Since when is TV a need?

The Baltimore Sun

Since 1994, we have had National TV Turn-Off Week every April. Families pledge to pull the plug for a week and explore other possibilities: fun and games, reading and conversation, the arts and civic engagement.

This year, I had been looking forward to the early arrival of TV turn-off, since I knew my dated analog screen would go blank on Feb. 17 - the date set by Congress for the nationwide switch to digital. I thought I'd just see how long I could go before buying the converter box.

President-elect Barack Obama, however, apparently does not want any American to break the TV habit, particularly not cold turkey. He is urging Congress to postpone the switch, claiming that the government has not done enough to prepare Americans for the transition. John Podesta, the head of Mr. Obama's transition team, made the case in a letter to lawmakers: "With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient, and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated analog cutoff date."

Now, to what exactly are the most vulnerable Americans "exposed"? Are they exposed to a harm or a good? During National TV Turn-Off Week, we are informed how detrimental TV viewing can be. It is strongly correlated with poor school performance (and the average child spends more hours per year in front of the tube than in a classroom); it is linked to the upsurge in obesity and poor eating habits; it can cause "mean world syndrome" (a form of depression brought on by too much violent local news); and it harms family life, friendship and citizenship.

What would be the problem if some fairly small number of Americans lost reception? Being without TV is not like being without heat or electricity. It is a perverse notion of equality that insists that the government must help ensure uninterrupted access to a technology that successive surgeon generals have warned against.

Now, the switch from analog to digital is meant to be morally neutral. Government obviously doesn't want to appear inconsiderate of the inconvenience to citizens or, worse, paternalistically shutting off entertainment for some but not others.

Paternalism, however, can take various forms, and it's hard to imagine a more condescending version than Mr. Obama's. He believes us to be so clueless and enfeebled that we lack the ability to navigate changes in the technologies on which we most depend. You would think that the self-interest we take in our self-indulgence could be trusted to motivate us - but no, we need more government support.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French observer of American democracy, warned of a phenomenon he called "democratic despotism" - what we now call the nanny state. Like a helicopter parent, government becomes the agent of infantilization. Tocqueville predicted that this "immense tutelary power" would "take charge of assuring their enjoyments. ... It likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves." As he sarcastically quipped, "Can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?"

Tocqueville feared that this well-meaning governmental assault could eventually reduce proud, self-governing citizens to "nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd."

With public works of all kinds now on the national agenda, maybe we'll soon see a program in which caring and concerned agents of centralization go door to door delivering converter boxes to the "most vulnerable" couch potatoes in the land.

Diana Schaub is professor of political science at Loyola College in Maryland. Her e-mail is

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