If there's one television rerun more dispiriting than endless iterations of Scooby-Doo, The Brady Bunch, or the genre du jour of plastic surgery shows such as Extreme Makeover and The Swan, it is surely that annual ritual of self-loathing and mortification of the flesh that is TV Turnoff Week, which this year runs from April 19 through April 25. "Turn off TV, Turn on life," plead the nonprofit sponsors of the annual event, as if the two were somehow inextricably linked. Indeed, one wonders how residents of apartheid-era South Africa, whose government delayed the introduction of television there until 1975 because it (rightly) feared TV's potential for social disruption, might have responded to such an easy equation.
While you're not watching TV this week (too bad, NBA playoff fans), take a stroll through the edifying TV Turnoff Network Web site. There you'll find the usual assortment of indictments of the boob tube for creating, well, boobs.
In the Quotes section of the site, for instance, there's Ted Turner, the small-screen quisling who became an entertainment industry player on the backs of professional wrestling and Andy Griffith Show repeats, announcing that "TV is the single most significant factor contributing to violence in America." He's joined by such luminaries as former Ku Klux Klanner and current Sen. Robert Byrd (who took time out from shipping the federal government piecemeal to West Virginia to pronounce, "I do want to emphatically stress that there is much more to life than the boring, degrading, demeaning fare on the boob tube"); increasingly unwatched network newsman Ted Koppel (who kvetchs that "We have reconstructed the Tower of Babel…a thousand voices producing a daily parody of democracy, in which everyone's opinion is afforded equal weight regardless of substance or merit"), and First Lady Laura Bush (who goes out on a limb to declare that "Television is no substitute for a parent").
Then there's the wise-beyond-his-years second-grader Benjamin Loxley, who introduces the sort of mystery that the sleuths on Blue's Clues and CSI alike might have trouble solving: "I had a great time, and my only question is: If this is so great, why don't we turn off the TV for the other 51 weeks of the year?" Why, indeed?
To hear the TV Turnoff folks tell the tale, we're mesmerized from infancy onwards by the bright blinking lights and dazzling displays. In fact, this year's televisual fast has benefited from a recently released study the purports to show a link between watching TV and developing attention deficit disorder. Even though the authors of the study flatly state, "We have not in fact studied or found an association between television viewing and clinically diagnosed ADHD," you get the idea: TV is bad for kids and other living creatures because it, in the words of New York Daily News columnist Lenore Skenazy, rewires our brains.
"If the brain gets too exposed to all the hoopla of TV," summarizes Skenazy, "even 'educational' TV, it may start to register this frantic pace as normal. Anything less exciting—like school—becomes too dull to focus on. So it just makes sense to turn off your kids' TV." Give her credit for bashing PBS along with the Power Rangers, even as Skenazy (and the study's authors) recapitulate age-old complaints about relatively new genres of popular culture. The infamous Fredric Wertham said almost exactly the same thing about comic books, likening them to spicy food that ruined young palates for more cultivated tastes. Centuries before that, mostly male critics of new-fashioned novels fretted that such texts were corrupting the imaginations of mostly female readers, so filling them up with fantasies of travel and strong emotions that the ladies would never be able to function properly in polite society. And long, long, before that, Plato banned poets from his utopia because they stirred up the "passions."
What might be called the "hoopla explanation" is an ancient one, but does it answer Benjamin Loxley's query: "Why don't we turn off the TV for the other 51 weeks of the year?" There's a shorter and a longer answer to that question, neither of which is any more satisfying than the weekly tribal council meeting on Survivor. The shorter one, stripping away the moralism embedded in stunts like TV Turnoff Week, is that we simply don't want to turn off the TV. That's not because we're weak-willed. Though a particularly resilient whipping boy for all the ills of society, television has flourished because as a storytelling medium, it has allowed an unprecedented amount of information to circulate in ways that people find meaningful and useful. TV may not be particularly helpful as a substitute for a parent, or a friend, or a babysitter, but like poetry and novels, it has created a common space for pleasure and expression.
The longer answer is that we are in fact increasingly turning off the TV. Before the anti-TV crew pops the champagne, however, there's this little catch: We're not turning off screens per se; we're merely switching from one to the other. As studies of Internet use document, more and more people are spending more and more time online—and they filch those online moments from current levels of television usage. So television's days are already numbered.
Which can mean only one thing: Ten—or maybe 15 or 20—years into the future, we'll be talking about Web Turnoff Week and thinking warmly of the days when we used to cuddle up in front of the TV with a good show.