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Pulling The Plug On Kids Tv Time

November 10, 1989|HERMAN WONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was only 3 p.m. after school, but 9-year-old Ian Scott had already surrendered to the glowing black box atop the living-room cabinet--the 21-inch family television set.

Slumped deep into the couch, armed with a bag of potato chips, his school homework shoved to one side, Ian went on his daily TV-viewing spree.

He stared at show after show, leaving the couch only when his mother, home from work, fixed dinner. Then he was back at the set until his 8 p.m. bedtime.

That's the way it was two years ago for Ian Scott of Irvine--4 1/2 hours of the tube every weekday. Even more on weekends. Week after week, month after month.

A TV addict.

"I couldn't stand it anymore," remembered Ian's mother, Susan, herself only a casual TV watcher. "He was glued to the thing, hypnotized by it. He never did anything else--just sat there, like a little zombie."

She took action. First she told him: Absolutely no TV after school. Of course, that didn't work because she wasn't home to enforce it. "I'd come in and he would be sitting there like a little angel and the set would be off--but still warm!"

So she took the knobs off the set. That didn't stop Ian, who used pliers to turn the dials. She even hauled the set off to work with her. But Ian simply went to a friend's home to catch up with his "Dennis the Menace," "Tom & Jerry" and "CHiPs."

In September, 1988, Susan Scott carried out the ultimate threat: She pulled the plug. She threw their TV set out. She sold the little monster.

Free at last.

The spellbinding tyranny of television in America's homes has been profusely documented, analyzed and debated since the electronic device became the prime source of entertainment and information in the '50s.

And the trashing of most--if not all--television programming has been a favorite pastime for just as long, the target of national citizens' coalitions as well as TV columnists and media researchers.

You know the attacks: Too much violence. Crass commercialism. Twisted reality. A never-never land. The boob tube .

The PTA and other organizations called for the industry to clean up its act and for parents to seize control at home by monitoring what their children saw and cutting back viewing hours.

By the '80s, the outcry went beyond even this coexistence with the electronic enemy. For some the focus was on the couch potato syndrome--TV as passive, addictive behavior--or what Marie Winn in two popular books labeled the "plug-in drug."

This led to much talk of living without television in the home, from engaging in temporary "TV turnoff" experiments to ridding homes permanently of TV sets. There was even a new kind of advocacy, a small group calling itself SET, the Society to Eradicate Television.

But while national surveys showed that the viewing masses agreed overwhelmingly with critics--that quality programs were indeed few and far between--most families remained apathetic about taking any sweeping action in their own homes.

According to a recent Los Angeles Times Poll, 40% of the parents surveyed imposed some limits on when and how TV was viewed and 9% limited the amount their children watched. But another 49% said they didn't impose any firm viewing rules.

"Heightened awareness is one thing, but the problem is that most parents still aren't capable of taking matters into their own hands," said Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television, one of the best-known national organizations for promoting greater "quality programming" for children.

Too many parents, Charren and other veteran observers argued, are still willing to use television as a surrogate baby-sitter, a kind of electronic pacifier.

If anything, television's hold on the masses is as mesmerizing as ever.

"All you have to do is look at the latest (industry) statistics," said telecommunications professor George Mastroianni of Cal State Fullerton. "The norm today is for more--not less--TV viewing. And you can bet this is as true in Orange County as anywhere else."

The latest national Nielsen Media Research figures:

--The number of households with at least one TV set has been at or close to the 98% mark for the past decade. The figure is even a bit higher in Orange County, 98.4% of 824,200 households.

--The hours spent watching television (or having the set turned on) have been mounting dramatically for years, from a daily per-household average of 5.1 hours in 1960 to 7.2 hours today.

And officials with Orange County's PTA network believe that even if they were able to count the limited-TV or no-TV families here, the numbers would be very few. (Locally, the Society for the Eradication of Television lists only three member households, none with children.)

Is it any wonder that TV-set resistance in Orange County, as in the rest of the United States, is still regarded as somewhat odd and a tiny, silent minority.

So what is it like to live outside the TV-watching norm--and here in Orange County?

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