By Donella Meadows
–April 18, 1996–
The average American spends more than 4 hours a day watching television.
Four hours a day, 28 hours a week, 1456 hours a year. That’s 60 days — two months! If you keep it up for a 72-year lifetime, you will spend twelve years in front of the tube. Assuming 8 hours of sleep a night, that’s one-fourth of your waking life.
I pass on that statistic in honor of National TV-Turnoff Week, which starts April 24 and goes through April 30. Here are some more television-related numbers to ponder, most of them compiled by TV-Free America, the organizer of Turnoff Week.
Percent of American households that possess at least one television set: 99.
Number of TV sets in the average U.S. household: 2.24.
Hours per day that the TV is on in an average U.S. home: 6 hours and 47 minutes.
Percent of Americans who regularly watch TV while eating dinner: 66.
Total hours of TV watched annually by Americans: 250 billion.
Value of that time at $5 per hour: $1.25 trillion. (In five years it would pay off the national debt.)
Percent of American households that pay a monthly fee for cable TV: 56. (That doesn’t include me; I live in too rural an area for cable, and every time I contemplate one of those satellite dishes, I choke at paying several hundred dollars for the dish, paying a monthly fee for the programs, and still having to watch ads. For the privilege of brainwashing me, I figure they ought to give me the dish or the service or both for free.)
Number of books checked out of public libraries in the U.S. every day: 3 million.
Number of videos rented every day: 6 million.
Amount Americans spend each year in late fees for failing to return videos on time: $3 billion.
Percent of Americans who say they watch too much TV: 49.
Hours per year the average American child spends in school:900.
Hours per year the average American child watches television: 1500.
Number of murders the average child sees on TV before finishing elementary school: 8000.
Percent of Americans who believe TV violence encourages real-life violence: 79.
Number of TV commercials seen in a year by a typical American child: 20,000.
Total spending by top 100 TV advertisers in 1993: $15 billion.
Percent of nightly TV news time devoted to commercials: 30.
Percent of nightly TV news time devoted to stories about crime, disaster, and war: 53.8.
Average soundbite from presidential candidates on TV news during the 1968 election (Richard Nixon vs. Hubert Humphrey): 43 seconds.
Average soundbite from presidential candidates on nightly TV news during the 1988 election (George Bush vs. Michael Dukakis): 9 seconds.
Percent of Americans who can name the Three Stooges: 59.
Percent of Americans who can name at least three justices of the U.S. Supreme Court: 17.
“Television,” chants the rap group The Disposable Heroes of Hypocrisy. (Imagine a beat in the background here.) “The drug of a nation. Breeding ignorance and feeding radiation. TV — where image takes place over wisdom. Where soundbite politics are served through the fast-food culture. Sugarsweet sitcoms that leave us with a bad aftertaste. The place where the pursuit of happiness has become the pursuit of trivia. Where imagination is sucked out of children by a cathode ray nipple.”
Television could be a wonderful technology. It could inform voters and serve democracy. It could educate, uplift, celebrate a nation’s highest cultural achievements. It could depict and encourage useful, serene, positive ways of living. Why it has come to do just the opposite is a question for us all to ponder, especially those who control the programming.
Until something happens to turn around the unrelieved rot on the tube (and don’t hold your breath), we don’t need a V-chip, we just need a T-button, a turn-off button. At our house we keep the thing unplugged and in the closet, to ensure that we bring it out only for carefully chosen purposes. It’s addictive, we know that. So we keep it hard to get.
A final statistic: because we are so impatient to plug our minds into our electronic narcotic, collectively we keep the equivalent of a massive nuclear power plant running full time just to keep our TV tubes warm, so don’t have to wait a minute when we flick on the switch.
After we’ve tried a TV-Free week, we might consider a month. Or a year.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996