Changing the Channel

Last January, I reviewed my cable bill with thinly veiled disgust. The total due for the month was well over $100. How could I be paying so much to watch television?

Ironically, I had just had a conversation with my cable guy joking about how TV will overcome any recession. With total seriousness, he responded: “I know people that will not eat to pay for more channels.” I tried not to laugh.

Then I stumbled across this statistic: “According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than four hours of TV each day. In a 65-year life, that person will have spent 9 years glued to the tube.”

“No way!” I found myself saying out loud, impressed and mortified by the staggering number. I’d never been a TV addict (although I sure watched a lot during those early breastfeeding months), but I was afraid to actually add up the time I spent watching unnecessary shows. Was it really just an hour or two a day as I assumed, or more? Was TV making me happier? I didn’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong; I like TV as much as the next gal. Modern Family and The Real Housewives can really rock my world. But as a parent to twin toddlers (now just about to turn two), I find fairly little free time for myself. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be spending those precious hours — or sometimes, minutes — watching the tube. Moreover, as soon as my daughters figured out what television was when they were mere infants, they started whining for it.

So, with my husband’s support, we slashed our cable bill entirely and decided to go without TV for a year. It was January after all — hooray for New Year’s resolutions! — and the time felt right. We didn’t need TV! We were too good for TV! TV wasn’t going to suck nine years out of our lives, darn it!

The first months were pleasantly serene: no mindless news rants, Friends reruns, or E! talk-show hosts blathering on in the background. With online news outlets, Facebook, and blogs keeping me culturally apprised, I hardly felt like I was missing out on any major phenomenon. I instantly carved out more reading time for myself and was pleased that TV was still a novelty for my young girls, who rarely noticed that it was never on.

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As the year progressed, I took on the same tone of moral superiority akin to new vegetarians or first-time Prius owners. When friends would ask if I had seen the latest Game of Thrones episode, I’d proffer false modesty and respond, “Well, we don’t exactly have a working television right now …” and watch their reactions of disbelief. It felt good not to be “owned” by the television anymore.

However, like any diet, ours was not without its drawbacks. When fall came around, football season without our TV was truly terrible. Ironically, my alma mater Notre Dame picked our “diet year” to become number one in college football and head to the national championship for the first time in decades. We scrambled to other people’s homes to watch the big games.

Around this time I also discovered Downton Abbey during a visit with my parents. Let’s just say that never had I wished for PBS more.

But after a year of being on our TV diet, I do think my family has lost some unnecessary “weight.” My husband and I feel a bit healthier, a bit happier, and dare we say it — even a bit more entertained. We’ve spent more time reading novel series together, more time talking over candlelight (when the girls are asleep, of course), and even more time playing outside with our kids. And of course, we didn’t exactly go cold turkey from all media entertainment; we checked out plenty of movies from the library to watch on our at-home date nights, and I was delighted to find Downton Abbey available for online viewing. While my husband and I still spent time as media consumers, our total lack of daily TV made movies a real treat.

Additionally, because of our TV diet, my toddlers weren’t exposed to incessant commercials or an onslaught of inappropriate images. Since the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under the age of two, our TV diet has helped keep our kids’ development on track. While I’m not opposed to appropriate media exposure to kids — the occasional Winnie the Pooh or Baby Einstein DVDs are lifesavers when your kids are sick — I’m happy that TV isn’t a part of our daily routine and that my kids aren’t constantly clamoring for it.

This past January, my husband and I renewed our family resolution to continue our TV diet. We’ll still patronize Redbox, YouTube, and the library’s movie section plenty, I’m sure. But I want to trim down those alleged nine years and take them back for us all to truly enjoy.

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