TV Turnoff Week, with all of its accompanying fanfare, begins Monday. TV Turnoff Week organizers are joined by educators and politicians in calling television the "idiot box," "boob tube" and "plug-in drug," and generally blaming TV for most of society's ills.
But while TV Turnoff Week advocates have correctly identified that our use of the TV medium is a serious concern, the solution being advanced -- to turn it off for a week -- is misguided. Simple solutions seldom work for complex problems.
There is wide agreement that television plays too large a role in society, washing over us with commercialization and various other messages of violence, cheap sex and anti-social behavior. Kids who watch too much TV likely suffer in their reading abilities. More productive family activities are replaced by television time, and increasingly, family members watch in separate rooms.
Painting television as evil, however, and encouraging people to simply do a Lenten-style TV fast for a week sends a distorted message that television itself is the problem. It's not the TV, or even the programs, that are so damaging; it's the improper way our society uses TV that causes the problems.
Instead of turning the TV off, viewers should be encouraged to be more selective in the programs they choose. TV is not necessarily bad for you if you are watching something with redeeming qualities. Viewers need to be guided to choose more of the relevant programs and skip the mindless stuff. When you turn off the TV, you aren't just turning off "South Park" and "The Bachelorette," you are also turning off C-SPAN, the History Channel and "Sesame Street."
Kids will not take seriously a message from parents to turn off the TV for a week when they walk through a house that has a TV in every room. They will, however, know parents are serious about limiting TV exposure when the kids' personal TV gets sold at the next garage sale. Get rid of the kitchen TV, too, so suppertime can be a time for conversation.
Keep only one TV, and put it in a place where the family is comfortable together. That way kids and parents can have common viewing experiences, and parents will know what their kids are seeing.
Parents also need to better inform themselves about the meaning of the onscreen advisory warnings and activate the V-chip in their televisions. Research indicates that many parents don't know how to interpret the advisory warnings and have never figured out how to set up the V-chip to screen out programs with too much sex or violence. It's of little use to turn off the TV for a week and then let your child access onscreen violence the next week because of an inactive V-chip.
Trying to mitigate television's influence on society is a good thing, but a week of turnoff hoopla is not. So let's stop the TV-style marketing of turnoff week. Instead, we should focus on building television literacy skills to better understand televised messages and how to choose the proper messages to watch.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.