I Turned Off, But … I Like to Watch

The third week of April was National TV Turn-Off Week at our house. For those of you who didn’t receive the flier from my daughter’s school, you were expected to shut your TV off and go cold turkey for the next two weeks. No Today show in the morning, no lunchtime war updates on CNN, no Oprah Winfrey , no Tom Brokaw at 6:30 with the latest bomb damage videos, or analysis of same on The News Hour With Jim Lehrer , no Hardball , no Rivera Live , no Late Show With David Letterman , no lights-out war update.

National TV Turn-Off Week got off to a promising start, but only because I thought it started on Sunday night. So when my daughter informed me it didn’t begin until Monday morning, I seized the opportunity and watched back-to-back Clint Eastwood movies on TNT.

We’re not one of those families where our kids call the shots. We’ve been through Turn-Off Week before. In previous years, I told my daughter that if she didn’t want to watch TV that was fine with me, but I was watching whatever and whenever I damn well pleased. What made this year different, besides our desire to support our child’s positive–if slightly bizarre and inexplicable–behavior, was that I’d stopped feeling good about watching the same talking heads on Geraldo night after night. I’ve got nothing against Marcia Clark, Gerry Spence, Ann Coulter, Jeanine Pirro and the rest of the crew. They’re all bright, telegenic people who had the O.J. Simpson case down cold. But when they started pontificating about the Clinton Presidency and then the war in Kosovo, I came to the conclusion that they couldn’t all be experts on everything. Their guess wasn’t any better than mine. In short, I was just wasting my time.

Monday didn’t present a major problem. I went to the Whitney Estate auction cocktail party at Sotheby’s–not to bid on anything, but so I wouldn’t be tempted to turn on the tube. That night, when I got home, I read Daphne Merkin’s story in The New Yorker about growing up rich in Manhattan. While I don’t believe for a minute that she doesn’t know how much money she has in her trust fund, the piece was relatively long and it got me to 11 P.M., when I dozed off.

I woke up the following morning feeling, if not completely refreshed, then slightly more at peace with the world than I do going to bed after watching the scalded baby stories on the Fox 10 O’Clock News . However, it was becoming apparent to me that TV is an addiction, hardly less insidious than cigarettes or heroin. At some point during the day, I even asked myself the following question: If you had to give up liquor, TV or baked goods, which one couldn’t you live without? The answer was baked goods–but that didn’t make National TV Turn-Off Week any easier.

Television and I go way back. When I was a child, Friday was the happiest day of the week. That’s when TV Guide arrived and I planned my weekend. Once I finished my homework, nothing lay before me but a virtually uninterrupted vista of TV-watching all the way through Sunday night.

Saturday morning, I’d wake up around 6 A.M., get myself a bowl of Rice Krispies (substituting Coca-Cola for milk), and go hang out with my baby sitter, who slept through Modern Farmer , Rocky and Bullwinkle and The Jetsons , all the way to Sky King . She eventually got up around 11 and forced me to go to the park under the threat of a beating. By then, My Friend Flicka was on, which I didn’t much care for, anyway.

Saturday night was Chiller Theater , when I got to stay up until at least 10. My baby sitter would pop out her false teeth once or twice during the movie to scare the living bejesus out of me. Sunday always had a pall cast over it because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to watch TV again until the following Friday.

My parents were adamant about no TV on weeknights. When the Batman TV series premiered–an event among children of my era no less momentous than the final episodes of M.A.S.H. and Seinfeld and the Barbara Walters-Monica Lewinsky interview all rolled into one–my parents refused to let me watch. They wouldn’t believe me when I told them that my teacher had assigned it as homework. To this day, I haven’t forgiven them and sometimes wonder if it’s where my anger comes from.

But I digress. Tuesday night, we went to see Paul Rudnick’s The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told . It was funnier than both the Sotheby’s cocktail party and Daphne Merkin’s story combined. But when we got home, my wife wanted to watch TV. Actually, she claims it was me. In any case, we heroically and successfully resisted the temptation.

But when I woke up Wednesday morning, it was to the sound of raised voices. Our daughter had apparently gotten up earlier than normal, strolled into the kitchen and surprised her mother, who was watching the Today show. “I wanted to see about the accident,” my wife explained. She was referring to the Colorado high school shootings. I’d vaguely heard something about it the day before. But since the TV was turned off, it was difficult to gauge the magnitude of the tragedy.

“The whole nation is grieving,” she informed me. “It’s enormous.”

“You should have been on AOL,” our daughter stated knowledgeably. “There’s pictures there about the shooting.”

“You were watching AOL?” my wife asked. “It’s just a technicality.”

“Mom, I didn’t go into it. I was doing research on frogs.”

That morning, my wife attended a school breakfast at somebody’s apartment. Turns out we were the only family in the class observing National TV Turn-Off Week. “I went in there and said I’d been found out this morning,” she reported. “I was feeling so guilty I wanted to confess, and no one seemed to know what I was talking about.”

When my daughter got home from school that afternoon, I confronted her. I wanted to know why we were being punished while all the other parents got to watch TV. “Most people don’t tell their parents,” she explained. “Last year, I didn’t tell you until the second week.”

Needless to say, by Wednesday night we were watching wall-to-wall coverage of the school massacre on seven or eight channels. TV Turn-Off Week was over. It had lasted approximately 48 hours.

But it was therapeutic. While we hadn’t used the time to learn to organize a community clean-up, learn about a different culture by organizing an international dinner party or, my personal favorite, start a public policy book group, as the materials my daughter brought home from school helpfully suggested, I now feel cheap every time I turn on Geraldo, and even Hardball . The TV’s usually off by 10. And, the last few nights, I’ve fallen asleep while reading a book.

Not that I’ve gone cold turkey. In fact, I’ve just discovered Antiques Roadshow on PBS. It stars well-groomed experts from Sotheby’s and Christie’s boldly going into the heartland and appraising the locals’ ceramic jugs and Navajo rugs. It doesn’t sound like much, I know, but it’s actually educational. As a matter of fact, I’d like us to start watching it as a family.