don't you weep
bruce on gma

turn it off?

I've considered saying something about Turn Off Your TV week or whatever it's called, but keep thinking it's not worth the time. But Sara convinced me otherwise, as we had an excellent chat this morning that I'm going to reproduce here, with only a few edits to fix typos. It started with a post on the subject on Julie's blog, to which I commented that I thought the whole thing was a stupid idea. Here's the chat Sara and I had:

Sara: Were you trying to be funny about the t.v. turnoff week...or do you think it's really stupid.

Steven: I really think it's stupid.

Sara: How come?

Steven: For many reasons ... the assumption that a group of grouchy know-it-alls should decide what people do with their lives, the assumption that television is a worthless art form (they don't tell you to quit reading for a week so you can spend more time with your family), the assumption that these things are all-or-nothing, the assumption that people aren't capable of making their own decisions or that people don't know where the off button is on their teevees unless the know-it-alls tell them (OK, that just repeats the first one, but I'm typing off the top of my head).

Sara: Wow! I don't think any of those assumptions are what they are pushing as objectives for the project...nor that it is all or nothing...but rather that for many people who spend more hours on t.v. than anything else except maybe work or school, may need to refrain completely as an exercise to break the cycle of watching t.v. every single day as a way to just lessen the amount they watch. Also, the marketing poster was made for kids... and studies show kids watch way too much t.v. and don't exercise enough...or socialize... which is bad.

Steven: So kids should exercise more and socialize more ... they can do that without changing their teevee habits, and BTW who decides what is "way too much tv" ... and again, why not pick on reading, which is just as sedentary an activity and in fact is even less social, since you can watch teevee with friends but reading a book is a solitary act, so maybe we should ban reading.

Sara: How can kids socialize more without changing their tv habits, unless they watch t.v. with friends, if they watch t.v. for most of the hours in between school and bedtime? And i would say we can all decide what is too much t.v. but at this point it would be when you only have a certain number of hours a day to do things and you watch t.v., when you don't do other activities that are more important such as homework, exercise, cooking healthy food instead of grabbing a fast bite, spending time talking to your family. Why not ban reading? Hmmm, because i am pretty sure recent studies show that people are not reading as much as they used to and have replaced it with watching television, and both activities could be shared, and back in the day (should be b.i.y.d), we didn't have a population of obese individuals with tons of health problems, which are caused in part by sedentary activities, which often include commercials that support a capitalistic view of life and encourage us to buy more products that are unhealthy (I know that modern t.v. often doesn't include commercials, but also that books don't either - in the why t.v. versus books).

Steven: I think you are identifying plenty of problems with today's society, but I am not at all convinced that these are the fault of television ... it's like Barry Bonds, no matter how many baseball players are taking performance enhancing drugs, Barry is an easy target so all efforts are directed towards him, as if sticking Barry Bonds in jail will solve problems ... turning off your television is not a solution to any of the problems you talk about, it's not teevee that's the problem, but it's an easy target. If, for instance, a major problem is our diet and poor health, which it is, then there are many ways we can change and improve ... you know a lot more of these than I do, it's what you do and hope to do with your life ... people can eat better, they can eat food "closer to home" like that thing you emailed me suggested, they can quit supporting fast-food conglomerates, they can get more exercise ... and they can do all of these things and still watch television, television isn't the problem, but it's easier to just say "isn't teevee bad, let's get people to quit watching." There is also the assumption that there is nothing worthwhile on television ... just turn it off for a week, you won't miss anything ... as if the entirety of television consists of reruns of What's Happening on TV Land ... people would be less informed, not more informed, without television. And I've already said this, but the hierarchical notions inherent in the TV Turnoff campaign, whereby you are supposed to give up television but not other leisure activities (like reading, because again, I think reading creates exactly the same problems they blame on television, if you follow their lame logic), pisses me off. I mean, I'm the person who included a television show in a course on American Literature at SF State, so I'm not going to agree with the idea that teevee is the bastard stepchild of American culture.

Sara: I would argue that turning your t.v. off is part of a multi-level solution to the problem (when you layer solutions you get maximum effectiveness, as most major health problems, etc are caused/effected/supported by various factors). Also, I think you are assuming that the organizations that put together prevention strategies that support turning off your television are short sighted and are just deciding to turn off t.v. without checking out past programs that have worked and past research, and think teevee is bad just because.  No - this is based on research that has shown what kinds of activities individuals are doing instead of others...and part of the reason we as consumers do not do all the activities you listed is because we are inundated through mass media to do something else...and the bulk of us use the mass media known as television. Part of what we hope for does come from these media sources which do not include a variety of options on how to live our lives. (I agree that this gets at your point of a larger problem, but still think that based on research and my humble opinion, it is a good step to get people out of the mold and thinking that we don't have to take our cues on how to live from this media source only.) And again - yes people can do all these things you listed about better diet etc, but again if they are watching television for so many hours a week as many people are, then there is simply not enough time to do these things you listed. The campaign is not saying turn your teevee off forever, it is saying BREAK the CYCLE of watching so much so you can have a moment to be creative about how you spend your time. I agree people may be less informed without teevee, but again it is not saying to give up teevee forever, but for a lot of people it can be necessary, and not everyone is watching t.v. to critically examine our society as you are. i think it is great that you include television in your courses, although i am not sure why in literature, when by no definition is t.v. literature... but even for the fact that it is so important to our culture, to ignore it in many classes is ignoring reality. Also, if t.v. is the bastard stepchild of our culture, we have a few options for the is to quit having bastard stepchildren... the other is to pay attention to it.

Steven: I am not arguing for an uncritical approach to television or mass media ... there are plenty of areas ripe for useful analysis, especially of the news organizations. What I am saying is that the people who put together these turn-it-off programs are singling out television is a stupid way. They are not being intelligent about it, they are attacking television as the one target they think everyone will accept. Their goal is to get people to exercise more, say ... so they say "turn off your teevee" when it would make just as much sense to say "quit reading." They don't pick on books ... in fact, one of their arguments in favor of turning off the teevee is so people will read more, which assumes reading is "better" than watching television. They think watching teevee is a passive act for mindless people, while reading is somehow more than that, which tells me they haven't watched any television for a couple of decades, since very many popular television shows now require an intense attention to what's going on.

Sara: OK, lets say "t.v. is not bad" and does not cause the problems associated with sedentary lifestyle, poor health, lack of social contact and feeling 'a part of a community' or other pieces the campaign is pushing. If, however t.v. still inhibits the action of doing positive behaviors such as moving around, getting exercise, doing homework, etc...would it not be right to focus a campaign on lessening the amount of t.v. watched? So, t.v. does not equal negative behaviors and outcomes, but t.v. at this point in time is the main cause of an individual not engaging in another activity. It would only make sense to target t.v. as a solution to the problem of inactivity. By the way.... these types of campaigns often give ideas for what to do when not watching t.v. so you are not left to fend for yourself and assume that because of lack of teevee you will do other things. My co-worker told me this was a service learning action one of our students did...and part of the project was for the youth to make a list of things they could do in place of watching t.v....which is usually a part of the overall campaign.

Steven: Not sure I agree, but I see your point. For me, it's like this: if the problem is "people don't exercise enough," the solution isn't "quit doing X" but rather "start doing Y" ... exercise more, not watch teevee less.

Sara: Yeah, but as a person who has studied a number of theories...and put them into practice...on behavior change strategies we can see that this line of thinking does not get the end result. Also, again, if you have to exercise more you have to stop doing something else. And currently what kids and many people are doing is watching t.v.

Steven: "not left to fend for yourself" ... if I understand that correctly, it means these folks don't trust us to do what they think is the right thing ... if left to our own devices, we'll do what we want, not what they want. So they have to control all of our actions in order to get their desired results. Am I reading this wrong?

Sara: No they don't have control of our actions...they encourage the participant to come up with their own list of activities they could do instead of watch t.v.

Steven: oh, ok

Sara: So, quit watching t.v. start exercising more.

Steven: Or exercise while watching tv or work one less hour a day and use that time for exercise or walk up more stairs and use fewer elevators.

Sara: Yes those are all good strategies but what has seemed to work has been the turn off your t.v. strategies or others and this strategy also promotes awareness around these issues.

Steven: But if I want to make people aware of issues, I'd do it by addressing the issues, not tricking folks with an unrelated side issue ... if I want to promote awareness of health problems, I'd discuss the health problems, I wouldn't say "quit watching tv" ... in fact, I might get my discussion of the problem on tv so more people could hear what I had to say.

Sara: It is not unrelated!!!!! I understand you think it is not the problem,....but go research it --- it is related!!! People spending time on t.v. versus other activities is a reality and it is related.... why do you think it is attacking television? You are right in assuming it is one target people will accept which is why it works for public health. The goal is to get mass amounts of people to engage in positive health this point t.v. has been a hindrance to doing other behaviors...and by using television watching time as a starting point we can encourage people to pay attention to the activities they are doing.

Steven: Because in my opinion it IS attacking television ... how else should I interpret the statement "turn off your television and your life will improve."

Sara: Well - I think that statement is saying that if you are watching more t.v. than other things, turning it off will give you some time to be creative and engage in other activities that will improve your life. Health problems and t.v. watching are is statistical analysis.

Steven: And that assumes that watching television is un-creative.

Sara: Well - it can be but other than deciding which show to watch it is not too creative... you can critically think about life issues if you have a friend to talk to, or a PHD for a dad...

Steven: Then neither is reading a book creative, or going to an art museum, or listening to a symphony, but you never see these organizations saying "quit looking at art work, it's not creative and it's sedentary."

Sara: But to add - those activities are not the ones that people are spending all their time doing. This is not a theoretical argument it is an argument about activities that people actually do.

Steven: I know, we agree that more people watch tv.

Sara: And if people are spending all their time on one thing versus another we do not need to only analyze it and argue about theory but rather use theory to address the issue at a real level that will get people to CHANGE THEIR BEHAVIOR ... I am making a statement about actions - i.e. how people spend time overall ... I am talking about behavior change and positive health behaviors and statistics on which behaviors individuals are doing versus others which are sedentary and feeds you capitalist loveliness, and does not encourage healthy behaviors overall and so, you can say people should only talk about the negative behavior and not what people are doing instead of the positive behavior and I will say that to get people to change behaviors you have to address both sides what they should be doing and what they are doing in its place.



Thank you, Mr. Rubio, for posting this discussion. Quite frankly, this "turn of your TV" campaign is bullshit. I don't like ANYONE telling me what types of culture I should or should not consume.

I agree with you; if someone wants to encourage me to eat a healthier snack, then encourage me. But, don't tell me to turn off my TV 'cause guess what? I will turn it on more!

I will decide what private behaviors I deem "positive" for myself. If it doesn't harm my neighbors, my community, etc., then it's my business, not the business of some elite, pretentious social group.

If I want to sit at my computer for ten hours straight, that's my choice. I don't want to be told I'm engaging in "anti-social" behavior by people who have no clue who I am or how I conduct the rest of my life. Those types of statements are simplistic and annoying.

Back to my TV.

Katie of Bremerton

How did you get all that written down? You go Sara!!!!


I'm sympathetic to Sara's position, but I have to say I agree with Steven's, emphatically.

Except for the references to obesity, in reading this, I feel like I'm in a time warp. When I started doing "television studies" at the Univ. of Texas back in the early 80s, the terms of the discussion were framed in ways very similar to what I'm reading here. TV was, and apparently still is, a lightning rod and conveniently Bondsian node for arguments about all kinds of socioeconomic ills. Then, as now, TV is at worst a symptom, not a cause of these ills, and that's ignoring (per Steven's point) the fact that there is plenty of really good TV out there.

TV's big problem, PR-wise, is that it continues to be so ubiquitous. If one accepts that 90%+ of the creative expressions within any medium are utter crap, it stands to reason that the perceived sins of TV will be magnified relative to those of, say, novels, much less poetry or paintings.

This public relations problem is exacerbated by the continuing relative popularity of TV in the competition for leisure time activities, and this connects with another historical point. Back when the movies were the most popular and culturally central mass medium, they were subjected to most of the same criticism, framed in strikingly similar terms. Movies get a comparative free ride today relative to TV (except for the interventions of Michael Medved and his ilk), thanks to being, if not marginalized, no longer perceived as the dominant media form.

And: what year is this again? Why are they still having "turn off your TV" exercises in 2006? Has anybody noticed that TV's overall share of leisure time activities has been shrinking, and that this is no longer an especially recent phenomeon? Has anybody noticed this other technology called a "computer," which is connected with these things called the Internet and the World Wide Web, and that you can also use for playing games for hours on end, and for downloading all kinds of cool, free stuff, and that has also been regarded in some circles as a social menace and a colossal waste of time? Isn't it about time we got with it and updated this thing to "turn off your computer" week? I mean, TV is, like, so very 1990 (at the latest).

Also, you've got to be careful about effects research, which in the area of TV studies has a long history of suspect methodologies, unacknowledged biases, and unsupported--though pretermined--conclusions. I published an article on this topic in the early 90s in "Afterimage," and for a much more extensive and up-to-date discussion, I recommend the second edition of Martin Barker (ed.), "Ill Effects."


All things aside, the campaign is geared towards kids, not the guy with an English PhD that studies TV, teaches TV, and gets published about TV. If you check out the website almost all the resources are for parents and kids. Excerise is not mentioned on the home page or on the take action page, you have to dig for that one. This campaign is to, like Sara said, brake the mold for kids, to bring awareness that there are other things that kids can be doing with their time, like reading or being creative (eg making something with their hands or playing a game outside, you know, being a kid). TV is not worthless, but for a child's academic advancement more reading and less TV is a good thing, not a stupid thing. These are kids, the ones who need help as they develope into adults, the ones that adults are responcible for making most of their decisions. I don't need a study to tell me kids spend too much time watching TV, playing video games, and checking out MySpace. All of which aren't bad in moderation. Moderation being the key which is what a campaign like this will hopefully teach kids; it won't, but it will hopefully encourage parents. I am personally semi-participating as an experiment for myself so I can take a step back and see how watching TV on a daily basis effects my time. I don't think that's stupid, I think it's smart.

Steven Rubio

I hear what you guys are saying, but there is such an unspoken hierarchy of cultural value, so many assumptions being made, that I can't help but speak up. The main assumption that I object to so strongly is the one which assumes that watching television is so much worse than other activities. This is most obvious in the frequently-stated idea that kids should watch less television so they can read more. The large majority of problems you guys are associating with watching television are also true of reading ... it's sedentary, it's an even more solitary action ... if being creative and going outside to play with friends are such good things (and no one is arguing otherwise), then why don't we have "Close Your Books Week?" It makes just as much sense ... "kids these days spend all their time in their bedrooms reading books, they need to get out more, be with people, let's ban reading for a week and see what happens." But no one does that ... they pick on television, which "everyone knows" is worse for us than reading.

The TVTurnoff website includes suggestions like:

3. Remove the TV set from your child's bedroom. A television in the bedroom draws children away from family activities and distracts them from homework, thinking, reading, and sleeping. In addition, parents may find it difficult to monitor programs that are inappropriate or unhealthy.
Why stop there? Why not remove all books from your child's bedroom? Books in the bedroom draw children away from family activities (one time-honored family activity, of course, is sitting around together watching television, not that you'll see anything about this on their website). Books distract kids from their homework ... hey you little fart, why are you reading Harry Potter, don't you have math homework to do? Books have been distracting kids from sleeping ever since Abe Lincoln took a candle with to bed in his log cabin. And then there's the part where watching television prevents kids from thinking ... again with the hierarchies, with television always at the bottom.

And, of course, no book ever offered kids anything "inappropriate or unhealthy." Many (most? all?) great works of literature have been seen by some as "inappropriate or unhealthy" ... should we let them decide what our kids read? Luckily, they're so worried about teevee that they don't care what kids read, as long as they read something instead of watching teevee.

Here's another classic suggestion from their website: "9. Listen to your favorite music or the radio as background noise." This helps me understand where these donkeys are coming from ... their idea of art is something you use as background noise while you do "important" stuff like ... well, like what? Here's a direct quote: "Make laundry folding into a game."

So, I'm supposed to take my cultural clues, as an adult but also as a parent, from a group that thinks it's good parenting to play Mozart as background noise while sneakily getting the kids to do the housework? I'm supposed to accept their idea that television is a cultural wasteland when the best thing they can think of to do with music is to treat it like the at-home version of Muzak?

Here's a suggestion for the Turnoffs: actually pay attention to what's on television, quit collapsing all television programming into the same dismal package. Julie mentions moderation. Well, despite all the time I spend writing about television here, and despite my extended rant on the Turnoffs, I am in fact one of the most moderate and choosy television viewers I know. Here's what I watch on television: good shows, and sports. My definition of "good show" might be different from yours, but the idea is simple: figure out what's good, watch that, don't watch the junk. Don't just turn on the teevee to "see what's on." I already know what's on, because I'm not mindless, I pay attention. I know when The Sopranos is on, I know when American Idol is on, and when Sopranos is on I watch and when Idol is on I don't watch. That's intelligent moderation. I don't need TV Turnoff Week to teach me that kind of moderation, and in any event, that's not what they mean by moderation ... they don't mean "watch the good stuff," they mean "turn it off." They didn't call themselves "Watch Good TV," after all.


You can't assume that kids are going to "Watch Good TV". It sounds like you are trying to fight the system, but to me a campaign to get kids to watch less TV is fighting the system, fighting commercialism, fighting parents that use TV as a babysitter. It's not turn your TV off forever and it's not for you. These are suggestions for awareness, trying something new, why is that so awful? So what if they are putting a negative light on TV. Negative light is thrown on all forms of art and entertainment at some point, it's opinion, it's their right. They are not trying to ban TV like books were banned. Just like it's your right to oppose it, but to say it's stupid and not see any benefit it may have for kids? If you wanted to start a "Put your Book Down" campaign, I'm sure you would find people that would join you. What about the campaign for eating local for a month? What about when it is suggested people use public transporation and carpool for one week? Are these stupid? Do these things threaten the validity of grocery shopping and your car? You can not convince me in any way that a kid watching TV is equal or better than a kid reading. Both are sedentary and anti-social, but the whole campaign isn't about being active. If your arguement against this campaign is "books are bad too" then it's time to agree to disagree.

(This is fun)


"If you wanted to start a "Put your Book Down" campaign, I'm sure you would find people that would join you."

Sign me up! =)

"What about the campaign for eating local for a month? What about when it is suggested people use public transporation and carpool for one week? Are these stupid?"

I agree with what has already been suggested: these types of campaigns are different in that they are encouraging you to DO something like, "Ride your bike to work." It's stated in the positive rather than the negative.

When it comes to the consumption of culture, I feel it's really dangerous to 1) presume to know what is "better" for people, and 2) propose a heirarchy of media.

I'm all for teaching kids and adults to think more critically (and, in fact, manage a museum program that teaches critical thinking skills to kids through art). I am, however, opposed to using culture to demarcate classes of people, which I think campaigns like this do.

Steven Rubio

I agree it's fun!

Just to clarify, my point isn't that books are bad too, it's that tv is good, too. While I have problems with some of his argument, Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter states the basic case, which is why I assigned some of his work when I included the teevee series The Wire in my American Lit class. I've written on this topic, as well:

It's not that I assume kids will watch "good" tv, but I still have many problems with the notion that this problem needs to be addressed in the Turnoff manner. First, there will be disagreement over what constitutes "good," and as I noted above, the Turnoffs seem to be deaf dumb and blind when it comes to art and value, so I certainly don't want them to decide what is "good." But my main complaint remains the same: I don't understand why television is singled out. You can't assume that kids will read "good" books ... you can't assume they'll listen to "good" music ... you can't assume they'll play "good" video games ... you can't assume they'll choose "good" friends. Yet somehow, we're supposed to solve the problem just by picking on television.

I spent a couple of years teaching mass communications, and I have a lot of negative things to say about how mass media are organized and produced today. But the solution is to do things like work to change laws that allow Clear Channel to own multiple channels in every market. The solution is to crack down on advertising during kid's programming. The solution is not to just tell everyone to turn off their teevees.

You want to fight capitalism? First, we educate the public. Three of the best places to learn about how capitalism works in America are on HBO: The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire. The first shows us how "family values" are corrupted by money; the second shows us how capitalism emerged on the American frontier; the third shows us the dark side of contemporary American capitalism. People shouldn't be turning off these shows, they should be watching them, and as soon as parents decide their kids are ready, the kids should be watching, too. That doesn't mean they should throw their copy of Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States in the garbage ... they should read that, too.

And do you really think the right-wing prudes are uninterested in banning stuff from television that they don't like? What about when the FCC fines stations for broadcasting material they don't approve of? How about the PBS station that was fined for showing Martin Scorsese's documentary series on the blues, because some of the musicians cursed? I'd venture to say that right-wing crazies are more interested in banning television shows they don't like than they are in banning books ... as everyone in this conversation seems to agree, more people watch teevee than read anymore, so let's stop the filth where it matters: television.

Finally, I want to contest this whole notion that watching television is somehow anti-social. For one thing, it can be and often is a communal activity, every time two or more people get together to watch television. But the communal nature of television viewing extends beyond the physical act of watching. The proverbial "water cooler" discussion, which these days is more likely to take place on Internet chat sites than at actual workplace water coolers, is just a really big salon, like when some rich famous person would invite an author to come and talk to other rich people, and they would all read the author's book and talk about it amongst their rich selves. Now, an episode of Lost will inspire large numbers of viewers to hash out the program, and they don't have to be rich and famous to participate, either. Oh, but "great literature" is so much better than Lost, I forgot. Yeah, right.

I think two important points have been raised in this discussion: Sara's sense that theory needs to be translated into action, and Steve's reminder that this whole thing about teevee is outdated, that the Internet is really where these people should be directing their stupid rancor. But the Internet has something television doesn't ... a reputation for being, not only a place where you email jokes and check out porn, but also a place where you learn something. People refuse to accept that the best television is the equal of other arts, and so they decide to Turn It Off.


I think one of the main issues that needs to be addressed regarding television is the fact that many parents use it as their babysitter. This "Turn off the TV" campaign should really be more about spending time with your family and learning from them the values and morals you should develop at an earlier age. I don't have a problem watching tv and I don't think that this is a bad idea, but like it has been mentioned above, I think there are other issues, which have more to do with our society's tendency to overindulge in everything. Food, Internet, Video Games, TV, etc. - I wonder why this is, can anyone explain it to me?


Now we are getting somewhere. I agree that good TV is equal, that engery should also be focused towards internet use, that the FCC are idiots nudity bad, violence no problem), and that watching TV can be very social. I socially watch 24, Gilmore Girls, Sopranos, and Lost every week with 4 other friends. I enjoy good TV, I enjoy watching stand up comedy that makes me laugh and I will swear that by making me laugh it is good for me. I still think that bringing awareness and trying something different is good in life. Turning TV off for one week doesn't have to be seen as a negative action, there are other ways to look at it, but I'm an optimist by nature.


1. turning off your t.v. for a week is not a negative action- it is encouraging an action.

2. no one is deciding which programs are good or bad for you- that is for you to decide. they are just asking us to choose to participate or not in turning it off for a week.

3. aside from the internet that was brought up as something kids spend way too much time on- in answer to why television is singled out- it is because that is what many kids are spending their time on rather than homework, family activities, etc. this in itself does not just say that t.v. is an unworthy art form- but that if youth are not engaged in a diverse array of activities then there potentials are limited.

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