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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

TV Turnoff Week

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

For those of you who haven't yet heard, this week is TV Turnoff Week. It's a national campaign, with four governors across the country (including our own Governor Weld), dozens of local mayors, and thousands of schools, libraries and civic groups taking part in turning off TV for a week.

For those of us who believe in "Know TV" rather than "No TV," it's easy to criticize the effort. Some of the reasons for this big campaign are vapid, silly, or just plain wrong. They say that TV is addictive, that it's the root cause of everything from obesity to heart disease to a decline in conversational English. Some of the week's supporters are real nut cases -- claiming that turning off TV produces "miraculous" changes in young people. One New York psychiatrist, for example, "prescribes" turning off TV for kids with learning disabilities, low attention spans, and hyperactivity.

If the focus of TV Turnoff Week is to rid ourselves of some sort of evil influence in our lives, it's an effort which deserves precious little of our serious time and attention. But other (more enlightened) supporters call the effort a "TV fast," and compare themselves to Thoreau who went into the woods to find his own nature. Put in these terms, the week seems to be at least a little more defendable.

Fasting is a worthwhile endeavor once in a while, as is sacrifice. Giving up something one likes and uses every day is not only a kind of cleansing experience, but it also serves to underscore the importance of that which we're sacrificing. Meals somehow taste better and are more important after a fast.

And the idea of becoming modern-day Thoreau's is appealing, too, as long as we remember what he really did -- and why he did it.

Thoreau's stay at Walden Pond lasted barely two years -- not a lifetime. And although Walden Pond was a little removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life, it was only a mile outside of Concord Center (hardly a true wilderness). In fact, Thoreau was not anti-social at all during his Walden days; he often walked into town, had dinner at friends' houses, and had guests at his. He did not swear off society, outside contact, or humanity in his experiment in independent living.

Rather, Thoreau explained that he went to the woods to live deliberately, to live simply, to live with thought and reflection instead of being carried along by a tide of human events which seemed materialistic and meaningless. Like his famous civil disobedience, Thoreau was testing whether a man can control events or whether events control us.

Do we control our TV use, or does it control us?

TV Turnoff Week might help some people find the answer.. We can look at it as a sacrifice if we want, as a fast. It will no doubt prove to us all just how important (and constructive, and healthy) TV can be, rightly used.

Or we can use the week to use TV deliberately, just as Thoreau used civilization -- not swearing off it completely (for it has much to offer), but rather using it as we see fit. We can walk the few steps to the TV set as Thoreau walked into town -- when we want to, when we have a purpose, when we want it to serve us.

This is, after all, one of the basic aims of media literacy -- to better understand and appreciate how we use the tremendous power of the media, and how it uses us sometimes. The crucial question is who's the boss -- us or the tube? If TV Turnoff Week helps us to examine, consider, and answer that question, then perhaps it's not such a bad idea after all.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.