A rich, rewarding life without television? Our ancestors did it in the remote past

April 15, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

An organization calls itself TV-Free America (no relation, by the way, to Radio-Free Europe) wants you to turn off your sets for a week.

Don't panic. They're giving you some lead time -- they want the TV off from April 24 to April 30. You don't have to go cold turkey.

Tonight, for example, you might want to cut back to, say, only six or seven hours of tube time before falling asleep on the couch, your belt open, beer spilling down your leg, to be awakened the next morning by your wife, who threatens to throw you out of the house, for good this time.

Then slowly you can reduce your hours until, for the last few days, you're watching only "Jeopardy" and "M*A*S*H" reruns.

Finally, the clicker goes into cold storage until May, although I think it's OK to tape "Seinfeld."

No Dave. No Orioles, except on the radio. No "Friends." No Kathie Lee. (According to the organizers, however, you're still allowed to imagine what she'd look like naked).

Why should you do this?

For your own good, of course.

According to the folks at TV-Free America, the average American watches TV four hours a day, which in the course of a year, adds up to -- I think I have this right -- a heck of a lot of TV. Turning off the TV for a week, they say, will enrich your life, allow the bedsores to heal and give you the opportunity to get in touch with your feelings (also, your children, whom you haven't seen since the baseball season began).

They offer some specific ideas of what you might do when you're not sitting dumbly in front of a TV set sucking up cathode rays.

For example, they suggest you build a birdhouse. Make lemonade. Jump rope. Sing a song. Construct a cabin without running water and electricity in the wilds of Montana. (Unabomber joke current in Annapolis: What do you get when you shave off the Unabomber's beard? A Midship-man.)

I mentioned this turn-off-the-TV idea to my brother-in-law Joel, who has made television his life's pursuit. Put it this way: He is to TV-viewing what Gandhi was to dieting. And talented? Put a remote in his hand, Joel can do the entire dial in under a minute, naming every show correctly and also the year, if the show's on Nickelodeon.

He gasped, Joel did. No wonder. As the proud owner of six TVs, four with cable, all with HBO 1 and 2, he has a great deal to lose.

"Why not just have national oxygen-free week?" he said.

The last time I visited his house, my grandmother was also there. My grandmother, nearly 87 and sharper than Ted Koppel, has a CNN jones. She watches all day, every day, which wouldn't be so bad if she weren't growing increasingly deaf. And since she's even more stubborn than she is deaf, she refuses to buy a hearing aid.

Instead, she accuses family members of mumbling. "I can hear all my friends talking," she shouts. Of course, she can. They're all deaf, too.

Anyway, she gets up around 5: 30, turns the TV up so loud you'd think it was dinner time at Pat Buchanan's house. It's the same news all day long. I was there the day they caught the Unabomber. She never moved from her place six inches from the tube.

Joel was in another room watching Sports Center.

My nephew had on "Halloween 13," my favorite in the Halloween oeuvre.

Can TV-Free America reach these people?

The organizers have a big problem reaching much of TV-watching America. They don't advertise on TV. Talk about your purists: They even refuse to appear on TV to discuss turning off TV.

Instead, they're relying on posters -- "Dare to be free don't watch TV" -- to get out the word. They've got 90,000 out now. The American Medical Association -- obviously upset that all prime-time shows aren't about doctors -- has sent 20,000 posters to elementary schools. Children are using them, even now, to poke other children's eyes out, which would, in its own way, cut down on TV viewing.

There was a time before TV, you know. You'd like to think that this was an era of great intellectual pursuit, when instead of watching TV, most people were figuring out the theory of relativity. Actually, what families did was gather in their living rooms and stare at a radio, which produced no pictures, but did produce shows like "The Lone Ranger." That was a golden era, all right, if you don't count that they hadn't yet invented the microwave or lite beer.

In an even earlier time, according to what I've seen on "Masterpiece Theatre," families were forced to amuse themselves. One child might play the piano. Those of you whose children play an instrument know how satisfying that can be. Often, they would read books aloud. It sounds idyllic. And yet, occasionally, these same non-TV viewers would feel the urge to storm the Bastille.

In today's world, we have more choices. I'm thinking hard about going TV-free, if only to get a week off from the I-love-you-man guy. It would give me time for long walks, to renew old friendships, to get in some reading. In fact, I've got Jerry Van Dyke's autobiography -- "I Was Never Funny, Not Even for an Instant" -- on my night stand.

Pub Date: 4/15/96

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