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How Did We Ever Let TV Get So Bad?

The principal stands on the roof of the school building, his suit coat flapping in the wind, all the kids and teachers, arrayed in a big circle below. Dramatically, he heaves a drug-delivery device down into a dumpster. It could be a carton of cigarettes or a heroin needle or a packet of crack, but it is none of these. It is a TV set.

That picture, snapped this April at the Sergeant Bluff-Luton Elementary School in Clinton, Iowa, just stopped me. I stared at it, wondering how we could have let our television programming sink so low that educators declare it dangerous to children.

Rich Caldwell, the principal on the roof, is by no means alone in that opinion. This year's "TV-Turnoff Week" was endorsed by the National Association of Elementary School Principals. And the American Federation of Teachers. And the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of School Psychologists, 39 other national organizations, 38 governors, and 10 state departments of education.

That is no lightweight line-up. All these professional associations think kids are better off without TV. What else do station owners, producers, advertisers, performers -- and parents -- need to hear?

The picture of the principal tossing the TV is on the cover of the spring 1998 newsletter of TV-Free America, the group that instigates the annual turn-off. This year 45,000 schools and 5 million people joined in. TVFA also works with 110 schools in a program called "More Reading, Less TV." Students fill out a paper strip for each book they read and tape the strips to a television, "burying" the set. Some schools this year buried three sets.

If you ever, caught in your own addiction, wonder what's so bad about TV, the newsletter is full of reminders, many from ex-addicts.

"Seeing our two-year-old daughter lying lifeless in front of the tube, watching the same shows over and over ... well, it made us stop and consider what television really is."

"We unplugged the morning our three-year-old, watching some mindless commercial, refused to give my husband a hug as he left for work. Getting rid of the television was one of the smartest and healthiest choices we've made."

"Why did I turn off the TV? Because my husband and I don't talk when the TV is on.... Because I am tired of the constant barrage of consumer messages telling me what I need to buy to be fulfilled."

"I turned it off after an experience I had while working at a local news outfit in New York City. The editors had been a little disappointed over a slow news day. Around 5 PM the police department called to report that a young girl had been shot on the subway. The editors literally jumped for joy at having a 'good' lead story. My disgust at what otherwise good people had turned into helped me make my decision."

"When I was pregnant with our first child, our house was robbed and we decided not to replace the TV. After a few weeks of wondering what was happening on 'Hill Street Blues,' the ... TV ceased to be part of our lives. I sympathize with people who already have children and want to get rid of the TV. As with any other addictive drug, it is so much easier if they never start."

Life seems far better without all the noise."

What if you had a baby sitter who told your children bedtime stories rife with sexual innuendo and gratuitous violence? Suppose you had a dinner guest who tried to sell you things you didn't need every fifteen minutes?"

One of the most stirring testimonials comes from Al Vecchione, former president of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions: "In the roughly fifty years since it was introduced, television has evolved as a menace to our society's mental and even physical health. Increasingly we see the world only through its lens. TV has transformed everything it has touched -- politics, the justice system and the presidency, to name a few. TV has distorted our values and standards and shaped the minds of two generations of children.... TV's contribution to the increasing violence in our everyday lives registers somewhere between significant and enormous.... And new evidence demonstrates that heavy viewership can lead to a decline in physical fitness.... Its influence on our mores ... may surpass that of our religious institutions, its capacity to mold public policy may be greater than our political institutions, its reach into our children's minds may be stronger than our educational system."

In the last three years the percentage of violent prime-time programs has increased from 53 to 67 percent on the networks and from 54 to 64 percent on cable. Fifty-four percent of American children have a TV set in their bedroom. The average American watches nearly four hours per day. The most popular show, until it recently went off the air, was "about nothing." Its producer proudly admits that the premise of its fictional characters was: "No hugs, no learning."

No hugs. No learning. Sex, violence and selling. Somehow we have allowed a fine invention, a neutral technology, a way to speak to one another powerfully, to be so corrupted that it corrupts us. Until we fix it, if we ever fix it, we need to keep it out of the hands and minds of our children.

(TV-Free America can be contacted at 1611 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 3A, Washington DC 20009, phone 202-887-0436, www.tvfa.org.)