Pulling The Plug On The Boob Tube

In your role as a devoted TV viewer, are you a little like a fish: submerged, but unaware you're wet?

If so, how would it feel to spend a week on dry land?

That's the idea behind TV-Turnoff Week, which for the 10th year is inviting viewers to "Turn off TV, turn on life."

This year the week is April 19-25, which gives you a full month to put together your own group "turnoff" with neighbors, co-workers or fellow students. Last year, some 7 million people in thousands of such groups pulled the plug, according to the nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based TV-Turnoff Network, whose Web site can show you how to coordinate a similar effort.

Or you could simply resolve not to watch television - all by yourself. That would mean you've got a month to prepare for seven days' withdrawal from "American Idol," "SpongeBob SquarePants," "The Sopranos" and cable-news pundits handicapping the presidential race.

Think you can make it?

Why not? This year, a tidal wave of anger toward television may make the idea seem downright appealing. You might treat TV-Turnoff Week as a rebuke to media bosses foisting Janet Jackson and "Fear Factor" on you and your family.

Does the pool you're swimming in seem more tainted than ever? Congress sure seems to think so. Just last week, House lawmakers voted to raise the maximum fine for broadcasters and personalities who air indecent material to $500,000 per incident - up from $27,500 for license holders and $11,000 for personalities. The bill now goes to the Senate.

"One reason viewers come to TV-Turnoff Week is because they're troubled by the messages they see on TV, and that's a perfectly good reason," says Frank Vespe, TV-Turnoff Network executive director.

On the other hand, his organization takes a dim view of television regardless of its "good" or "bad" programming.

Of greater concern is the sheer quantity of time Americans spend watching whatever they watch - an average of more than four hours per day that could be better spent on other things. Or so Vespe's group contends.

"Do you focus on TV's inappropriate messages," he poses, "or on remaking your relationship with the TV to break its hold on you?"

In the past year, the cumulative health consequences of excessive TV-watching, particularly among the nation's youth, have seized national attention, with the federal government declaring last week that overeating could soon replace smoking as the No. 1 preventable cause of death.

A pair of recent studies say thousands of commercials for candy and sugary foods have contributed to the epidemic of childhood obesity in America.

The number of commercials children see annually has doubled to 40,000 since the 1970s, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported last month, "and the majority of ads targeted to kids are for candy, cereal and fast food." The study said that 15.3 percent of children aged 6 to 11 were listed as overweight in 1999-2000, compared to 4.2 percent in 1963-1970.

In a separate study, the American Psychological Association called for the government to restrict advertising aimed at children under 8, arguing these youngsters are uniquely vulnerable to ad come-ons. It proposed "specific restrictions on advertising junk food," among other actions.

Of the nearly 17 weekly hours of TV binged on by youngsters 2 to 11, slightly more than nine hours is kids programming, according to Nielsen Media Research.

"It's pretty clear that excessive TV time has been implicated in the childhood obesity crisis," says Vespe, "so TV-Turnoff Week is a good way to call attention to that connection: Turning off the TV is, or should be, part of a healthy lifestyle."

The goal, then, is to discover some of the things you can do apart from television, the Internet and video games.

"One of the great lessons in participating in TV-Turnoff Week is the realization that 'Every time I turn on the TV, I'm deciding not to do something else,"' Vespe says.

He points to U.S. Census data that suggest his organization is making an impact: More than 72 percent of children under 12 have a limit on television time - up from about 63 percent in 1994.

There you have it: A sign of recognition that life exists beyond submersion in the TV pool. TV-Turnoff Week is as good a time as any to poke your head out and learn that lesson for yourself.

By Frazier Moore