Surviving 10 days away from the tube


THIS AFTERNOON, I'm likely to plop in front of a TV set, letting the tube's hypnotic rays transport me to a front-row seat at an NFL stadium.

But the pointless football game will be my first television viewing in 10 days, which may be the longest period of time I have gone without TV since childhood.

Surprisingly, it has been relatively painless. It has also given me a chance to assess the amount of time I spend in front of the box each week as scores of channels beam their programs and advertisers' products.

I can thank state Sen. Martin Madden for this. He issued a challenge recently to elementary school students in his 13th Legislative District to abstain from watching television for 10 days.

The senator's purpose was to convince children that they can find better things to do. He was responding to studies showing that children, on average, spend far more time watching television than in school.

Mr. Madden says 77 children in his district have completed the challenge. He will hold an awards ceremony at Savage Mill on Jan. 5 to honor the successful participants with certificates.

Taking a cue from the senator, I thought maybe this could this work with my three children, ages 11, 13 and 14.

"Will you go without TV for 10 days for one of these?" I asked them, flashing a facsimile of the certificate that Mr. Madden plans to give children in his district.

"No way," the chorus shot back.

I expected that answer, but had hoped this experiment would come cheaply. I knew all along that it would take cold, hard cash to get this group's attention. I offered a modest sum. Two of the three jumped at the offer. The other refused to part with his beloved TV, even after I upped the offer a few bucks.

His price would have been too high. He once said he would not give up television for a year in exchange for $1,000. But he remains a good reader, so he's excused.

I was just glad two of the children accepted my offer. That was settled. But as I was about to return to the set, my wife interfered.

"I'll bet you can't go 10 days without TV," she challenged me.

The children were watching, so how could I back down?

No Seinfeld, football or A&E;

"Of course I can," I asserted with outward confidence but with the terrifying realization that with this statement I had just given up "Seinfeld" and basketball and football games. Even the History Channel, A&E; and Turner Classic Movies would be off my schedule.

I cheated a little. The 10-day period would start Thursday, I declared -- the day after my favorite group of losers, the Philadelphia 76ers, played a rare nationally televised game.

My children seemed eager to begin. They had gone for periods of time without television before, but only as a punishment. Rewarding them for not watching TV, now that would be novel.

For the most part, I'm ambivalent about television. Today's programs are not artificially vanilla like many programs I watched in the 1960s. Personally, I am delighted with the number of shows portraying African-Americans.

Like the 1960s, however, television has the raw power to set our daily agendas and continues to bring plenty of junk into our living rooms and bedrooms. My children watch quality shows, but not usually by choice. They grumble as I coerce them into an occasional documentary on public TV, although they usually find these programs enriching.

Lately, however, they've watched a lot of the Warner network (or is it Paramount?). This is nothing like the mind food of a Theodore Roosevelt documentary or "Eyes on the Prize," I thought as "Homeboys in Outer Space" glared on the screen.

With the challenge, those homeboys would not occupy space in two young minds for a while.

Dad's dilemma

As for me, the first mini-withdrawal came on Day Two.

I had planned to watch an NBA game with a friend, but had to cancel. He couldn't believe why.

"You're doing this in the middle of basketball season?" he asked.

"It wouldn't be a true test otherwise," I replied, sounding like some kind of martyr.

The weekend came and went, with only a series of twinges, no big ones, even though there was an extra day of pro football.

I have done more reading than usual, spent more time interacting with the family, taken my daughter to a high school girls basketball contest, played ball with one of the boys and watched the other's Howard County Youth Program Basketball game. The other night, I read my 11-year-old daughter a bedtime story for the first time in years.

The children found ways to occupy their time, whether it was spent reading, talking to friends on the telephone, using the computer or fine-tuning school projects. Even the child who declined the challenge watched noticeably less TV, perhaps because there was more activity than usual around him.

So as this challenge ends, I will get comfortable while watching football on television, but hopefully not too comfortable. There are plenty of other things to do.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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