Rural Routes/Margot Ford McMillen

TV Turnoff

Spring on the farm is so brief, colorful, alive, exciting, that I want to take it all in -- from fence to fence, shed to shed, critter to critter -- all day long until I fall, exhausted, into a big, comfy rocking chair in front of the -- dare I say it? -- TV.

One day the morning grass is all frosty and the next it's dried up. And as soon as the weather gets hot, I remember. Once again, I've missed TV Turn-off Week.

This year will be different because I put it on the calendar and made a major household announcement. We're turning off the TV from April 25 to May 1.

TV Turn-off Week was launched in 1995 as a project of the TV Turnoff Network ( With the slogan, "Dare to be Free. Don't watch TV," their other project is "More reading, less TV," for classrooms. With time, maybe they'll add a "Blackberry Turn-Off," a "Cell Phone Turn-Off" and a "Computer Turn-Off." What if we turned off everything and depended on person-to-person interaction for entertainment? Scrabble. Conversation. Dancing. Whoa there -- don't get out of control!

I've given up TV before. When my kids were little, our set broke at exactly the same moment that we were going through hard financial times. They were ages 8 and 11 when this started.

I had never liked the TV much anyway -- Scooby Doo gave the kids nightmares -- and I didn't want to spend precious resources getting it fixed, so I made a big production of setting it out on the curb and saying, "We'll start a savings program and when we've saved enough we'll buy a new TV."

Months passed. Fall to winter. Winter to spring. Spring to summer. Fall again. Much to my amazement, the girls never asked -- not once -- for a new TV.

Of course, they watched programs at friends' houses after school, maybe four or five hours some weeks. Far less than the four hours per day that experts say we spend when there's a TV in the house. And the kids read books and magazines. Drew pictures. Rescued a puppy, then a kitten. Made things from clay. Played the piano. Walked. Rode bikes. Baked cakes. Mapped the neighborhood and found it magical. Went to bed on time.

I don't remember being inconvenienced because I couldn't plant the kids in front of the tube. On the contrary, it was a good time.

Better parents than I would be able to use the hours we saved -- thousands of hours -- for better things. Educational things like math enrichment or playwriting. At our house, the time was just frittered away. Send us a really big snow storm and we took a long walk. Send us a heat wave and we hauled out the sprinkler.

We lived without TV for nearly four years, until my dear old dad came to visit and discovered to his horror that he couldn't watch the Bears Game.

"No TV?" he said. "How can you raise children without a TV?"

And, as I always did with my dad, I gave in and let him buy one for us. Looking back, I see there's an important message here: It's probably not the kids that "need" the TV. It's probably the adults.

When the set came, it was shocking to have this new presence in the house. In the time between when we lost the TV and got it back, 1985 to 1989, the ads and programming had become more sexually frank. If I'd had TV all those years, I probably wouldn't have noticed, but I did.

The incremental changes occur when networks compete for viewers by appealing to our most base curiosity. According to a 1999 study, Consuming Environments, published by Rutgers, increasing violence crept into TV in the 1990s. Between 1993 and 1996, increased network coverage of homicide grew 721%.

By the time Dad's TV came, the kids had outgrown it for the most part. The older one was focused on getting a job and buying a car. The younger one had become a musician, a writer and a creative but challenged learner. They're adults now and neither one owns a TV, although they both have laptop computers and cell phones.

But look at the kids in the college classes I teach. They're rarely out of TV range. Huge ones in the living halls and student lounge. Little ones hanging from the ceilings over the pool tables in the student union. I sometimes think I should videotape myself talking about how to write, say, a persuasive essay, and play the tape instead of actually talking. It would be sort of like the tape of the stewardess telling how to fasten your seat belt. It may work better than giving directions verbally.

I could never pull it off. These kids, after all, were formed by the 1993-1996-and-beyond increase in violence on TV. They need blood, blows, guns. Last semester I showed "Bridge on the River Kwai" to launch a discussion about prisoners of war. "Is it an action movie?" asked one student. When I shrugged, because I really don't know, he put his disappointed head on the desk and dozed off.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

Home Page

Copyright © 2005 The Progressive Populist