Americans Test Sound of Silence: Week With No TV

FORGET O.J., Oprah, and the Power Rangers for a week.

Read a book. Work in the garden. Bake bread. Listen to the silence.

That's the message from a year-old group, TV-Free America, which has organized the first national TV turnoff week, April 24 to 30.

Already more than 1 million people and 3,000 schools have pledged to forgo the tube next week. The governors of Maine and Arkansas have also endorsed the initiative, according to the director Henry Labalme.

''It's an opportunity to rediscover all of the things that TV so often displaces in this country and in the average American family, where individuals are watching an average of four hours of TV a day,'' says Mr. Labalme, who does not own a television set.

Television-viewing has ceased to be a family activity, he adds. The average family has 2.4 sets, which allows people to go off and watch their own shows. For Labalme personally, though, the reason to target TV-viewing is environmental. TV, he says, is ''the driving force behind our whole consumer culture, and that in turn was putting all the pressure on resources, which was creating so much pollution.''

Some communities are making a festival of the turnoff. In Salem, Mass., the group ARTSalem has arranged a full calendar of events for the week -- from a model-building workshop to a scavenger hunt to flower-arranging. In Fairfax, Va., each participating child at Columbia Elementary School will hand in a ticket (signed by a parent) for every day the TV stays off; if the total reaches 1,000, the principal has promised to spend a day doing her job from the roof of the school.

Andy Shallal, a turnoff organizer in northern Virginia, says his community has set up a few special events for the week, but opted against a jam-packed schedule. ''We want kids to get a little bored and figure out themselves what they can do,'' says Mr. Shallal, a bookstore owner whose family gave up TV for good last fall.

Individual communities have done TV turnoffs in past years. Organizers say most people watch again after the fast is over, but at least they are more discriminating. And that, says Labalme, is one aim of the national turnoff.

Redeeming qualities

In spite of its name, TV-Free America isn't advocating quitting cold turkey. Rather, it hopes to ''encourage Americans to reduce the amount of television they watch,'' not to toss out their TV sets. The turnoff has won the support of some influential groups, such as the American Medical Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Many educational organizations and television experts say that children can learn a lot from television if they watch the right shows and are taught to view it critically. ''It's not all junk'' on TV, says Nelson Canton, spokesman for the National Education Association in Washington. ''If you go total turnoff, you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater -- and there is a baby there.''

''We salute the spirit of it (the turnoff),'' says Katherine Urbon, a publicist for cable TV's Discovery Networks. But she adds that the key is ''critical viewing,'' and notes that Discovery runs workshops to teach teachers how to help kids ''sort through television.''

Labalme steers clear of the content debate. ''Kids are watching more than they ever have before, and what do we have to show for it?'' he asks. ''All television, regardless of content, is passive. It's sedentary, image-based, primarily, for the most part commercial, one-way, nonexperiential.''

''One thing we know,'' says Ellen Wartella, a specialist on TV and children at the University of Texas at Austin, ''is that it's a default activity. When we don't know what to do, we turn on the TV. In some houses, it's on all the time.''

But she rejects the notion that TV-viewing among children is purely passive. ''Based on my research observing children, TV is an active process for most kids,'' says Ms. Wartella. ''When children watch, they're actively trying to figure out what's going on.''

''A plug-in drug? I have a problem with that analogy,'' she says, but she adds that a week-long TV turnoff can be ''quite healthy.''

Tough sell

Selling the idea of a turnoff hasn't necessarily been easy. In Fairfax, Va., organizer Andy Shallal says parents resisted at first. Even if they liked the idea for their kids, some parents didn't want to give up their own shows. Others, he says, were concerned it might be an attempt at censorship by Christian conservatives. Ultimately, the superintendent of Fairfax schools endorsed the turnoff, and Shallal is working on making it an annual event.

At TV-Free America's headquarters in Washington, the small staff is struggling to keep up with requests for organizer kits, which are flowing in at 200 a day. But the signs are that this could happen annually across the country. Reader's Digest and Crayola Crayons have made inquiries about sponsoring next year's turnoff. TV-Free America's principal funders are the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation and the Foundation for Deep Ecology.

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