by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
April 24, 2001
TV TURNOFF WEEK TURNS ME ON
HOLLYWOOD -- It's been nearly 35 years now since I left my parents' home at 19 and entered into a life without television.
In all the time (except for a few weeks in 1974 when a friend who'd sublet her apartment to me left her set behind) since, I have never had a tv in any place I've called home. I've lived all over the world, in hotel rooms and sleepy forest lodges, monasteries, rural farms and New York City condos in the glorious silence that comes only in its absence. My life has been rewarding, adventure-filled, original, engaging and constructive.
And since 1966, when I left my parents' home in upstate New York to enter college, I have read more than 2,000 books, seen more than 1,000movies, spent 5,000 hours in conversation with some 10,000 people, spent thousands of hours in public service to my community, traveled to 18 countries and learned bits and snatches of 15 languages so that I can at least start conversations with all the people I meet who are not watching tv, either.
But the most important achievement of all those years without bombardment by the Boob Tube is not material. I have managed to retain some of the character of the people who influenced me in the years before the television commercial created stereotypes of American life that its victims have fruitlessly tried to live up to ever since.
I am less inclined to talk in sitcom cliches, less likely to mention brand names, and less likely to be afraid to go outside at night. I know far more about world events, play trivia far better, speak better English, write more letters, know more of my neighbors, am less prejudiced towards other minorities, have more opinions about everything, and am more inclined to help a stranger in need.
You will probably laugh a little at that list -- especially the part about opinions -- but there is a clear relationship between the amount of tv viewing one does and all of the qualities I've described, including one's willingness to exercise one's mind and mouth.
After all, being the audience for a tv is a passive act; scientists told the Los Angeles Times some years back that that on average, a child watching television slips into the passive alpha (receptive) brain state within 30 seconds of beginning to watch television. Most adults I know seem to start out that way.
For me, watching television is an exercise in observation; I am aware of camera angles, grammatical slips, stage-setting, editing and message-shaping more than of what tv tries to sell me; indeed, it doesn't take much to become a sophisticated tv viewer -- all you have to do is turn it off for a while to see how empty and manipulative it is when you turn it on again.
That unreality was never more painfully real than the time I watched Mike Wallace recap key moments of the '70s during a New Year's Eve broadcast at the dawn of the '80s.
The most powerful of the images was of the Palestinian terrorists at the 1976 Munich Olympic Games. I re-experienced the horror of the murders that followed the takeover of the Israeli athlete dorm as the footage unfolded, growing more deeply involved in the images and unfolding story with every passing second.
With no warning, a Miller Beer commercial suddenly blared onto the screen, and it was as though a fully-loaded garbage truck had plowed into my gut. I almost vomited with the shock and sense of violation. The incident occurred at a place called Tijuana Tillie's at 13th Street in Santa Monica as I waited for a table; I couldn't eat that day, or even return to the restaurant.
Over-sensitive? Maybe, but as a Neighborhood Watch leader in Hollywood, I have not had difficulty grappling with real people dead on the ground with their brains on the sidewalk, or bleeding from stab wounds and gunshots; those kinds of things happen in the broad context of reality, not to tempt me into opening up my center of being so that someone can sell me beer. What happens in my neighborhood -- now a peaceful one thanks to people who gave up their favorte tv shows to help patrol it for six months -- is an antidote to the unreality of television and all the neurotic imaging that comes with it. How do you poison a nearly 400-year-old culture in the space of 50 years? Invent television.
Admittedly, I have spent a few great moments in front of the tube, although none come readily to mind this afternoon. Live coverage of the Detroit riots in 1966, the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby in 1963, the incredible reporting of Peter Arnett from Baghdad in 1991 and the end of President Reagan's first State of the Union address might qualify, though.
Each of those events, I would note, was broadcast live, free of commercial interruption.
I suspect that Jack Ruby's act of desperation and cowardice would have been on tape-delay if it occurred today, and network executives would decide whether to show it.
That's another problem with tv: It's carefully controlled even when providing curative doses of reality; there is never enough to heal. On top of that, a vast audience's daily diet of news and information is fed to them by just a few huge corporations, and Americans seem unable to tell the difference.
April 23-29 is National TV-Turnoff Week, and I urge everyone who wants to see another world in this lifetime -- namely, this one -- to jump in and join those of us who have learned how to live in it.