NEW YORK — About 20 years ago, a Manhattan mother was parking her two preschoolers in front of the television set when she suddenly felt compelled to take a closer look. Not at the set. At the kids.
While 5-year-old Mike and 3-year-old Steve took in "The Flintstones" and "I Love Lucy," their mother tuned in to their slack jaws, glazed eyes and dazed expressions.
"They seemed zonked out, almost like zombies," Marie Winn recalls. "I thought, 'This is a little weird. This isn't the way they look in normal life.' "
From those casual observations, a career was born.
First came long years of research, followed by the publication in 1977 of "The Plug-In Drug," Marie Winn's landmark book alerting parents to the dangers of television addiction in children.
Now, 10 years later, after more research, comes "Unplugging the Plug-In Drug," a guidebook for fearless parents and adventurous children who want to take part in a daring experiment: surviving a week without television.
Accompanying the new book will be the sort of hoopla that generally surrounds "major publishing events," as publicists like to call them. Already, there are press kits and buttons and lists of schools and libraries planning to participate in what Viking/Penguin Books has dubbed "No-TV November."
Winn is excited at the prospect of additional Americans discovering the world beyond the tube. At the prospect of being viewed as a Carry Nation for the '80s, she is less than thrilled. "I'm very eager not to be seen as a fanatic anti-TV type," she says wearily.
For the record, Winn does own a television set that, on occasion, has been tuned in to "Dynasty." She likes "L.A. Law" and "Hill Street Blues." And never once has she suggested that all TV sets be banished.
"I believe in it as an entertainment and a relaxant," she says. "I believe that it's less damaging than Valium."
Previous TV Turnoffs in Denver and New York provided the grist for the new book--Winn's 12th volume for parents and children. It offers everything from tips for selling the idea to addicted adults ("You mean we would have to turn it off too?" one teacher demanded) to survival hints for families about to take the plunge.
Excerpts from the diaries of televisionless children shed light on the magnitude of the problem. ("When I come home I cannot stand it ," writes one hardened little addict. "Dear Diary: I feel like I'm dying!" says another. "I gotta watch TV! But I won't!")
Amid the recipes for finger paint and play clay and alongside the sample No-TV contracts is a serious message: Too much television can be hazardous to family life, not to mention reading, homework, parental problem-solving and all manner of creative endeavors.
Impact on Americans
"It's a quality-of-life issue," says Winn, who believes that excessive television-watching has had a noticeable impact on American life.
Parents who use television as electronic baby sitters often fail to develop effective ways of shaping their children's behavior, she says. And children who spend too much of their time parked in front of the set, she adds, fail to develop the resources, skills and interests that can lead to enriching careers or hobbies in adulthood.
Very young children also may find their verbal development stunted for the simple reason that families engaged in watching television are not talking to each other, she says. It is by participating in conversations--not merely observing them--that toddlers develop verbal skills.
"People don't think about television in a lucid way," Winn says. "It's just there, from your earliest days. Obviously, one week without television can't change people's lives, but it can start them thinking differently."
A successful TV-Turnoff, to Winn, brings about "insight and illumination about television. In some families, it's a confirmation of what they already practice and believe. For others, the impact is that they begin to understand the need to control it better."
The experiments also enable families to discover new activities, "to do some of the things you don't normally do because you spend too much time watching TV. To see that there are gratifying ways to spend your time."
She didn't always view television as a mind-altering drug. In the early days of her marriage to Academy Award-winning documentary film maker Allan Miller, formerly a conductor, evenings at home often included "The Danny Kaye Show" or "Mission: Impossible."
After long, tiring workdays, the couple would sometimes settle in for what Winn calls "a cozy little junk watch."
Later, as a young mother, "I used to watch 'Lucy' with the kids. I remember turning on shows I thought were OK for them to watch, and plugging them in. Then, I began to observe my use of television with the kids, and the way they were watching.
"My kids, when they watched TV, seemed different from when they played or slept. They looked hypnotized."