- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2001

It's rare that you'll find the conservative Family Research Council agreeing with the lefty Physicians for Social Responsibility. That both endorse National TV Turnoff Week, which begins today, is a sign of the sorry state of prime time.

More than 60 organizations, including the American Medical Association, are urging you to shun the toxic waste site in your living room for the next seven days.

“Could I cut off an arm instead?” many of us would ask. We are a nation of broadcast junkies. The average American spends four hours a day grazing before the tube.

Over 40 percent of our homes have three or more sets. More than one in three of us regularly watches TV while eating dinner. One in four fall asleep in front of a glowing screen at least three nights a week.

In its early days, television was hailed as a medium for bringing culture to the masses. Today, the very idea is laughable. (Groucho Marx used to say he found TV very educational. “Every time somebody turns on a set, I go into the other room and read a book.”)

A steady diet of television is a do-it-yourself lobotomy. In a 1998 study, 52 percent of high school seniors who watched less than one hour of TV daily achieved reading proficiency on standardized tests. Of those who watched six hours a day, only 14 percent read proficiently.

But television has an educational impact of sorts. It teaches us to be materialistic, violent and sexually irresponsible.

By age 18, the average child has been exposed to 360,000 commercials. One command is hammered into malleable minds: buy, buy, buy — things will make you happy. No wonder we've become a nation of hyper-consumers, whose lives are largely dedicated to acquisition.

Television has also shaped the savagery into which we are sinking. In the first 18 years of life, the average child will witness 16,000 dramatized murders, as well as tens of thousands of assaults and other acts of mayhem.

Juveniles can watch movies like “Romeo Must Die” on HBO, hear odes to homicide and suicide on MTV, and see steroidal mutants giving each other groin kicks on “WWF Smackdown.” And some commentators wonder how kids (like those who re-enact “Rambo: First Blood” at their high school) develop a death wish.

But if there's one area where the medium truly excels, it's sex education.

The Parents Television Council reports that in 1999, on the networks, sexual material per hour was three times as great as a decade earlier. Words that were never spoken on TV 10 years ago (“bitch,” “dick”) are standard fare today.

HBO has a series, “Sex and the City,” dedicated exclusively to copulation (simulated orgasm and discussions of organ size are de riguer). Then there's Fox's “Ally McBeal,” whose plot facades quickly dissolve into grunt and moan — sex with anonymous strangers, cyber-sex and same-sex kisses.

A recent episode of “Boston Public” had a female candidate for class president performing oral sex on a male student. On “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the heroine tells a young man, “I could ride you at a gallop until your legs buckled and your eyes rolled up.”

Still, it's hard to outdo Comedy Central's “The Man Show,” whose motto seems to be: Let no barrel's bottom go unscraped. Its highbrow entertainment includes discussions of bodily functions, segments titled “Jugs” and “Twin Juggies,” and a comedian who asks women on the street if they'll sleep with him.

Comedy Central is also guilty of “South Park,” the crudely animated series with 8-year-olds talking like the forum page of “Hustler.” Fox's entry in the “reality” sweepstakes is “Temptation Island,” where studs and babes try to seduce unmarried partners.

No wonder the late Steve Allen, a pioneer in the medium, charged, “TV is leading our children down a moral sewer.”

Television's lessons are learned all too well. In 1999, for the first time, every third child in America was born to an unwed mother.

This week, you can stage your own quiet protest by rejecting an increasingly insidious influence in our lives. The little good you'll miss (old movies on AMC, documentaries on the History Channel) can be more than made up for by picking up a book.

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