better invested elsewhere.
What is better than an educational TV series? Answer: Make every documentary that would have been on the TV series available (without the commercials) on VHS or DVD for private viewing when the need arises. But, as Ive said before, good luck finding them.
Every educational program should be in Blockbuster for the next 20 years, available for rent at any time for $2.50. With only very minor exceptions, they arent. Movie producers have figured out that they can keep making money on movie rentals long after the theater release. Why havent TV documentary producers figured it out? If the documentary producers were noble and generous enough to produce these things in the first place you would think they would be noble and generous enough to keep them available. I mean, they made these educational programs for our benefit, right? Or was it for the benefit of the sponsors and producers?
If documentaries were available at Blockbuster, would producers have to keep producing them over and over again, same topic with a different box cover? (Answer: Only if they can improve what already exists.) Hmmm, I wonder if there is a hidden explanation here?
This is probably the most difficult challenge to discuss. TV news, the fast breaking up to the minute report of what is happening as it happens, without time for in-depth analysis, is both important and risky.
Once again, TV news suffers form TVs inherent limitations as described in Four Arguments. These limitations actually define what TV calls news. Beyond that, TV is unequaled in bringing you close to the action as it happens. The only thing better is being there yourself.
The challenge is decoding the information TV news offers.
Is the news station conservative or liberal? The answer influences what is offered for viewing and how it is presented. This is normal bias, but you must be aware of it. Some bias messages are sent by choosing what to broadcast. Some bias messages are sent by choosing what NOT to broadcast! Bias is not just what you see but also what you dont get to see.
Do an experiment, go to a celebration with a video camera. Observe what is happening when the camera is off, then turn the camera on and try to notice if other peoples behavior changes.
In most cases, specifically in the cases we would call news, people who were maybe just milling around with the camera off start performing for the camera when it is on. Angry or attention seeking people in the news get more visual, more animated and vocal when they know the camera is pointed at them. The chants get louder. The emotions run higher. The news gets more extreme when the camera is recording. The event becomes more interesting than it would have been if the camera is recording. The editor has to fit the story in a 30 second slot. The most extreme footage is broadcast, the less extreme footage is edited out. The producers are happy because the news is exciting.
What the viewers at home see is the camera inspired version of what was going on. Not necessarily what was REALLY going on before the camera arrived. So, in many cases the news camera created its own version of the news. So was it the truth? Good question.
There was a springtime storm in Chicago. The news reported that the DesPlaines River was flooding. It showed handheld and helicopter images of homes with water flowing in the doors and windows, cars half submerged, people floating in boats and looking stranded in an upstairs window. Tears were rolling down the cheeks of a woman who explained how she lost everything. The water ruined everything.
My daughter Liana went to school the next day. The teacher was discussing the flood. The class watched more TV news flood reports. The students participated in activities of compassion for the flood victims. They wrote letters and started rounding up canned goods, bottles of water and other necessities.
That evening, I offered to take Liana to the flood site. She didnt want to go. Her anxiety was understandable. After all, it was a disaster scene. Houses were flooded. Barricades blocked off the streets. People were warned to stay away. We went anyway.
We parked at the barricades and walked. Within a few minutes we were there. Instead of overwhelming disaster, we saw that the flood was confined to about two and a half city blocks. Only a small portion of one block was under fairly deep water. It was justification for a call to the insurance company, but not the red cross. Humanitarian relief wasnt any more distant than the 7-11 store about 2 blocks away. Were some people strongly impacted by the flood? Yes. Was the degree of disaster consistent with what was reported on the news? No.
Had the news camera panned a few more degrees to the left, viewers would have seen dry ground. Anything grassy was edited out of the helicopter shot. When youve only got 30 seconds to tell the story, you use the best footage and stories youve got. Did the news deliberately lie? No. The story just got distorted because of TVs inherent limitations. It had to show water everywhere, even rolling down the cheeks of a resident. That is what floods should look like. That is what the viewers expected to see. So that is what was shown.
The news is on at a regular time every day for, lets say 30 minutes. If there is lots of news it must all be squeezed into 30 minutes. If there isnt much news that day, what little there is must be stretched to fill 30 minutes. It is as simple as that.
So, in many cases and in many ways the news camera creates its own version of the news. So was it the real truth? Good question. Is news justification for keeping a TV in your house? I still think that argument is weak.
If the news is really important it will be available from many other sources. If it isnt important enough to be widely available, is it really news worthy of your attention? Do we watch the news because there is news to watch or because we want to know if there is news to watch? I suggest only watching the news if there is news to watch, then be cautious about what you see or dont see on the tube and compare other sources.
Radio is often on the scene too, right next to the TV camera. It is easy to listen to news happen on the radio (while you are busy doing something else) then catch the images in print later. If you are REALLY curious and impatient, watch the TV news at a friends house. Just dont make a habit of it. Youll quickly run out of friends. Theyll justifiably tell you to go buy your own damn TV service.
Dont. The nightly news is not worth the extra baggage that comes with TV. Use the alternatives.
The books below can often be found in your local library.
This is the book that got me started. It was the first to get me to question TV and the catalyst for MANY conversations. While slightly dated (it came out in 1978 before cable and VCRs) the technical information about the medium's inherent limitations and the science behind spending 4 hours a day staring at a box of light is still as valid today as it was then. The medium, the message, and your brain reacts today the same as it did in 1978.
This book is STILL available and STILL awesome. Just read the reviews on Amazon (click the title above).
I bumped into this book only recently at my local library and just finished reading it last month. I bought it immediately (used, because it is out of print) and added it to my collection. It is an invaluable recognized authority on how television affects people, especially kids. The research (6,000 people) cannot be duplicated today because of the omnipresence of TV, but the conclusions, the explanations, are still extremely valid.
No matter how old this book gets (published in 1960), the information in it is current. The reason is that it deals with how people, especially kids INTERACT with TV. That is constant, regardless of what the TV current programs are. If you wonder if TV kids are more prone to violence, lazier, read less, stay up later, or have a worse attitude, this gives the detailed answers. It clearly explains that the real question is not what does TV do to kids, the real question is how do different kids react to TV. Thanks Mr. Schramm for answering that question.
This is the first modern (2007) book I've found that describes today's issues and experiences of controlling TV watching. This is a very readable book.
People seem to easily relate to the mom's experiences of trying to raise a young child well without TV and also relate to her true life interactions with relatives and friends. The challenges described here are real and makes you think about how the TV has dominated and influenced today's culture.