By MICHAEL LAYCOCK
Luluzine
November 2003

Sometimes there comes a point in a relationship when we ask ourselves things like, “What I am I doing here? What am I getting out of this? And what is this relationship doing to me?” The relationship may have gone on for years, but we never before thought to ask ourselves these key questions.

I started asking myself these questions in 1996. In the end, I decided that leaving the relationship was the right move.

It’s been seven years now since I walked out on television. And I’ve never been happier.

Before I go any further, I should clarify a couple of things. I still have a TV, but I don’t have cable. The TV’s antenna doesn’t work, and I’m quite content to leave it that way. I receive no TV signals. I only use the TV to watch an occasional movie with the help of my VCR.

Don’t worry. This article will not be a rant against television, and I’m not on a mission to “convert” anyone. I’m just here to share my experience of seven years of tube-free living and offer my advice to those who are considering tuning out.

* * *

I come from a pretty average suburban, North American family. As I grew up, the TV was on much of the time. My sister and I didn’t have a set time limit for how much TV we could watch. We were allowed to watch TV after school between piano practice and dinner. And we could watch more TV in the evening as long as we did our homework.

As a child in the 1970s, I watched shows such as Sesame Street, Captain Kangaroo, and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. I graduated to programs like The Muppet Show, Emergency, Love Boat, and re-runs of the original Star Trek series. In the 1980s, I absorbed untold hours of MASH, Cheers, Family Ties, the Cosby Show, 60 Minutes and LA Law. And by the time I unplugged at the end of 1996, I was soaking up episodes of ER, the Simpsons, Homicide and Law & Order.

My TV viewing peaked in the mid-1990s. I was working as a community newspaper reporter, and the work took up most of my time and energy. Most evenings, I felt that I didn’t have the energy to do much beyond watching TV for a few hours, then collapsing into bed.

* * *

Why did I pull the plug? I think I just became fed up with the tube. I was wrestling with depression, and I felt drained and flat a lot of the time. TV wasn’t helping that feeling, and it was sucking up much of the tiny amount of free time I had. I started to think there had to be more to life.

The last straw for me was a brief stay with a cousin whose roommate watched TV constantly. The roommate’s relentless channel surfing left me feeling like I was developing an attention-deficit disorder.

When I moved into my own place, I didn’t call the cable company. That was it. Cold turkey.

It helped that I started dating a woman at the time who didn’t watch TV either. She had a vibrant personal life without the tube, and she showed me what was possible with some effort.

It wasn’t really that hard to unplug, in retrospect. But for me, the habit of staring at a screen was something that didn’t die easily. The Internet was coming on strong around the time I quit watching TV, and I have to admit I traded the TV screen for a computer screen for a couple of years.

* * *

The past seven years without TV have been both strange and exciting. Much of the strangeness factor stems from my dealings with people who still watch TV.

I’ve been struck by the huge amounts of time many people spend talking about TV shows, stars and commercials. TV seems to have become the oil that lubricates the gears of conversation, if it hasn’t become the gears itself. I sometimes find that changing the subject to a non-TV topic can be truly challenging.

Not surprisingly, I don’t “get” TV references anymore (except for historical ones), and many program-related jokes sail right over my head. If people question my uncomprehending look, I usually say (in a deliberately non-snotty tone) something like, “I don’t watch TV anymore,” or “I unplugged from cable a few years ago.”

I’ve been quite intrigued by people’s reactions to me upon learning I don’t watch TV. Some look at me like I’m from another planet and hopelessly out of touch. Others show a mix of irritation and defensiveness, as if I’ve somehow insulted them. Still others express disbelief or have trouble remembering that I no longer watch — as if tuning out is behaviour that just doesn’t compute.

But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many people are supportive or even envious. “Right on,'’ they say, adding that they’ve been meaning to turn off the TV themselves.

Some people wonder how I can possibly keep up with current events without television. No problem there. I listen to CBC Radio, and I visit news Web sites such as those of the New York Times, the CBC, the Globe and Mail, and the Vancouver Sun. If anything, I struggle with information overload.

* * *

What do I do with my newly salvaged free time? For one thing, I took up salsa dancing. I’ve found this to be a fantastic way of meeting people, having fun, getting some regular exercise, clearing my head and getting back into my body.

I also get out to spoken word nights, cultural festivals, and restaurants, all of which Vancouver has plenty. I’ve followed up on my keen interest in world music, and recently held my first DJ dance party at a local nightclub. And for a couple of years, I taught introductory computer and Internet courses to seniors.

I’ve made time to work out at the gym twice a week and take up kayaking. Since I switched off the tube and bumped up my physical activity, I’ve lost about 7 kilograms (15 pounds) and kept them off.

* * *

Do I miss anything from the world of TV? Sometimes I miss well-written, engaging shows like The Simpsons and Homicide, or wonder what’s showing on the Discovery Channel or Bravo. If someone ever figures out a way to offer me a handful of my favourite shows on demand, I may well be sorely tempted. But so far, nothing has been a powerful-enough draw to bring me back to the tube.

I can certainly live without reality TV, from what I hear of it. And I don’t miss being constantly bombarded with commercials aimed at making me feel inadequate or fearful (and, of course, dangling products I should buy as the “solution”).

I don’t miss the daily doses of violence and fear served up by both drama and news shows. Since 9/11, I’ve had more than enough of those through the Web and radio.

And I don’t miss TV’s frantic rush to “keep up” with news, trends, and fashions. To be fair, I still grapple with this one despite being TV-free. As a former newspaper reporter and current editor at an educational software company, I continue to be a bit of an information junkie. One of my next (and probably most challenging) projects will be to ease off on the amount of news I consume.

* * *

What have I gained since I unplugged? I feel like I’m much more active and engaged in life these days. I feel like I’m more connected to myself and to others. I’m more adventurous, and I take more risks. And I feel like I’ve freed up time to follow my true interests and develop new ones.

Nowadays, I don’t know how I had the time to watch all that TV. I feel more in control of the information coming at me. I choose my sources and look for diverse opinions.

In short, cutting out TV has freed up space in my mind, my time, and my life.

* * *

It turns out I’m not alone in my decision to turn off the TV. But I’m in no danger of being crushed by a mob of TV-free fundamentalists, either.

According to figures from Nielsen Media Research in 2000, 98 percent of US households had at least one television. And Americans watched an average of more than four hours of TV per day — about 40 percent of their leisure time.

According to Statistics Canada, Canadians watched an average of 21.5 hours of TV per week (just over 3 hours per day) in 2000.

Barbara Brock knows a lot about people who go without TV. Brock, a professor of recreation management at Eastern Washington University, carried out a study of 280 TV-free families in early 2000 (the full study is available at http://tv-turnoff.org/brockintro.htm).

Her results were fascinating. Here are just a few examples of what she found out about the TV-free families:

  • The parents have about an hour a day of meaningful conversation with their kids. The national average is 38 minutes a week.
  • They come from all walks of life, incomes, and education levels.
  • Ninety-two percent of parents said their kids “never or rarely” complain about going without TV or pressure their parents to buy brand names and popular toys.
  • Eighty percent of the parents felt that pulling the plug on TV made their marriages stronger.
  • Both parents and kids said they rarely felt like they’re missing out.
  • More than half of the children had straight As in school.
  • Seventy percent of parents said their children got along better without TV. The kids entertained themselves for longer periods and had fewer fights with their siblings.
  • While 98 percent of the families owned a computer, the adults reported only 1 to 3 hours of recreational computer use per week. And they said their kids used the computer less than kids who watched TV.
  • Eighty percent of respondents reported that they were very satisfied with their lives overall.
  • Eighty-five percent of respondents had no doubts about their decision to go TV-free.

As one study participant wrote, “We have not watched TV for more than 16 years, not out of a statement against society or any overt religious injunction, but a simple desire to have TIME for a more meaningful marriage and family in the face of a busy life.”

I’m single and not a parent, but I agree with the sentiment. It all comes down to how you want to spend your time and your life.

* * *

For me, watching plenty of TV was an easy way to avoid connecting with myself, other people, and life. Building meaningful relationships — making those connections — is a process that takes time and effort.

Annoyingly enough, I know that a good deal of my brain’s real estate is occupied by TV trivia, theme songs, and jingles. And I’m still unravelling what all those hours of passively receiving information have meant for me. Lost opportunities? Passivity? Stunted creativity? An underdeveloped inner life?

I feel like I’ve been living a much healthier, more connected life since I gave TV its walking papers. The relationship work I’ve done in the past seven years is paying off. Sometimes it feels like I still have a long way to go, but I’m enjoying the journey.

* * *

Thinking about changing your viewing habits? Here’s my advice:

1) For two weeks, keep a written log of how much TV you watch and how you feel at the end of each day. Try to stick to your usual TV schedule so you can figure out your “baseline.” Many of us don’t have a clear idea of how much TV we’re watching.

2) For the next two weeks, cut your TV-watching time in half as a test. Each day, keep track of what you do instead of watching TV, as well as how you feel at the end of each day.

3) If your mood improved and you enjoyed the experience, consider going cold turkey.

4) If you don’t want to go it alone, try cutting back or cutting out your TV consumption during the tenth annual TV-Turnoff Week from April 19-25, 2004. For details, check out the TV Turnoff Network http://www.tvturnoff.org or Adbusters http://adbusters.org.

* * *

TV By The Numbers

  • Time per day that TV is on in an average US home: 7 hours, 40 minutes
  • Percentage of Americans who say they watch too much TV: 49
  • Average number of hours per week that American one-year-old children watch television: 6
  • Number of hours recommended by the American Pediatric Association for children two and under: 0
  • Average time per week that American children ages 2-17 spend watching TV: 19 hours, 40 minutes
  • Hours per year the average American youth spends in school: 900
  • Hours per year the average American youth watches television: 1023
  • Percentage of 4-6-year-olds who, when asked, would rather watch TV than spend time with their fathers: 54
  • Number of violent acts the average American child sees on TV by age 18: 200,000
  • Number of TV commercials viewed by American children each year: 20,000
  • Number of TV commercials seen by the average American by age 65: 2 million
  • Percentage of Americans who can name The Three Stooges: 59
  • Percentage of Americans who can name three Supreme Court Justices: 17

Source: Facts and Figures About Our TV Habit, TV-Turnoff Network http ://www.tvturnoff.org