The TV Challenge

The challenge arrived in my mailbox. The gauntlet was thrown.

I tried to ignore it. After all, each year I would receive the same dare. "Turn off your television!" the words mocked me. "Turn on to life!"

Well, I usually think my life was "on" enough, but the challenge did make me think. After all, the facts are indisputable, and pretty scary besides. "Maybe we should think about this turn-off thing," I said, mostly to myself. "According to the TV-Turnoff Network, the average American watches over four hours a day. I think we do that in our sleep!"

"Does this mean weíre finally above average on something?" one of my sons called in from the kitchen. Hmmm, could be. Why squelch a good thing? I folded the paper in half, and put in on the desk for later consideration (after all, Friends was coming on).

That paper remained on my desk -- out of sight, out of mind -- but the challenge nagged at me. While I was hunting for a missing spelling list, which should have been in the backpack, but maybe was left on my desk when someone was distracted by a Scooby Doo video game, I found the dare again. "Is this it?" I asked, unfolding the paper.

"Turn off your television! Turn on to life!" The words stared me down (but they werenít the words we were looking for, so I put them aside.)

Okay, so maybe National Turn Off Television Week is a good idea -- if youíre living near Disneyland, or without electricity, or (especially) childless. But I couldnít imagine Courtney going a week without Americaís Most Wanted (which explains a lot). And what would Max do if he couldnít watch Rugrats? After all, it was the only time he sat still!

And, to be honest, I would find the whole thing difficult myself. The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is turn on the TV, mostly because there is not a single clock in my house that shows the accurate time. You know that old trick about setting your clock ahead a couple of minutes, so youíre never late? Well, I must have been extremely tardy in a previous life, because all the clocks in my house are set ahead -- anywhere from fifteen minutes (the clock on the computer) to an hour and a half (my alarm clock).

But this little trick hasnít helped the lateness problem. Instead, it fed into my TV dependency. I turn on a news program first thing to get the accurate time (and thank goodness, Charlie Gibson comes through for meÖ"Good morning, America! Itís six minutes after seven," heíll chirp, as my alarm clock, blinking 8:36, goes off.) I canít imagine getting to work on time without Charlieís assistance.

Actually, I did do a "TV-less" period once -- but it was a long time ago. I was in high school, and I spent the week babysitting for a reporter, a single mom who vowed that her daughter would never be influenced by that demon television.

Easy for her to say... she was off covering all sorts of breaking news and enriching cultural events, and I was stuck in her apartment trying to entertain a 4-year old who never heard of Penelope Pitstop and didnít understand the social significance of Oscar the Grouch. Jill and I spent a lot of time in the apartment pool -- in fact, I taught her the backstroke -- and coloring in her "Heroes of History" coloring books. Most afternoons, Jill would ask to play with a friend who lived on the next floor.

"Why donít you ever bring Nicky over here?" I asked her once.

"Well, I donít really like Nicky," Jill replied.

"You donít? But you play with him every day!"

"Well, heís kinda boring," Jill said, lowering her voice to a whisper. "But Nicky has a TV."

Made sense to me.

So it came as a surprise to me that one of my own children -- my own flesh and blood -- told me that it was time to turn off my television and turn on to life. (Maybe there was some sort of hospital mix up?) "Mom! We have to turn off the TV for a week!" Sean announced Monday.

"Yeah, I heard that. You really want to do it?" I said, thinking that I must be doing something right. My 7-year old was asking -- encouraging, even -- me to shut off Catdog to play card games and read Dr. Seuss.

"Of course I do! My teacher said that if we do it all week, sheíll give us a $2 credit at the school store and a "Get Out Of Homework Free" pass."

Ah, bribery. Well, I guess that works too.

Unfortunately, Seanís siblings hadnít been equally bribed... er, I mean inspired. "No way!" came the general cry.

Now, I know what youíre thinking. Youíre thinking Iím the mother; that I could have put my foot down and pulled the plug on the television, in support of Seanís effort to better his family life (and get out of writing his spelling words three times). And I guess I could have, but I was thinking along other lines.

In a word, I was thinking Survivor.

I kinda thought it was unfair for the TV-Turnoff Network to ask me to unplug right now. See, Iíd devoted months of Thursdays to sixteen stranded castaways, following their struggles and hardships (they had to eat worms and Doritos, after all!) I cheered the good guys during reward challenges and mourned the loss of yet another favorite at the last tribal council.

Okay, maybe it wasnít exactly educational but I had invested a lot of time, thought and emotion into this show. Weíre down to the end -- the final four -- and you want me to turn it off now?

I noticed the network waited until after the final March Madness game before naming the "designated week." Coincidence? I think not.

"Iíll tape it for you," a friend volunteered. "Then you can watch it on Saturday, when the week is up."

"But thatís no good!" I explained (trying oh-so-hard to keep calm). "By Saturday, Iíll know what happened... who was booted, who overcooked the rice, who backstabbed whom... I watch the show for the suspense of it. Would you watch a tape of a Thrashers game if you already knew the score?"

He looked at me as if I was crazed. "Itís only TV," he said, as if the Atlanta Thrashers game was something more.

And it is only TV. I can take it or I can leave it... but I wanted to watch it on Thursday at 8, at least one more week.

So I made a deal with the kids -- we will take a week off of television this summer -- when the prime time shows go into reruns. Sean is sticking to his vow (itís amazing what that kid will do for $2 worth of gel pens) and his siblings are teasing him by waving the remote under his nose. Weíre cutting back our "high average" amount of viewing time, and weíre watching what weíre watchingÖ not just having the TV on for the sake of the noise.