I'd get on the subway home from work with the newspaper and immediately turn to the TV page to plan out my evening's watching. I'd come home, wash, change my clothes and tell my wife to start the machine so it would be warmed up. And then we'd watch TV for the rest of the evening. We'd eat our dinner in the living room while watching, and we'd only talk every once in a while, during the ads, if at all. I'd watch anything, good, bad, or indifferent . . ."
"My 10-year-old is as hooked on TV as an alcoholic is hooked on drink. He tries to strike desperate bargains: 'If you let me watch just 10 more minutes, I won't watch at all tomorrow,' he says. It's pathetic. It scares me . . ."
"We were in Israel last summer where the TV stations sign off for the night at about 10. Well, my son would turn on the set and watch the Arabic stations that were still on, even though he couldn't understand a word, just because he had to watch something . . ."
"I find television almost irresistible. When the set is on, I cannot ignore it. I can't turn it off. I feel sapped, will-less, enervated. As I reach out to turn off the set, the strength goes out of my arms. So I sit there for hours and hours . . ."
Can it be done? Can the American family learn to control its TV set? Marie Winn, author of a slightly hysterical but very necessary book, "The Plug-In Drug," thinks we can, but only when we really want to.
"Many of the difficulties parents encounter in controlling their children's television watching," she writes, "are compounded by a lack of certainty about what role they wish television to play in their family life, and a basic ambivalence about television."
She calls her book a consciousness-raising effort. Her main point is that TV's critics are firing in the wrong direction when they attack violence on this show or that. Her point is that watching TV itself is the problem.
She begins with the familiar figures - figures few of us can really bring ourselves to believe - about viewing time: "Even the most conservative estimates indicate that preschool children in America are spending more than a third of their waking hours watching television."
Then she goes on to connect this fact with: the nationwide decline in college board exam grades; the success of such "nonbooks" as the Guinness Book of Records; the rise in juvenile delinquency: the drug culture: the erosion of writing skills among the young; the weakening of family bonds and I don't know what-all. There is much speculation and little documentation. There is also a certain lack of detachment in the italicized words and a vague sense that we are being scolded by the Czech-born author.
But the thing is, she must be listened to. She has got hold of something so big that it has escaped the rest of us.She tells of a mother, troubled over changes in her son's behavior, who appealed to the school psychologist, only to be told that three hours a night of TV watching "was probably the best thing for him to do."
Added the mother: "The combined message of 'Jeannie' and 'The Flintstones' is so sexist that it makes me furious. But the school psychologist assured me that TV is just TV and that kids know it isn't real."
One of Winn's prime concerns (she is a mother herself) is that TV watching may be retarding children's development, regressing them to the passive stages of infancy at precisely the age when they should be eagerly and fiercely embracing a whole world of new experiences.
"Again and again parents describe often with considerable anxiety, the trancelike nature of their children's television watching. The child's facial expression is transformed. The jaw is relaxed and hangs open slightly: the tongue rests on the front teeth of there are any). The eyes have a glazed, vacuous look."
She even regrets that "when school lets out, kids no longer behave like creatures let out of cages . . . For many of these children activity is just about over for the day. They head for home to settle down in front of their television sets. They watch the screen and passively soak in images, words and sounds hour after hour, as if in a dream."
No matter, Winn asserts, whether it is a gory police show or the vaunted "Sesame Street": The real damage is done by the watching itself. She does note that "the 90 per cent increase since 1952" in TV violence may reflect the passive viewer's need for a simulation of activity, "a feeling of activity, with all the sensations of involvement while enjoying the safety and security of total passivity."
Winn also has a word about the low quality of TV dreams. Her daughter, for example, was furious at the TV version of "Little House on the Prairie" because it cheapened her own imagined pictured of the characters.
What is to be done? For starters, Winn wants us to examine the democratic form of many American families, as opposed to the benevolent despotism of the traditional monarchical pattern.
But more important, she believes parents must have convictions. "Do you allow your 3-year-old to walk around with a sharp knife? Or cross the street by herself?" she says.Well, parents must feel as strongly about controlling TV in the home.
Some families bar television during the school week, making it an inflexible rule that soon is accepted without carping. Others limit viewing to one hour a day - though here is a temptation to stretch it and gradually slip back to the old ways.
Winn offers other ideas, ranging from location of the set to a rich social life for the family.
"One thing, there seems to be less fantasy reading by children now," she said. "I was a fairytale junkie, and I was so mad when I finally finished all the fairytale books. Something like that helps a kid to visualize things for himself. Reading aloud is another way to start children using their imaginations, which are so much richer than anything the TV studios can build."
Perhaps in the long run the most reliable cure is simply anger - a true and equal response to the children's wailings, lamentations and pleadings. Snapping the set off in mid-program if necessary. Pulling the plug. Literally removing the set itself and keeping it in a closet, as the Winns do. Or throwing it out the window, an expensive but final solution.
All you have to do is care enough.