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Summer 1998
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Pulling the Plug
Harry Stein
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One July day a few years ago, my ten-year-old son Charlie and I boarded the early morning train at London's Paddington Station, heading for Bath. The weather was glorious, the passing countryside—Persuasion country—astonishingly lush, and alone with my little boy I was wholly at peace. When he began to sing softly, I knew he felt the same way.

Then I heard the words:

Seven-Up, it's an up thing,
Seven-Up does it every time,Yeah,
Seven-Up, it's an up thing,
It's clear and it's wonderful and it's totally fine.

I could say this was a pivotal moment, the instant I finally realized we had to do something about the impact of TV on the life of our family. But that would be stretching the point. The fact is, my wife and I had never deluded ourselves as to the pernicious effects of the 24-inch appliance in our bedroom. Despite the fact that the most often cited statistic on children and TV—a mind-boggling 28 hours watched per week on average—had never remotely applied in our home, we knew full well the hold it had on the kids, and especially our son; how, given the choice, he'd watch almost anything rather than pick up a book or even go out and play on a sunny day. And, too, how often the complaint would come as soon as the set was off: "I'm bored. What should I do?"

A couple of decades ago, well before I became a father, I had a conversation with an ex-professor of mine about her high-school-senior son—a thoughtful and independent-minded young man who, on his downtime, was working as a jazz pianist. How did it happen? I asked her; how did she and her husband produce such an interesting kid? "He always knew how to be alone," she replied simply. Though for brains, energy, and utter charm our Charlie stacked up with anyone, this was a skill he hadn't even started to learn.

More than that—far more—as the kids grew older we had increasingly serious concerns with much of TV's content, from the witless sexual double-entendres that pass as humor on the sitcoms in "family hour" to the soul-deadening hucksterism to the ideological biases of everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Mike Wallace.

As one friend, who helps run a highly selective nursery program at a local college, puts it, "Everyone agrees about TV in principle. Our parents have to fill out a form on how much and what kinds of TV their kids watch, and the answer's always 'very little' and 'Sesame Street.' Well, I can tell you, I hear lots more being discussed than just Sesame Street."

For her, as for many preschool teachers, the tube's impact on attention span and creativity is highly disturbing. "Rather than inventing games, they'll just play out the same story from TV or the movies over and over again, not even adding their own twists. And it's always whatever's hot—there's already a lack of critical thinking."

Notes her husband, himself a third-grade teacher at a New York private school, "I get them five years later." He tells of a kid recently mentioning an especially violent cartoon he'd seen that morning. "It turns out that 75 percent of the class had seen it before they came to school. My day starts with brushing my teeth and eating breakfast; most of them are doing this."

"I'm a Brownie leader," a neighbor of mine tells me, "and when I try to read The Lorax, they all yell, 'Let's watch it!' What's the world coming to, when a bunch of seven-year-olds won't sit still for Dr. Seuss?"

"It's hard enough raising children without TV imposing on them a completely distorted notion of what's appropriate and normal," adds a friend in southern California. "And I don't just mean Jerry Springer, which is one step away from public executions, or the circus of misery on the other talk shows. How about the news? My 12-year-old daughter tells me a couple of her friends actually watched that guy blow his brains out on live TV!"

Indeed, after the countless studies and reports documenting the negative impact of excessive TV on kids, to claim ignorance on the subject is nearly as specious as making the equivalent claim about cigarettes and lung cancer. In America today, TV has become a middlebrow version of the weather. Liberals tirelessly complain about the violence, conservatives about the sleaze; everyone about how it makes kids lazier, more passive, duller. But in almost every home, the problem is what to do about it.

In a sense, this is an odd dilemma, since the solution is so seemingly obvious. Yet in fact, for most of us parents the prospect of pulling the plug gives rise instantly to a whole new set of questions and doubts: What about all the good stuff on TV? Won't going cold turkey cut off kids from the social mainstream? Anyway, aren't such measures . . . draconian?

Then, too, usually unstated but often underlying all the rest, there's this: What about us? For not only have we come to rely on the box for cut-rate baby-sitting; we're inveterate viewers ourselves and are nearly as comfortable with the television as the center of family life as are the kids.

I don't mean to belittle this. I understand. In fact, in our family, I've always been the grown-up with the TV problem. Among my earliest memories is eating dinner in a high chair before Howdy Doody, and, though "addiction" may be too strong a word, from Leave It to Beaver and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan on through Saturday Night Live, I'd fully shared our generation's small screen bonding experience. My wife, on the other hand, grew up in one of those eccentric academic families that routinely referred to the TV as "the idiot box." That's why, even in middle age, I could happily veg out for hours on end, remote in hand, while her viewing was largely confined to the egghead ghettos of C-Span and Sunday morning political shows.

Besides, I had a professional rationale for my TV watching. At the time, I happened to be writing a column for, of all places, TV Guide, on the (seemingly worthy) topic of television's impact on the culture. Since I had to watch, wouldn't denying the kids access to the tube be the rankest hypocrisy?

Never mind that much of what I ran across in my work merely confirmed the obvious: that as a baby-sitter, TV has a lot more in common with Madonna than with Mary Poppins. Or, as the psychologist David Elkind so memorably put it in The Hurried Child, his classic on the obliteration of innocence, thanks largely to TV, "children today know much more than they understand."

Obviously, out in TV-land, this is not something people lose much sleep over. Reporting a TV Guide piece on the attitudes and values of the creators of some of the most popular programs for children, I found that most of my interviewees were proud of what they took to be their shows' hipness and sophistication. "Kids are no longer naive," as Tom Miller, co-creator of Full House, put it, explaining why his program, which at the time was top rated nationally among 2- to 11-year-olds, so often played compromising sexual situations for laughs; "and if what you put on doesn't reflect that, they're gonna say, 'Who are these people? They're geeks!'" Don Reo, creator of NBC's Blossom, explained his show's concentration on such issues as drug abuse and teen sexuality by making an appeal to family values that deserves an Emmy for tendentiousness. "My father and I had so little common ground that we had almost no basis for emotional connection," he said. "That isn't true now. We children of the sixties who now have children of our own are far less 'parental.' We can relate—because we have rock 'n' roll in common."

As put off by TV's pervasive coarseness and low-mindedness as many parents are, my wife and I initially resorted to the usual solution: we set limits; we dictated conditions. We allotted each of our two children one and a half hours of TV watching during the week, plus two more on weekends—their choices but, to the extent full monitoring was humanly possible, subject to parental veto.

To be sure, this system was something of an improvement over the laissez-faire chaos of previous years, a period too frequently marked by bickering over who got to watch what or by flaring anger when we ordered someone to shut the damn thing off. But it ended up creating a new kind of ongoing debate, especially with our son—who, showing unexpected accounting prowess, was forever counting minutes, insisting he was owed 18 here or 43 there—and we soon adopted a new plan. Now, we agreed, we would watch a select handful of shows each week as a family—Frasier, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, plus whatever intriguing documentaries or special events (the Olympics, an historical special, the World Series) happened along.

As an intellectual proposition, this seemed to make good sense. I had written, and still believe, that notwithstanding all the junk polluting the airwaves, this is TV's true golden age. Not only do cable outlets like the History Channel, A&E, and the Learning Channel offer a range of quality programming, but the smartest of networks' character-driven dramas and sitcoms are vastly superior to most of the fare available on movie screens at $7.50 per ticket.

Yet even in this there was a large element of self-justification. What eventually became inescapable, sitting there with a 14- and an 11-year-old, was that even the shows we liked contained elements that made us acutely uncomfortable. Over a year and a half of watching Seinfeld as a family, there must have been a dozen times when—with the talk turning back to masturbation or someone's sexual performance, or with Jerry about to bed yet another young woman—my wife and I would announce "Inappropriate," and the kids would know to get up and leave the room.

I have no doubt that lots of people we know would have regarded this little moral fire drill as silly; almost all our kids' friends watched Seinfeld, presumably without interruption. Frankly, we felt a little silly ourselves—but more than that, we were annoyed the problem presented itself at all. Granted, times change, and the show is aimed at mature audiences; but then, so was The Dick Van Dyke Show when my brothers and I were my kids' age, and my parents never had to worry about shooing us from the room.

Indeed, even when the content is benign, such shows offer a worldview that is the polar opposite of innocent. As winning as my wife and I find the Seinfeld bunch, their bemused cynicism—about life in general and relationships in particular—was hardly something we wanted our kids to emulate. Nor, for that matter, to cite another brilliantly crafted show, is Bart Simpson a much better role model, with his laser-quick putdowns of his moronic dad.

Of course, since The Simpsons, other animated shows have dispensed with even the pretense of responsibility, picking up vast kid audiences by moving into the realm of the frankly perverse. Ren and Stimpy begat Beavis and Butt-head, which begat South Park. You know, the one with the fart jokes and the Christmas Poo, where little Kenny suffers a gruesome death at the end of every episode.

Shortly after South Park's debut, our son Charlie, now 13, caught it at a friend's house and, no fool he, pitched it to his mother and me in the terms most likely to elicit the desired result. "You'll like it," he said; "it's really anti-p.c."

A few nights later we watched an episode, and he was right: it was. But then, how could it not be? This show is anti-everything: sometimes funny, yes—but a sustained assault on good taste and what used to be thought of as common decency, probably as nihilistic a regular half-hour as any ever aired. Not so incidentally—for it shows how increasingly isolated those of us who worry about such things are—Newsweek recently celebrated South Park on its cover for being especially subversive, pushing the envelope even further. The article responds directly to those who fret about the show's impact on their children with a sneering, "keeping kids innocent is like squeezing toothpaste back into the tube."

Our own brush with South Park was no more the precipitating cause of our next decision than that train ride to Bath; but both surely figured in it, along with a hundred other such episodes and thousands of incidental moments. With my TV Guide stint done, I had no more handy excuses. Weary of the relentless intrusion of popular culture into our home and our heads, fed up with the size of television's role in our family's life, we decided it was finally time just to be done with it.

We pulled the plug.

We could not pretend this command parental decision was completely fair. Our daughter Sadie was hardly the chronic TV abuser that her brother was; a big reader, she'd largely confined her viewing to the Food Channel and forties melodramas on American Movie Classics. Partly with this in mind—though mainly for the simple fun of it—we allowed one exception to the rule. Holding on to the Sony and the VCR, we instituted Friday Night at the Movies—a video of a classic film that each of us would select in turn. Aside from that, we were all in this together. And anyway, Sadie could at least take solace in the fact that I was suffering almost as much as Charlie.

When other adults heard what we were doing, we got two reactions. One was a mix of admiration and incredulity, a sort of: "Wow, we wish we could do that." But the other contained an undercurrent of annoyance, as if our decision were essentially for show or, more to the point, was an unwelcome challenge.

Our California friend, whose family ditched TV around the same time we did, reported the same thing. "Over and over I kept hearing, 'What about the Learning Channel or the History Channel or Nova?'" she says. "Sure—as if that's what their kids are watching, instead of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." She pauses. "It sounds ugly, but the real issues here are selfishness and narcissism. With a lot of these parents, the attitude is: Me first, then you—if I have time."

The father of one of Charlie's friends, a (what else?) professor of communications, genially scoffed at us as Luddites, pointing out that every new technology has aroused scorn and apprehension at first. "An article appeared in Good Housekeeping in 1910 entitled 'Motion Pictures: A School for Criminals.' Socrates was against written as opposed to spoken language, claiming it would dull peoples' memories!"

But I more than once got another argument, partly defensive, to be sure, but also presented as a matter of principle—and only from liberals. Its essential premise is that, though much of TV is objectionable and some of it may even be damaging, it is wrong to impose our will and fuddy-duddy sensibilities on kids beyond, say, elementary school. To do so smacks of what many aging veterans of the sixties consider the ugliest of traits: authoritarianism. In fact, even attempting to monitor one's children's viewing habits manifests an unacceptable intrusion.

David Denby, the film and cultural critic, neatly summed up this position a couple of years ago in The New Yorker. He wrote that parents who play censor with their kids "are locked in an unwinnable struggle to shut out pop culture and the life of the streets. . . . These parents risk making the forbidden glamorous and dangerous; they risk cutting the children off from their friends and bringing them up as alienated strangers in the electronic world of the future."

And later, there's this, on parents he deems too rigid in enforcing standards: "Yet the issue is not so simple, especially for parents like me and my wife, who are not eager to stand over the children, guiding their progress all day long like missionaries leading savages to light. To assume control over their habits and attitudes, we would have to become bullies."

The self-congratulatory tone aside, the sheer gall is breathtaking. Watching the guy make virtues of hand-wringing and weak will, one is left wondering exactly what role parents like Denby and his wife do see for themselves. On the evidence, it would seem to be that of pal; or, more precisely—for let's try to be fair—pal/mentor; for surely Denby is always up for a good conversation with his kids about the schlock in which they immerse themselves, if only the kids would ask him.

But give him this: if he has surrendered unconditionally to the times, at least he has done so with eyes open and with some comforting highbrow rationales at hand. Most parents, when it comes to their kids and popular culture, simply tune out. Of all the data available on the subject, the following factoid, offered by a Washington-based group called TV-Free America, is perhaps most startling: 54 percent of American children have TVs in their bedrooms.

A spokesman for TV-Free America tells me that this past April more than 5 million people participated in the group's annual National TV-Turnoff Week. Frankly, that sounds pretty fishy—one certainly didn't hear much about its having any impact on the ratings—and one is led to hope maybe the TVs-in-bedrooms stat is off, too.

But I must say, many of the slew of testimonials the guy sent along from people recently released from TV's stranglehold did reflect our experience. There was a good deal of comment on how unexpectedly smooth the transition had been; on the greater attention to homework and on toys long unused suddenly reappearing, along with the Scrabble and chess boards; and over and over, on silence where once there was always background noise.

Also, no longer subject to TV's clock, one's life takes on a different, more personal rhythm; vastly less time gets wasted on what, finally, has always been inconsequential, even to oneself. Though, unable to help ourselves, my wife and I did sneak a Sunday morning peek at the egregious William Ginsburg, neither of us has yet laid eyes on a moving image of Ally McBeal or the Bride of Wildenstein.

Don't get me wrong: only a fool would claim the absence of TV alone is enough to make family life an idyll; ask Caligula or Eugene O'Neill. Around our place, we still bicker plenty; often someone's pouting; Charlie's still a reflexive wise guy. Just yesterday, apropos of this essay, I asked him if he missed TV.

"Of course," he said, not missing a beat; "it's all that held our family together."

But I'm not sure even he'd want to return to the way it was. Like me, he's reading more than ever, everything from Dickens to Ring Lardner, and he's back to drawing again, inventing logos and uniforms for imaginary teams. And one of the things we bicker about far less these days is homework.

More than that, scoff at it though he will, there's a unity to the family that I think none of us ever quite felt before. It's there in the dinner-table conversations that now sometimes extend well past 8 o'clock—into what was once only TV's alleged version of family hour; it's there during our glorious new weekly tradition, Friday Night at the Movies.

I was recently talking to our California friend about this, and she agreed it had been pretty much the same for them. "It definitely does change your perspective. I go to people's houses now and am immediately conscious of the TV—the multiple TVs—running all the time. Everyone's drawn to different corners of the house to watch—what? The latest car chase on the news? Cats and mice bopping each other over the head?" She paused. "And then these people will come to you with a straight face and describe TV as 'the electronic hearth.'"

 

 


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