TV Turnoff Week Comes with a Strong Commercial-Free Message

Published on Monday, April 24, 2006 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Washington)

Gary Ruskin says, yes, of course. He is the executive director of Commercial Alert, the Portland-based non-profit organization devoted to protecting kids from exploitation through marketing and advertising.

“I think of the question in two parts,” says Ruskin, a veteran of Washington, D.C., activism who has found larger measures of peace and sanity on the West Coast. “The first is what can parents do as parents (about kids watching too much TV). The second is what can parents do as citizens.”

As for part one, Ruskin says “putting your TV in the closet or basement or somewhere not close to an outlet” is one effective strategy. That way, you go extra steps to use it.

“Research is clear, kids follow their parents’ lead,” he said. “Parents who go outdoors, enjoy reading, do those sorts of things, they will find their kids doing the same thing.”

TV Turnoff Week is a successful program developed by the D.C.-based TV-Turnoff Network. Among other strategies, it prompts parent with handouts with titles such as “Warning: Too Much TV Is Hazardous to Your Health.” Kids come home with sign-up sheets stating they will not watch television for seven days and parents can check a box for full family participation. There are rewards for following the program, which motivates plenty of kids to be the ones to remind mom or dad that TV is off-limits this week.

Those handouts contain some facts and figures that are likely to stop most parents. Some examples:

  • Forty percent of U.S. families watch TV during dinner most if not all nights — and frequently in different rooms with different programs.
  • High school seniors who watch an hour or less of TV per day score significantly better on reading proficiency tests than kids who view the more standard two to four hours per day.

    What’s more, by age 18, the typical American child will see more than 200,000 acts of violence on TV, including 16,000 murders. There are researchers who debate whether those acts of violence directly affect kids’ behaviors, but, honestly, as a father with impressionable kids, I don’t need the definitive proof on that one.

    Commercial Alert and Ruskin create more awareness about sustaining more of a two-way conversation between advertisers and consumers.

    “Advertising mostly works in an echo chamber,” said Ruskin. “Advertisers talk and we listen. Once we break up the echo-chamber effect, the advertising doesn’t work so well anymore.”

    Ruskin said this can be done by applying the Fairness Doctrine legislation to product placement in kids’ shows and commercials. He explained that when the doctrine was instituted for tobacco advertising (basically giving the anti-smoking lobby access to airtime), the tobacco companies “quickly agreed to take ads off TV.”

    “They lost the one-way conversation,’ he said.

    TV Turnoff Week always reminds me of attending a PBS luncheon several years back. During a question-and-answer session, a mother with schoolchildren stood up to explain that she and the kids planned on watching an ABC Family Movie.

    “The movie was great,” she reported, “but the commercials were awful and inappropriate in many cases.”

    PBS officials at the lunch were happy to point out that public televisions has no commercials, yet there is clearly commercial mentions in children’s programming. No one, Ruskin included, expects ads to be banished. It’s more about keeping those ads in check.

    As citizens, we need to expect more from the federal government, said Ruskin. When George Bush ran for president, he routinely said “the on-off switch” is a parent’s best media consumption strategy, but Ruskin said there is “a complete absence of policy” about kids and media on the federal level.

    TV Turnoff Week is a starting point. Watching TV with your kids when the tube is back on is another good step. Clicking off all commercials works well, and children themselves can be part of the commercial timing out. One caution: Be careful about the “bumpers” that are standard for live sports events in which a show or product gets a commercial message inserted into the play-by-play.

    Ruskin said Commercial Alert favors adoption of a parents bill of rights related to the Fairness Doctrine. It calls for full disclosure of all product placement in kids programming directed at ages 12 and under.

    “This is a health issue, make no mistake,” said Ruskin. “Studies are clear that people who watch more TV smoke more, eat more and exercise less.”

    A Harvard study published this month in the Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine amplifies the point. It showed that 500 children ages 11 and 12 who are regular and heavy television watchers eat an average of 167 calories more every day, mostly from junk food.

    Ruskin suggested one game we can all play, especially with kids, to “inoculate” against too much advertising and marketing hype.

    “When you watch a commercial yell out what the ad is trying to sell you, whether it is a hamburger, soft drink or whatever,” he said, “it brings the ad into your conscious mind and helps the critical faculty to evaluate the ads.”

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