What's on TV? Who cares? Television: A small percentage of families have shunned the small screen for what they view as a higher quality of life.

March 01, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Imagine a life without television.

No procession of murders. No celebrities talking about themselves. No soap opera bliss. No advertisements of cars flying to the summits of Arizona mesas.

Look around. Some people -- about 1.4 percent of American households -- live without TV. They may be your neighbors. Marylanders of different occupations, genders and political persuasions prefer to live without experiencing the world created by "The Box."

They are not organized. Their decisions reflect their individuality. They find humor, and may even revel, in their minority status. In varying degrees, they all regard television the same way they would consider lead paint or asbestos in their homes: a pollutant.

While acknowledging that America's umbilical cord to television appears permanent, they have chosen to live life in other ways:

Jane Margaret O'Brien, president of St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland, swims, golfs and works with her husband, James Grube, and two children on chores around the family farm in Leonardtown.

Retired Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Thomas Ward and his wife, Joyce, read dozens of publications and maintain a timber business near the family cabin in West Virginia.

Cathy Myrowitz, a Parkton psychotherapist, gardens, reads aloud with her children and husband, Elliott, and has written a book about converts to Judaism.

Tzvi "Rusty" White, a U.S. government oceanographer, directs the 500-member Northwest Citizens on Patrol in Baltimore and shares activities with his wife, Bryna, and the four of their seven daughters who still live at home.

Cinder Hypki, a consultant to nonprofits and adult educator, gardens in Patterson Park and creates wind chimes, jewelry and mobiles as an artist in her Upper Fells Point home.

Three do not own a television set. One hasn't used hers in five years. The other has used hers three times in 10 years. At, near or beyond middle age, they say they read books and newspapers. They work at computers when needed. Their children prosper. They talk at meals with family and friends. They love to be outdoors. Sometimes, they just reflect quietly.

'We're very busy people'

Television has good programs, they acknowledge quickly. But the bad overwhelms. "We're very busy people, and TV just adds to the commotion," said Myrowitz. "When we moved five years ago, we didn't unpack the box. We didn't miss it."

Children raised in TV-less homes are faced with school assignments that depend on watching television at home, not to mention classmates who talk about unknown programs, said Megan Carlson, one of four Ward children. In their case, teachers would often substitute reading assignments.

"It was very serious," Carlson, a Federal Hill mother of one, said of the no-TV rule at home and when visiting. "We felt left out of some conversations at school, but we didn't get a lot of peer pressure. We all have TVs now, but none of us watches very much. We all remain very big readers."

TV-Turnoff Week

The families are hard-core, compared with the estimated 5 million Americans who watch television but will keep their sets off April 22-28 during the fourth annual TV-Turnoff Week sponsored by TV-Free America, which promotes less TV watching.

Monte Burke, director of communications for the Washington nonprofit group, said several hundred of its 2,000 members have no TV sets at all.

Publicly rejecting television is rare. Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a new member of the Federal Communications Commission, has made news because he doesn't own a television set. "I've got five children. We have no shortage of live entertainment in our house." He suggested he might be a more independent policy-maker because he gets his news from other sources.

Television can play a crucial interior decorating role. Dan Garafalo, a Philadelphia architect who doesn't own a TV set, is always struck by the positioning of house furniture.

"Homes are arranged so the TV dominates the layout of rooms," he said. "It's the center of activity."

'Facts, not gimmicks'

O'Brien, the St. Mary's College president, said television news makes her uncomfortable.

"TV embellishes the news with its own language, sound bites, motion, icons and sense of anticipation," O'Brien said. "I like facts, not gimmicks. When I'm in a hotel, I do like the Weather Channel. It's not hyped up." She reads newspapers and listens to public radio.

Regular TV programming has little substance for her. Exceptions occur, but it took her 10 seconds to remember her last viewing: a Princess Diana interview. Once in a great while, the family wants to see something. "We call friends a week ahead. We'll bring popcorn over if it's a World Series," she said

Ward, who retired a year ago but was a replacement judge this winter, has long been known in Bolton Hill for his implacable opposition to the small screen and his "Kill Your Television" bumper sticker.

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