By Donella Meadows
–April 17, 1997–
I can just see, ten or twenty years from now, a series of lawsuits that finally force executives of a few immensely profitable companies to admit that their product is addictive. They have always known that their business damages people and society. They manipulate its content to make it even more habit-forming and destructive. And they aim it at kids.
No, not tobacco executives. TV executives.
Television is so much a part of our lives that we rarely step back and reflect on what it does to us. A new organization called TV-Free America offers us an annual opportunity to do that. Inspired by the Smoke-Out Days that give cigarette addicts a boost toward kicking their habit, TV-Free America holds a National TV-Turnoff week every April. This year it runs from April 24 through April 30.
If you wonder why on earth you should give up a week of “Oprah,” “Seinfeld” and the news, TV-Free America’s spring newsletter is full of cartoons, essays, and letters to give pause to the most devoted tube-head.
There’s an ad from the American Heart Association showing a road sign with an icon of a kid slumped in front of a TV. “Caution: Children Not at Play,” it says. “Once, children spent their time running and playing. Today they’re more likely to be found in front of the TV. And that could mean trouble. Because lack of exercise can lead to weight problems and high blood cholesterol. This April 24-30 celebrate National TV-Turnoff Week by becoming more active with your kids.”
A Calvin and Hobbes cartoon shows the TV set jumping and blaring while Calvin’s father sits and watches. “Next on Eyewitness Action News! Blood-spattered sidewalks and shroud-covered bodies!” yells the TV. “Could the next victim be YOU? We’ll get the story from the living rooms of sobbing, hysterical relatives, and we’ll tell why YOU should be paralyzed with helpless fear!” In the last panel the TV is off, and Calvin’s father is peacefully reading the paper.
A letter from a cross-country truck driver: “I grew up on a farm, and we never had a TV. I raised my son without a lot of TV. We played games, cards, read books, went roller skating, biking, or worked in the garden. Hello, America: there is life without television. There are SO many other things to do.”
And all the way from Tasmania (TV penetrates everywhere, and so, slowly, does resistance to TV): “As a bit of a TV addict, … I have actually spent the last two weeks TV-free, and have been surprised at how well I survived. Indeed, I quite like life this way.”
A New York Times column by Adam Hochschild bemoans the presence of TV in airports and airplanes. Schools. Gas stations and shopping mall food courts. Even subway platforms. On full time, mounted high, you can’t even turn down the volume. Says Hochschild: “Who is being served here? Travelers haven’t asked for the TVs. The sets are there because there’s big money to be made from the commercials they show.” And he quotes an NBC executive: “Our mission is to sell eyeballs to advertisers.”
If your eyeballs have been captured, consider what they are conveying to your mind. TV-Free America’s newsletter reprints a column by John Krull, a reporter for the Indianapolis Star and News, describing his experience on the best TV available, public television. He was, for awhile, a weekly panelist commenting on state news. Once the moderator threw a question to him, a question with deep ramifications, and he took a few seconds to think through his answer. The moderator began to squirm and signaled him to start talking. He blurted out “something stupid and inconsequential.”
During the next commercial break, the moderator leaned over to him and said, “You’ve got to move faster. Don’t think; just talk. TV goes much better that way.”
Exactly. Don’t think; just talk. Don’t think; just watch. Says Krull, “Most of us need a little time and distance before we really know what we think or feel about an event. TV pushes us to react immediately, to go merely with our surface responses.”
William J. Bennett, speaking at the National Press Club, said. “The two statistics I am trying to get together are the one that says the average American adult has very little time to spend with his family … [and the one] that tells us the average American adult watches 21 hours of television a week. Now it seems to me that if it’s as easy as that, we can just … turn off the TV .. and check the homework or something.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics is supporting TV-Turnoff Week. The American Medical Association sent out TV-Turnoff posters to 20,000 school principals. Twenty-four state governors have endorsed the idea. Thousands of schools will participate.
We all know that TV is full of violence and sexual innuendo. It’s insultingly mindless. It keeps our bodies motionless for hours at a time. It brainwashes us with desire for products we would otherwise never need. It portrays a distorted world, where people are far more shallow, vengeful, materialistic, and untrustworthy than the people around us really are. It teaches our children terrible lessons about how they should look and behave. It eats up our time and lives.
So why put up with it? Swear off the plug-in drug for a week — any week. Make your own music, play your own ball games, find the humor in your own sitcom, meet your family and neighbors. Read the news, read a book, read to your kids. Remove yourself from the manipulation of those who believe in talking, not thinking, and who think your eyeballs and your mind are for sale. Enjoy a week of your own life. Or longer.
If you’d like to support TV-Free America, the address is 1611 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 3A, Washington DC 20009. The phone number is 202-887-0436.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997