T.S. Eliot once said that "television is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome." He is not the only one who thinks so.
A group of anti-TV guerrillas, as scathing as the poet about the influence of the small screen on society, yesterday started to "liberate" people from its irresistible grip. They are using a recently launched gizmo called TV-B-Gone to take direct action against television sets in public places.
The glorified remote control, about the size of a key ring, will switch off most television sets within a 14m radius within 60 seconds.
The device will form the focus of TV-Turnoff Week, an annual protest against television's all-pervasive influence, which began in the US 11 years ago. Organized by the TV-Turnoff Network, White Dot and anti-consumerism group AdBusters, the protest has steadily spread to other countries, including Canada and the UK.
The protesters plan to identify restaurants, pubs, bars and other public places they believe are ruined by the presence of a television. They will then pay each one a visit and forcibly turn off their sets, leaving behind spoof menus and posters protesting about how the background hum of the television has replaced the art of conversation. So doing, they hope to spark debate about the extent to which television has permeated our social lives.
"For most people, TV has become a default activity. If you're not doing anything else you tend to watch TV. People become very defensive when you challenge them about it. If you sleep for eight hours and work for eight hours, people give half the rest to TV," says David Burke, the founder of the UK arm of White Dot, which is organizing the protest on the European side of the Atlantic.
The group -- named after the light circle that appears on a screen just before it goes blank -- has the motto: "Turn off that TV set, go outside and live!"
Burke points to the rise in the last few years of so-called "ambient" forms of television advertising as evidence of a spreading epidemic. Supermarkets, gasoline stations and even handdryers feature televisions, he says, so you can't ignore them even if you want to.
"Television companies are facing a real problem. You go to these conferences and they're terrified about losing `eyeballs.' The language is actually of `capturing eyeballs.' We're offering people the chance of liberation," he says.
Burke concedes that he's facing an uphill battle, given the extent to which television dominates conversation, the printed media and culture in general.
However, despite the ongoing explosion in the number of channels available, the number of hours that the average adult spends watching television has actually gone down in recent years, partly due to the Internet.
Burke is keen to stress that White Dot is making no judgment about the quality of television, merely about the extent to which it has come to dominate homes, offices, restaurants and bars, and its detrimental effect on our lives.
"They're all minutes of our lives. You're devoting 10 to 12 years of your life to watching TV. What would you be doing with those 10 years otherwise? You would be talking to your kids or your partner. It's not a small thing," he says.
Mitch Altman, who spent two years inventing the TV-B-Gone device and distributes it through his own Cornfield Electronics company in San Francisco, said he came up with the idea on a night out with friends.
Typically, the group became entranced by a silent television in the corner of the restaurant they were in and he resolved to do something about it.
"I've been overwhelmed by the response. It's just amazing how many people have taken it up. It gave voice to a frustration that people didn't even realize they had," he says.
"I see the TV being on or off as a personal choice," adds the 48-year-old, who is a self-confessed hater of "ambient TV," the kind of visual muzak often blasted over the airwaves in airport lounges, shops and waiting rooms.
"I don't ever turn off TV that people are choosing to watch," he says.
In the US, the movement has gained considerable momentum over the past 10 years. Embracing an unusual coalition of right-wing moralizers convinced that television leads to violence among children, health campaigners concerned about obesity and anti-globalization protesters trying to temper the influence of media conglomerates, the campaign has become a well-organized fixture in the calendar.
Groups visit schools to encourage pupils to take part, volunteers leaflet establishments with televisions and the Web site includes academic studies purporting to show how television encourages violence and stunts academic achievement among children.
Burke retains a sense of humor about the enterprise, but insists that he's deadly serious in his mission.
"I don't have as much pre-packaged fun as I used to," he says of giving up television. "But it turns out ordinary life is OK."
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