Go ahead, watch TV - and here's how

National TV Turnoff Week is at hand (April 23-29). For those who view television as that "monster in a box," a passive medium that turns our minds to mush, urging a week without television is akin to a declaration of war.

If you go to the TV Turnoff website (www.tvturnoff.org), you'll find anti-TV statistics, talking points, and even the suggestion to extend your turnoff beyond one week.

This emphasis on the negative has always puzzled me, though, because it goes against our collective grain. In truth, we like watching TV.

Asking us to enjoy putting aside TV is like asking a person to go cold turkey on some no-fat or no-sugar diet. It probably wouldn't last past the next drive-in. Successful diets are all about balance and control that can work routinely day in and day out.

The same holds true for television. Americans do consume too much TV, but I suggest we embrace TV Turnoff Week with a practical goal: Become better at watching television.

It's a real need because the problem these days is not bad TV (though there is plenty of that) but - dare I say it - so much "good" TV.

That's not a joke.

Television is now incessant. With cable and satellite connections pumping out programming 24 hours a day (cumulatively, some 2,000 hours daily), there is probably something "worthwhile" available virtually anytime. It's not just filtering out the bad, it is also sorting through the good. Judging just 1 percent of TV as "worthwhile" would fill the day.

We can use a week without television just to plan strategies. Call it a graduate course in viewership. Though people might snicker at the concept of "learning" how to watch television, it's a course we never had in school. Do we need it?

Decide for yourself.

Is TV a conscious choice or an automatic habit? Do you know how to resist the lure of the images dancing before your eyes? How would you go about selecting "only the good stuff"?

As part of your planning, I offer the following suggestions, drawn from years of viewing assignments while writing books, articles, and commentaries. They can help you become a more effective, efficient, and entertained viewer.

1. Decide on one or two truly special television habits and make them your "appointment TV." They could be anything: sports, news, entertainment. That's what NBC's Thursday night "Must See TV" lineup with "Seinfeld" was all about. That's how HBO has sold "The Sopranos." You make watching television special by treating it like a night out, especially talking about it with friends afterward.

2. Treat everything else on TV as expendable. No matter how good, if it is not your special treat you are not "missing" anything if you skip it.

3. Don't watch your shows in real time. Instead, tape them and watch them later - even the same day. That delay puts your remote control in charge. Fast forward, rewind, reject. If you have a digital recording system such as TiVo, all the better.

4. Remember there is no payback for being loyal to a show - not from the network, the production company, or the stars. Regis or Jay or Oprah or members of the "Survivor" tribes don't care if you personally tune in. They care about total audience and ratings households. If you have other commitments, they will not be personally insulted if you skip their programs.

That last point is, oddly, the most challenging. As viewers, we are drawn into television's mesmerizing world and it is easy to forget the illusory nature of these "personal" connections. TV doesn't care about us individually, so individually we can channel surf without guilt over being impolite. Go ahead - cut off Larry King in mid-sentence.

That's the goal. Control. Watching what you want when you want, filtering out everything else. All this involves discipline, yet I think it can succeed. In fact, without any formal organizing committee urging us on, many of us have embraced these approaches already, putting family, the great outdoors, vacations, and real life ahead of television.

We do it every summer, and the ratings reflect it. Sometimes, the top-rated summer shows are down some 10 million viewers compared with winter programming. Clearly, we know how to say "no" when beaches beckon.

So take this year's TV Turnoff Week to develop a year-round plan, then return to the tube refreshed and in charge. Not out of moral obligation, but as part of your "training" as a TV watcher.

If nothing else, you'll savor that first controlled viewing the way a former dieter relishes that first carefully measured slice of chocolate chip cheesecake.

Walter J. Podrazik is co-author of nine books on popular culture. He is the media contributor for the Chicago public radio program 'Eight Forty-Eight' (also online at www.wbez.org).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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