TV or Not TV

Yes, Virginia, there is an 'off' switch.

1997 March 22

Editor, the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise
P.O. Box 1278
Bartlesville, Oklahoma 74005


The caller to Off the Cuff who likened a television broadcast to people fornicating in the middle of main street is the most profound, and pitiful, example of the hypnotic power of television. Or, more accurately, the weakness of some American minds. It was all the more poignant and pitiable that the caller was responding to a previous caller who had, wisely, noted that our televisions come equipped with a very important control called the "off" switch.

Our family has followed the uproar surrounding the broadcast of Schindler's List, and the comments of an Oklahoma representative, with considerable amusement. From the time our first-born was very young, television in our household has been tightly controlled. Their viewing habits were monitored and directed. Even Saturday morning cartoons were tape-recorded and they were early taught to use the fast-forward button to bypass the commercial announcements. This didn't prevent them from watching the ads they wanted to see, but they didn't have to sit through them repeatedly, and they soon learned that by fast-forwarding they could watch three half-hour shows in about one hour — learning to budget as well as control their own viewing.

When the kids were old enough to be granted more freedom, I noticed that their early training worked pretty well. The kids were able to distinguish between a quality program and junk. (So if they were watching junk, at least they knew it was junk.) When I'd catch them unawares, they'd be absorbing something from the Discovery channel. They've never yet seen any of the violent material most of their peers grew up on, and they never grew cynical about the better Disney productions.

Last year, for various reasons, we simply switched the tube off, and it's been mostly off ever since. The kids were forced to give up their cartoons, and Dad gave up his Star Trek and, with great regret, Babylon 5. We all miss Touched by an Angel. But, it's all on tape somewhere, I reminded them, it'll all be around for decades, in re-runs, and before long TV programs will be available like the computer files I get from CompuServe or the Internet — downloadable and watchable at our own time and convenience, not that of some advertising-motivated network program manager on the Coast. We cut the cable, quit the satellite subscription, and ignored the antenna. The VCRs, indeed, went into storage. We weren't even remotely threatened either by someone's idea of "entertainment" or by that most lurid and fictional of material called "the news."

The other night, I stopped at the video rental store, just to see if they knew when that movie Michael would be released. My daughter mentioned some other show we had thought to rent. We were all reminded that there are so many great movies, yes, and television shows, to watch. But we drove off empty-handed. I noted that we had been getting along pretty well, and had plenty to fill our lives, since we'd started doing without television, and to my surprise one of my wonderful offspring, indeed the one I felt had been most television-habituated, remarked, "That's for sure!" Gratifying!

So for that poor hapless victim of television addiction who called the paper, there is, for some of us at least, a monumental difference between what happens in the middle of main street and what we have the choice to view, or not view, broadcast into our homes. What you see on main street is unavoidable. What comes across the television you have to actually invite into your home, by purchasing the equipment, setting up the connections (antenna, cable, satellite dish), supplying the electricity, and turning it all on at certain times. A far more apt comparison than to main street would be whether you would permit a couple to come fornicate, or (more aptly) do violence to each other, in your living room while the kids were there. If you have your television on, it's your own choice. You have no one to blame but yourself.

Yes, Virginia, there is an "off" switch. It is effective. There is also self-discipline and parental discipline. But none of them work if you don't exercise them.

Another Mindful Webwork about mass media:
Mass Media News — Cause for Despair, or...? On the evolution, status, and future of news reportage and the public interest.
Mike the TV from Reboot