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The Great Farmington TV Turnoff

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Last fall, I welcomed a statewide librarians' forum held in the new Farmington (Conn.) Public Library with some startling statistics I had found while reviewing research for a study of how Farmington students spend their time out of school.

The information appeared in a 1982 study of how 764 Oakland, Calif., students spent their out-of-school time. The study showed that, of 105 available waking hours, 6th graders spent 30 hours in school, more than 30 watching television, and the rest on other activities. These Oakland 6th graders spent an average of three hours each day during the week and six to eight hours each day on weekends watching television. The statistics also showed that 59 percent of these students' families had the television set on during dinner. Assuming we would find comparable results in our area, the challenge to Connecticut librarians was obvious.

Nancy DeSalvo, president of the Farmington Library Council and children's librarian at the Farmington Public Library, brought up these statistics at a later council meeting. (The council is made up of municipal and school librarians, a member of the board of education, and the superintendent of schools.) We then decided to promote a January "TV Turn-Off" in Farmington in an effort to promote reading and library use, and, we hoped, to promote all those family and personal activities that stop when the television is turned on.

The council planned to promote the event with bumper stickers ("Farmington Turns Off"--illustrated by a television set crossed out with a red line) and pledge cards for students and citizens promising to turn off their sets for part or all of January.

We also made plans to promote the Turn-Off with "hobby weeks" in school libraries, evening programs in the public library, a "kick-off" panel discussion with a local anchorwoman, and a student essay contest on the topic, "What did you do when the TV was off?" The council sought the board of education's support, and on Nov. 21, 1983, the board, after some jocular discussion about the sanctity of the Super Bowl, adopted the following resolution:

WHEREAS, the Farmington Library Council is sponsoring a month without television for town residents during January of 1984; and

WHEREAS, the Farmington Board of Education believes that excessive television viewing detracts from the educational growth of children and the quality of family life,

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED: That the Board of Education endorses the Library Council's program and urges all Farmington residents to eliminate or drastically reduce television viewing during the month of January 1984. Furthermore, the Board asks that the Superintendent take appropriate steps to inform students and parents of the program to encourage their participation.

Though the Farmington area is the home of the Tunxis Indians, the "dramatically reduce" clause was included in the resolution in deference to the Washington Redskins who, at the time, appeared to be headed for a Super Bowl win.

The board's resolution became a story in all the local papers and eventually the wire services picked it up. Then on Thursday, Dec. 29, USA Today ran a short (what else?) front-page story on the Farmington TV Turn-Off.

That was the start of the barrage. Farmington, a tranquil, suburban Hartford, Conn., community of 17,000, was awakened that day with a few telephone calls from the media--"What's this about a TV turn-off?" ''Why?" "How many people are involved?" "How long?" And so on. At first, they called Bill Colton, chairman of the board of education, and Nancy DeSalvo. Ms. DeSalvo heard from radio stations in Iowa and Oregon on that first day. During a telephone interview that morning, Mr. Colton was caught in a weak moment, and he swore by Odin and all the other Gods of the media that he wouldn't watch television for the entire month. He became, in the lingo of the TV Turn-Off, a "cold turkey" participant, much to the consternation of his family.

By Tuesday, Jan. 3, when the children returned to school from Christmas recess, my office had become a booking agent for the media. During that week, CBS, ABC, and NBC-New York, as well as the major Canadian radio and television stations and Great Britain's BBC, all taped interviews in my office, the library, the schools, homes, taverns, and anywhere else in the town where they could talk to people about the Turn-Off. The crews were all the same--three grubby, bright, and generally young, congenial crew members and a spiffy-looking announcer. My secretary called around and found a dozen or so participating families that would agree to be interviewed. She sent crews to my office, to Ms. DeSalvo in the public library (where a large "TV Turn-Off" bulletin board became the backdrop for dozens of interviews), and on to one of the elementary schools or the junior high, and to a home or two.

That first week, of course, my wife and I watched television constantly to see a 3rd-grade class, a Farmington family, or a school librarian being interviewed. Every time the phone rang, my wife would call out, "Turn the TV off before you answer." We had joined an underground television-viewing group.

The phone rang continuously, at home and in the office, for radio interviews. Deep, resonant voices stated, "This is Vic Miles from CBS-New York. We'd like to do a three-minute interview." I was called at 6 A.M. and at midnight by radio announcers, newspaper reporters, and television interviewers. The questions were all the same--"How's it going after two weeks?" "Are you really against TV?" "You, of course, are participating?" "What about the good programs like 'The A-Team?' Should they be turned off?" For 30 days, I waited for a chance to give a deep, philosophical answer on television viewing. No one ever asked me to. They all wanted short, quotable answers.

Early Sunday morning, Jan. 20, I had two phone calls from different Canadian newspapers. Would I be watching the Super Bowl that day? I told them I hadn't heard anything about a Super Bowl because of the TV Turn-Off and that they must be thinking of the Gray Cup--the Super Bowl of Canadian football--which I thought had been played already. Later that day, I casually walked out to the garage, slunk into my wife's car, and was driven to a clandestine Super-Bowl party in another town. (After two hours of hype and three hours of a very boring game, I knew the Turn-Off was a good idea.)

There was a brief respite in the third week in January and then everyone came back to see how the Turn-Off went. The final week in January was as busy as the first. The teams of three grubby crew people and the spiffy announcer all showed up again in my office, the library, schools, and homes. A member of the board of education and a Farmington family returned for their second visit to "Good Morning America" to tell how the month had gone.

I was interviewed during an end-of-the-day, feet-on-the-desk session with a newspaperman from The Christian Science Monitor. He observed that the people on the street who didn't participate in the Turn-Off were very curt and short--really quite unfriendly when questioned. Another reporter had mentioned the same thing earlier. I reflected on that and on all the attention this town had received in the last month. What makes this story news? Why would a radio station in Iowa care about some people in Farmington, Conn., turning off their television sets for a month?

To some extent, there was the phenomenon of the media feeding on itself and generating more and more coverage, but there was something besides that going on in Farmington, something more serious.

The answer is found in the Oakland study, published as The Serious Business of Growing Up. Television viewing, argued Elliot Medrich, the researcher in that study, was an integrated and pervasive part of the lives of the Oakland 6th graders he observed. They spent as much time each week watching television as they did in school. In about one-third of the homes, the television was on all afternoon through dinner and all evening--he called these "total TV families." Those 6th graders did not go to their sets to watch a specific program, they went to watch television--any television. I often said during interviews that I estimated a Farmington High School graduate would have spent 15,000 hours watching television and only about 11,000 hours in our classrooms. That is a substantial part of a young person's life.

This was a story because television viewing is a pervasive, integrated part of most of our lives and is terribly time-consuming. Merely the fact that people would voluntarily agree to give it up makes it newsworthy. Television viewing is a habit many of us would like to eliminate or reduce. I drew the comparison for the Christian Science Monitor reporter between television viewing and smoking--they are both enjoyable, personal, and dangerous to our well being. If you want to get a cold shoulder, I told him, ask a smoker why he or she smokes. This was why those people on the streets were curt to reporters if they were not participating in the Turn-Off.

A 1977 report by Willard Wirtz on factors in the decline of Scholastic Aptitude Test scores ("On Further Examination") cited the impact of television as one of the "important reasons for the significant drop" in scores. The message from this study and others is clear to parents and educators: This substantial amount of displaced time could enhance not only school performance and SAT scores, but the quality of all our lives if used in other, better ways.

On the evening of Feb. 9, we held a Turn-Off celebration in the packed Farmington library. We thanked all the librarians. We announced statistics. During the month, more than 1,000 people had gone "cold turkey" for one, two, or three weeks, or the entire month. About 4,000 people had reduced their television watching to some extent. Twenty essay winners received a bag filled with some of the 4,000 paperback books donated for the occasion by a local business. There was a sense of irony in seeing a 1st grader with an ear-to-ear, toothless grin, walking down the aisle to get her essay prize, squinting into the glaring lights of three portable network-television cameras inches from her face.

Brian Kelly was the town's 6th-grade essay winner. He best summed up the gains of the month:

What I Did When I Turned TV Off

This is a true confession of a TV addict. I'm the guy you read about in the statistics on TV viewing. I could watch TV all day and then all night. I could always find something to watch. My mother thought she was raising three children and a turnip (that's me). Then came "cold turkey" and the TV was silent and blank. The first few days I was in a state of shock--my body moved but something was unusual in my mind. My "mini-screen eyes" were focusing on games, puzzles, books, etc. My ears were listening to new sounds, like the sound of my sled runners crunching through the snow. My senses were returning. ...

Here it is the end of January and the end of cold turkey. I had a few weak moments but I made it!

Will someone please tell me, Did the Fall Guy fall? Has the The A-Team become The B-Team? Has General Hospital become a private hospital? Have Tom and Jerry signed a truce?

Or maybe "Has Brian conquered his addiction to TV?" is the important question. I hope so, because I don't want to be a turnip.

Vol. 03, Issue 27, Page 24, 19

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