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Suppose you spent months organizing the first annual National TV-Turnoff Week. You envisioned an event along the lines of the Great American Smoke-Out: A glorious week when all across America, couch potatoes would pry themselves away from the glass teat, their addiction-kicking efforts boosted by word of mouth and favorable publicity (in the print media, of course).
But only five days before your big moment, the worst act of terrorism in U.S. history befell Oklahoma City. America stayed glued to the tube as the airwaves gushed dead bodies, heroic rescuers, and sinister John Does. And in addition to all that, the O.J. Simpson melodrama continued in all its gaudy glory.
You might feel that your crusade was not only upstaged, but outright pre-empted. In fact, you might think that you never had a chance.
But if Henry Labalme is disappointed, he doesn’t show it. Labalme is co-founder and executive director of TV-Free America, the nonprofit that organized National TV-Turnoff Week, April 24-30. Was the timing of the Oklahoma tragedy a setback? He breezes past that question, instead focusing with evangelical intensity on television’s trivialization of such events. “Look how obsessed everyone was with the O.J. Simpson trial. And not even whether or not he’s guilty—they were talking about Kato Kaelin’s hairdo. Now, everyone’s forgotten about that—it’s Oklahoma City. Next month it’ll be something else. It’s all just another show designed to sell you Procter & Gamble.”
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Labalme’s battle is a lonely one. Among Washington-based nonprofits, TV-Free has the anti-boob-tube field all to itself, and it confronts at least nine groups—including the National Cable Television Association and the National Infomercial Marketing Association—with interests in keeping America hooked on its favorite narcotic.
TV-Free operates on a scrawny $75,000 budget, and its small, Dupont Circle-area office looks like a graduate-student study lounge. The staff answers e-mail on a couple of gray-screen laptops. Someone has gutted the wooden frame of an old TV and left it in the office, an empty hole where the picture tube should be.
TV-Free America started as an environmental organization; it even had a booth on the Mall this Earth Day. Television’s threat to the environment, says Labalme, “is a connection that many people don’t make. But if you think about it, TV drives the whole consumer culture. TV is at the heart of our whole Western environmental cataclysm.”
Larger, more established environmental groups don’t seem to agree; they were less than enthusiastic about this year’s TV-Turnoff Week. “Those places are chock-full of lawyers,” Labalme explains. “They’re always looking for a tort, or a civil-action lawsuit, or some kind of new legislation.” But TV-Turnoff Week is personal, voluntary, nonlitigious, and nonpartisan.
Even as the event received a cool reception from the environmental left, it drew fire from outposts of the radical right. Andy Shallal, owner of D.C.’s Luna Books and organizer of TV-Turnoff Week activities in Fairfax County, phoned in a guest appearance on a radio show based in Palm Beach, Fla. According to Shallal, host Dick Farrel called him a “pencil-neck liberal” and accused TV-Free of attempting to censor television—never mind that National TV-Turnoff Week was completely voluntary. “Then,” marvels Shallal, “he turned around and endorsed an effort to censor Beavis and Butt-head.”
Naturally, the forces of highbrow boob-tubism were also less than receptive. Labalme received what he describes as “a haughty, self-righteous letter” from a senior executive at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting explaining why he and his family were not turning off their TV, and a fax from a media literacy group in California showing the Oklahoma bombing site and asking how TV-Free could tell people to turn off their televisions this week, of all weeks.
Labalme cheerfully ignores the naysayers and unilaterally declares TV-Turnoff Week “a tremendous success.”
“We had 3,500 schools, libraries, community groups, and church groups participate,” he says. “We had requests for our organizers’ kit from 50 states.” TV-Turnoff Week also received endorsements from the American Medical Association, the Children’s Defense Fund, the National Parenting Association, and Maine Gov. Angus King Jr., among others. The entire town of Salem, Mass., went TV-free last week, and the principal of Columbia Elementary School in Fairfax, Va., agreed to spend a day on the roof of her school if enough students went without TV.
But how many people actually went 100 percent tube-free last week? Labalme laments that he doesn’t have the money to hire pollsters. Ratings for the month of April, though, seem to indicate that a poll wouldn’t find much to gladden the group. Not only did CNN log some of its best numbers ever, but even the newsless Cartoon Network—which practically celebrates everything that TV-Free deplores—saw viewership leap by an impressive 57 percent over the previous year.
Labalme jumps up to rush to another interview, closing with a cloudy analogy between the civil rights movement and the anti-TV movement. “Martin Luther King knew they might catch bullets when they went out….People might get hurt….That’s what it takes.”
Bullets? People getting hurt? The scenario sounds like CNN’s stock in trade. But if Labalme has his way, the revolution won’t be televised.