BOSTON — "Sometimes they didn't even hear you!" says Brenda Christy of Marietta, Ohio, about her two girls. "If I asked them to brush their teeth, for instance, it was hard to get them to do it."
The reason, Mrs. Christy explains, is that Annie, 5, and Katy, 9, were often glued to the TV set.
But that was before they took part in last year's National TV-Turnoff Week, when some 3 million kids and adults pledged not to watch the tube. The change, in terms of reduced viewing during the following year, was noticeable, says Christy.
Beginning today, through April 30, the Christy family and some 4 million other people around the country will be taking part in the third annual TV-Turnoff Week - pointedly scheduled to coincide with the beginning of one of TV's sweeps months, when audience measurements are used to help determine advertising rates.
The goal of the turnoff is to consciously break the TV habit long enough to open people's eyes to what they're missing. "It's an awareness exercise more than anything," Christy explains.
And its impact, Christy and many other parents report, is long-term: Less time over the year is spent before the tube, and viewing is more selective. "It wasn't just that week," Christy explains about last year's experiment. "My own family, and others I spoke with, permanently cut back on TV considerably." This year she says she expects an even more pronounced effect.
The experience is a real habit-changer, says Monte Burke, a spokesman for TV-Free America, the nonprofit group spearheading TV-Turnoff Week.
"This is the beginning of seriously reduced TV watching," he says. "[This comes through] the letters and phone calls and e-mail we get, and from an evaluation form we send out that we get back. And it's also the starting point of very critical viewing habits."
But according to most parents, there's more to kicking TV than turning off the set. You also have to turn on life - to reintroduce children, and often adults, to what they have lost touch with: each other and the world around them. "It takes work!" exclaims Frances Kruger of Lakewood, Colo., mother of Rebecca, 13, and Joshua, 10. "This is not a throw-out-the-TV kind of thing. It's to show that there are other ways to spend your time. All of us have to be trained to know how to not have TV."
With Americans now spending an average of four hours a day watching TV, the sheer volume of viewing - even more than content - has become the issue to many. Upon graduating, the average American high school student today will have spent more time in front of the TV than in school.
TV-Turnoff Week's mission "is to move beyond the traditional approach of regulating content," says Henry Labalme, executive director of TV-Free America. "That's a subjective and emotional arena to dive into, and that's where the debate has spun about for the last 40 years. And where has it brought us? Not very far. We have more TVs today than ever before, more channels, more programs. It hasn't delivered us into some promised land of enlightened citizenship."
Thousands of community groups - such as libraries, schools, and businesses - are pitching in to make TV-Turnoff Week inviting, sometimes taking their cue from the 1997 TV-Turnoff Organizer's Kit published by TV-Free America. Bookstores, ice-cream stands, and other places are offering discounts to pledge-signers. Story-telling sessions, hikes, and other events are scheduled by local clubs.
But the heart of the effort is within families. "I made sure it was a fun week," Christy says of last year's event. "I'd say, since we're not going to watch TV tonight, do you guys want to go play mini-golf, or do you want to play a game? We would choose family time in place of TV time."
This year, she says, her girls are excited at the prospect. "My husband probably was the hardest one," Christy chuckles. "He's used to turning on the TV and getting information: He watches stocks on the financial news, or the weather. But the kids are like little policemen. They say, 'You can't watch TV, Dad!' "
In the Kruger family, "what's very important is that we read out loud," says Mrs. Kruger, recalling last year. "We spend half an hour to 45 minutes reading a chapter or two from a book - or three or four if they beg. We expect to do it this coming week. Then there's games, and homework." Laughing, she adds, "There are so many things to do that I personally don't know when people watch all this television."
The beauty of TV-Turnoff Week, Mr. Labalme says, "is everybody having their own experience with it. When they unplug for that week and simplify their lives, they step off the treadmill a little bit.... In the end you realize you're not as dependent on TV as you thought."