Monday, April 23, 2007

Five Questions TV Turnoff Week Does Not Answer

Today marks the start of the official week dedicated to celebrating our national pastime by exhorting each other to abstain from one of life's great joys. Yes, it's TV Turnoff Week. Eat your heart out, Marshall McLuhan.

I love the original and modest goal of TV Turnoff Week: Be aware of how much TV children are watching, and limit it. Whatever else TV may or may not do to developing brains, social skills, or worldviews, watching seven hours of TV a day is guaranteed to make a child as fat and gullible as a Christmas hen.

But TV Turnoff Week is undergoing an identity crisis.

First, there was the change in the organization's mission to address all issues of "screen time," encompassing video games and all time spent online while acting as though this introduced no new issues, no alternative set of pros and cons. Then activists adopted TV Turnoff Week as a rallying cry against corporate culture and state-licensed brainwashing.

The end results have been damaging to both parties.

TV Turnoff Week, as mundane and invaluable a call to sensible parenting as the food pyramid or early dental checkups, was radicalized against its will, losing precious ground in a battle that never needed to be turned into a class war.

Meanwhile, the anti-corporate message that animates much of the cultural far left gets a yearly drubbing while attempting to bully the general public into making a pointless and symbolic gesture that does not reflect most TV-watchers' beliefs about the world. The general public is quick to appreciate the fact that anyone preaching to them about the benefits of living TV-free were asking them to do something they themselves could not relate to: giving up something they value and then getting it back, fully intact, a week later. It's nonsense, and what is true about the message - that TV will turn you into a consumer zombie if you don't manage it wisely - which is true! - is completely missed.

I'm tired of the passion play. TV is here to stay, and it ain't all bad. Here are five ways that the ethos of TV Turnoff Week does not reflect the complex relationships we have with our "screen time."

  1. John, a young parent, meets several fellow toddler dads at a bar. They all watched the season finale of their favorite reality television show the night before, which they enjoy mocking but simply couldn't stop watching. Most of them got interested in the show because one of the contestants was a friend of a friend who has been blogging about the show since she got kicked off early on. In addition to swapping a few recent parenting stories, John and his friends discuss the ramifications of the show's final challenge, how the contestants responded to the pressure, and what the blogger thought about it. Can television inform, harness, or even boost social engagement, or only diminish and impoverish it?
  2. College freshman Sam begins attending a friend's "Lost" viewing parties midway through the season, and started reading a lot of online commentary to help catch up with all of the plot strands. His girlfriend, who has a night job and doesn't watch much TV, mentions that she always thought that show looked interesting, and Sam ends up renting the first season on DVD and watching the entire thing with her in a marathon weekend. The next week, Sam has plenty of theories of his own to share with others at the party. No one wants to hear them, so he decides to start his own blog about open-ended mysteries, starts pirating "Twin Peaks" episodes from a bittorrent client, and shells out cold, hard cash for Umberto Eco's "The Open Work," which he loans to three people in six months. Can television engage and stimulate our intelligence, or only deaden or distract it?
  3. Sixteen-year-old Vivian gets a digital video camera for Christmas and starts creating short video sketches with her friends and posting them on YouTube. Other kids at her high school see them and think they're pretty funny, and they end up getting written about in the school paper. Before long, other kids at school are making their own response videos. A group of black students publishes a video that highlights what they see as their ostracization from school life, which surprises Vivian, who thought that the black kids at her school didn't want to have anything to do with the white majority. Other students follow up with videos that are deliberately offensive and intend only to heighten conflict, and the principal decides to ban YouTube access from school computers. A programmer at the local cable access channel hears about the situation and invites students to organize a variety show, which could draw from the already-produced videos and be only lightly censored for television. "Why?" Vivian asks. "People can just watch them online." Who here needs to brush up on their media literacy? Who speaks the language of television - and how did they learn it?
  4. Eight-year-old Anna doesn't have much time for TV - she's too busy playing video games. Sometimes kids from her neighborhood come over to play on her Wii, which a lot of other neighborhood parents can't afford. Other times she plays live multiplayer games on her computer, working to slay virtual dragons, solve mental puzzles, and share information with other players to develop the talents of her virtual persona. She did start watching one show last year because her friends started talking about how there were parts of the show you could only learn about online, but she found the format too restrictive and quickly abandoned the PR vehicle for more open-ended games. Is "screen-time" really equivalent to TV-watching time, as TV Turnoff Week's campaigns in recent years have suggested, or is there something fundamental that is changing about the way visual media impacts children?
  5. Seventy-four-year-old embittered former faith healer Frank used to sit and feed pigeons all day in the courtyard of his nursing home. Once a passionate birdwatcher, he spent years in his retirement community with his hobby sustained only by the the incessantly-chirping finches his son misguidedly gave him for his birthday, which Frank has devotedly worked to slowly poison with negative mental effluence and cold, hard stares. But a few weeks ago his son brought over a computer, and Frank discovered an interactive and competitive birdwatching site which invites viewers to help identify birds in San Francisco's Sutro Forest. Frank is rapidly climbing through the ranks and fantasizes about the day he will surpass the point total of Morgan, the site's top contributor, at which point Morgan will collapse and die of shame. How do personal values impact the relative importance and resonance of TV for individuals?
I'm currently finishing this post while watching the new episode of "The Riches," one of the best dramas I have yet seen on cable television. Eddie Izzard's confident slur is a small revelation. Half an hour ago I was debating with my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter about whether we should listen to a CD storyteller recount the story of the "Three Little Pigs" or read a fairy tale from the copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales I just dug out of a box of books we've been saving. On nights when we read stories involving complex machines or unusual animals, we might take a quick break to look up images on Google to see what something looks like, or search for a video on YouTube to show her how something works. In a world where Americans struggle to silence their TVs for a week to justify their year's worth of regular TV-viewing habits, there may seem to be a disconnect here. But not in mine.

Tomorrow, the TV you should be turning off. Plus a first - a Think In Pictures product giveaway. Stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

I am not a fan of TV Turn Off Week because it does nothing to encourage critical thinking or viewing. And what happens at the end of the week: I suspect the majority go right back to the TV. Lessons learned?

We need a Media Literacy Week with schools, parents, and others embracing what it truly means to be media literate in a 21st century world.

Frank Baker, creator of the Media Literacy Clearinghouse

Nathan said...


Thanks for writing this post. I dislike the zealotry that comes with opinions on divisive issues, even TV.

There are a lot of good things on the tube -- your example of "Lost" is a good one. I have enjoyed the many religious and moral questions/motifs that are interwoven into the show, and my wife and I have some interesting conversations. The more intelligent discussions of the show I find online are also illuminating.