Hitting the 'off' button a remote possibility


April 22, 2001|By Brian Lowry | Brian Lowry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

It's easy to admire those with the guts to tackle a lopsided challenge and oversized foe, to courageously play David to someone's Goliath.

Still, organizers of TV-Turnoff Week appear to have loaded their sling with marshmallows by scheduling their annual TV-free campaign to begin tomorrow, taking on not only the combined might of the television networks as they start the most important sweeps period of the year, but, in the case of "Survivor: The Australian Outback," an adoring army of media foot soldiers as well.

TV-Turnoff Week crusaders have announced that U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher will join them at this week's news conference kicking off the annual drive to go tubeless, but they might as well have enlisted St. Jesse, patron saint of hopeless causes, for all the good it will do.

Far from looking like the sort of angry mob about to hoist pitchforks and bring the TV monster to heel -- and despite anticipation that the Internet and computers would lure people away from their sets -- most evidence indicates American rear ends remain firmly planted on American couches, with eyes fixed on those seductive little boxes.

A support network

Indeed, television-watching in prime time has climbed to an all-time high, not necessarily in the percentage of homes but in terms of sheer tonnage, based on Nielsen Media Research data for the 2000-01 season.

On an average night, a record 102.5 million people -- or almost 40 percent of U.S. residents age 2 and older -- are watching television at any given moment during prime time. That represents a 3 percent increase compared with the previous year, outpacing population growth and for the first time reaching the 100 million plateau.

At the same time, as a parade of depressing studies has pointed out, we are a fat, sedentary nation -- in no small part due to our TV fetish -- and getting fatter. We battle the bulge by sitting on the sofa devouring low-calorie treats, staring at actors and actresses playing model-thin cops, lawyers and doctors, periodically interrupted by even thinner, better-toned bodies in Nike and Victoria's Secret commercials.

Achieving the goals set forth by TV-Turnoff Week, then, is a tall order in the best of times. The nonprofit group does know how to put an impressive-sounding spin on numbers, estimating based on the volume of material distributed that "Six million children and adults ... around the world [are] expected to participate." Given that past TV-free campaigns and proposed boycotts have never exhibited an appreciable decline in measurable viewership, the claim brings to mind the Freddy Fillmore character from "I Love Lucy," who might dryly reply, "Really."

Yet beyond just the networks -- whose job, after all, is to make sure every week is Keep-TV-Turned-On Week -- it seems lately that some newspapers and magazines have blithely joined in the promotional orgy, especially when it involves a perceived phenomenon such as "Survivor."

Just consider USA Today, which has run a weekly box, to go with a steady stream of stories, analyzing what will happen next on the CBS series; or Entertainment Weekly, which keeps plastering "Survivor" on its cover, recently providing what the magazine accurately described as an "obsessive guide" to the program, whose penultimate episode is scheduled for Thursday -- the first night of the four-week May ratings survey -- with a two-hour finale and reunion show the following week.

Now remember, "Survivor" is not the Super Bowl, a major political convention or any other live event. It's a made-for-TV game, carefully edited to tell a story, which, in fact, finished playing itself out several months ago.

Yet some publications breathlessly chronicle weekly developments as if they were unfolding in real time -- as if you saw Jerri or Nick "voted out of the tribe" that night.

The beveled media

Although it's fine to cater to public yens, there's a difference between doing that and pandering -- between documenting a legitimate cultural marvel and shilling for it in trying to piggyback on its broad shoulders.

Moreover, many outlets caught up in "Survivor" fever share parentage with CBS under the big Viacom umbrella and thus harbor a peripheral interest in the program's success -- from Paramount's "Entertainment Tonight" to CBS's "The Early Show," which has abandoned any pretense of credibility in its unabashed strategy of cashing in on the show, the tiny fish feeding off the shark.

What's more perplexing is why publications keep groveling at the feet of "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett, who has repeatedly stated he will lie and disseminate false information to protect the secrecy of his show's outcome.

Given the brutally competitive TV environment, you can't really fault CBS for this promotional binge. Networks spend much of their time begging newspapers and magazines to cover their series, so it's difficult to resist when the tables are suddenly turned.

It's a bit unsettling, however, to see media outlets make the leap from reporting on a program to rooting and playing along, indulging in the sort of wanton coverage that inevitably helps foster the notion this is truly must-see TV -- a cultural event that demands attention, in much the same way the country grinds to a halt each Super Bowl Sunday.

As for the well-intentioned folks behind TV-Turnoff Week, perhaps we'll hoist a glass tonight saluting their lost cause -- just the right complement to a low-fat frozen dinner in front of the tube.

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