TV-B-GONE

It’s not every day that your 4-year-old son comes home and declares, “I’m going to cut you into little pieces.” But when that day came for me, I did what any self-respecting American father would do in my position: I ordered new license plates.

But not just any plates, of course, for I was a man with a mission.

With my $40 in hand ($20 per plate), I marched down to the tag office to take advantage of one of the most potent (and cost-effective) fringe benefits this state offers its residents: the power to broadcast a political message every time you head to the store to get a loaf of bread. At the desk, I proudly requested my new plates — NO TV and TV-FREE — while retiring those old friends MTV-2555 and MZL-9315. You served me well, boys, but duty calls.

My first choices were available, and I walked out feeling just about as happy as if I’d registered money.com back in 1995. (Admittedly, I was lucky, but there were plenty of other eight-character-or-less options, such as X OUT TV, WHY TV?, TV=NO-NO, TV..SIGH, TV = 666, TV-ZZZZ, FEAR TV, BADTVBAD, and NO MO TV).

My purpose, of course, was really anti-commercial. We banned TV from our house when we moved to Asheville — the single best child-rearing decision we’ve made so far. But even so, our sons are surrounded by a sea of TV, and Survivor, South Park and Temptation Island are only a few doorbells away. So when my oldest son, Sean, uttered his totally out-of-character remarks (echoes from the playground, no doubt), my chief concern was preserving his good character.

Why do I believe TV lies behind my son’s remark?

Well, out of 3,500 research studies on the effects of media violence, 99.5 percent have shown a positive correlation between watching and committing. And a 1989 study by Dr. Brandon Centerwall showed a 130 percent increase in the South African homicide rate after television was introduced there in 1974. (For other statistics, go to www.gotofiles.com/tvfree). And mountain ranges of anecdotal evidence — including random high-school shootings — have obliterated what was left of television’s flimsy raison d’etre.

But the anti-violence argument isn’t even the most persuasive one; there are plenty of other compelling reasons to believe it’s time to pull the plug.

The pre-emption argument: This one’s short, if not sweet: When you’re watching TV, you’re not playing music, cooking, writing, etc. Turn on the television and you turn off real life.

The subliminal communication argument: Television fills your head with thousands of images every day, each one thick with symbolic/semiotic significance. If you’re watching wrestling, for example, the semiotic significance might be something like, “You have to compete to win.” If you’re watching the news, the semiotic significance is more like, “Society is hostile.” Just saw a commercial pairing romance and coffee? “Emotions aren’t precious; they can be exploited just like everything else.” Or how about those TV talk shows where “guests” are humiliated before a howling audience? Well, “People are cruel” (and then, possibly, “If people are cruel, why should I be kind to them?”). Brrrr!

The disempowerment argument: TV creates a feeling of powerlessness. There is nothing you can do about the images you hate watching (other than endlessly flipping the remote). And that feeling of lack of control only underscores the fact that you’re just sitting on the couch doing nothing — Hey! you really ARE powerless! But here’s the coup de grace: If you don’t watch TV and everyone else does, then you’re still powerless, because when they’re watching TV, they’re not listening to (and cooperating with) you.

The slippery slope argument: Over the years, the ethical base line has continued to shift, and the Unholy Ones now routinely broadcast things once considered taboo. Every six months or so I go on a business trip, and I flip on the set to watch America’s work-in-regress. And every time, I’m shocked — by subtle things, like a character saying “bastard” at 10 p.m. To me, that’s dramatic. But to those watching every night, the change barely registers.

In my mind, there can be only one conclusion: Watching television on a nightly basis is America’s riskiest business. And who’s responsible? We are. TV executives haven’t the slightest idea how their images affect society, and they don’t feel that an examination of this serious issue is their responsibility. That’s all you need to know to tune them OUT.

Notwithstanding all these arguments, of course, many people still stand up for television. Perhaps the most common defense is the Sesame Street argument: Without it, how will my kid learn to read? My answer: by reading. My kid on my lap, wrapped in loving arms, or on the floor staring at photon replicants “Bert” and “Ernie”? That’s a no-brainer. And since selective TV-watching opens the door to unselective watching, it’s time to look inside the mouth of this hulking Trojan horse.

Others cite the “babysitter defense” (as in “I need one”), but what is this babysitter teaching their kids? And what is the ultimate cost of this “free” babysitter, especially once the Snuffle-upagus hands over the reins to Beavis and Butthead?

Just to prevent misunderstanding, let me clarify one point: TV-free does not necessarily mean media-free. We have a DVD-ROM drive in our computer, and we sometimes try to watch a movie when the kids are asleep. So far, this containment strategy has satisfied our need to relax without otherwise incurring the risks engendered by Public Enemy No. 1.

Overall, though, TV is out of our life, and we’ve seen real benefits with Sean. He’ll sit with a book for 20-minute stretches, and he ran from the room when he saw the Wicked Witch try to poison Snow White with the apple (a video they showed at his day care without our knowledge) while the other kids sat mesmerized.

But if you think exposing your own kids to 200,000 acts of vivid violence by the age of 18 is perhaps a tad excessive, and you’d like to bring that number down to a more tolerable level (say, 160,000?), what can you do, besides taking a sledgehammer to the thing?

Here’s one approach: Pick the day when you usually watch the least television, and just don’t watch any. If a show you simply have to see is on that day, tape it.

And if you find that you can handle that, add another day next year, and another the year after that.

Even if you’re successful, though, you may still find (as I did) that individual action alone is not enough. That’s when it’s time to take to the streets and put your plates to work. I’m taking care of West Asheville, but there’s a lot more geography to cover.

And the last time I checked, TV-NOWIN was still up for grabs …

[Barry Krusch develops Web-based training courses for Knowledge Transfer International in New York City. He lives in West Asheville with Margaret, Sean and Daniel. He can be reached at bkrusch@home.com.]

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