IT WAS HE SAID, a Major Scene in his household. His daughter slept lat Saturday morning, just as she had done during the summer, and she came down to the kitchen, fixed some food and turned on the television. At noon. That annoyed his wife who turned off the television, which angered the daughter who said nasty things to her mother, which outraged the father. In the end the father was hollering and pounding on his daughter's locked bedroom door while she was weeping with rage on her bed.
A major scene, indeed, and one that occurred in an educated, achieving family in which the father, once he cooled off, was horrified at how television could ignite such explosive family quarrels. Once he cooled off, he also instituted a new television rule for his children: "You can't watch television for a longer amount of time than you spend reading books."
This is the season for television rules to be issued. Summer is over, school has begun, children are coming home in the afternoons, turning on the television and infuriating their parents who order the children to turn off the television and open the books. This is the fall season for family fights over television. Return matches occur throughout the school year, following each grading period, when new rules are issued, stiffer each time, laid down with firmer parental determination and wilder parental extremes. Television sets have been sold at the end of grading periods. Broken ones have gone unrepaired. Entire homes have been silenced to the point that all you could hear were the sounds of human voices.
But then something happens. It starts for just an hour one evening, then there's the special the next night, the four-star movie the next, and before you know it the sounds of silence have been preempted by the television spouting its banalities for hours, often to empty rooms.
You understand, I don't have this problem in my household, since none of my children have ever expressed the slightest interest in television. But I have these friends . . .
"We started out in the beginning of last year trying to have some gradual limitation," says a father of six. "I think it was two hours. We simply couldn't stick to the rule. We couldn't enforce it." Why?" "The sheer numbers, for one thing. We're badly outnumbered. There are always small exceptions. Some special program that was on. We would try to encourage them to watch specials like 'Roots.' But that's not what they wanted to watch. They kind of resented having any of their television time directed at programs we thought were worthwhile.
"We had a house full of school-age children, staying up till all hours watching these series, these programs of no redeeming social value. So at the beginning of the school year, on Labor Day, we said, Kids, this is a new year. This year the new rule is no television after 8 o'clock.' We figured we'd get a lot of resistance. We'd have to compromise on some positions.
"Instead, our oldest child, who's a high school junior, came to use privately and said, 'I've talked about it with a few friends and I think it's a good idea and I hope you stick with it.' I was quite surprised. One of her friends had a similar experience the previous year. It had just done wonders for her school work. So far, the rule has worked." The father paused, mused and then gave a little laugh. "I don't think the new shows have started."
Last year, it was fashionable to run around telling people you didn't own a television. But this is the year for coming out and admitting to all sorts of bizarre activities. Some people are admitting that they own televisions and they're even contending television can be good, that children can learn useful things from news and sports programs. "When I was a kid, I never got a chance to see the Redskins," says one such father. "But now, basketball players can watch Dr. J. Football players can watch a good run. Girls can watch tennis and see Chrissie Evert. Tracy Austin, Pam Schriver. They can watch the news and start to recognize senators, congressmen. They see their city on television. Over the years they pick up stuff. I think it's stupid to indict the thing as bad for kids. It's an eye-opener for kids. It depends on how you use the thing."
This enlightened father of two says TV rules are always broken, so he, in effect, doesn't have any rules in his house. "It depends on what the show is, rather than the time." Are there family TV fights?" "Yes, There's a tendency to watch the reruns of 'The Brady Bunch' ad nauseam. When I've come home, I've said, 'Turn the damn thing off,' They turn it off."
"We're tried limiting the number of hours and that sort of thing and it's just too loose," said a father of two teen-age boys. "They don't watch it during the week except with special permission and that is granted rarely. I dind it works very well." A hardliner, right?" "As the kids have gotten older to the point they've had to study to stay alive, we're adopted a two-hour-a-night rule of no studying with the television or radio. If the Redskins are on, we'll make an exception. You have to clamp down. TV rots the mind. I believe that. I try to limit myself to one full football game a weekend. I don't do it, but I try."
As the fall season gets under way and more new shows go on the air, families all around us are trying to create this year's television compromise. Some parents are huddling over this and setting rules in advance before the kid blows up and yells, "You won't let me do anything." Others are setting rules at the peak of explosives family arguments. Some families are trying out no television week nights - absolutes - and others are trying to limit the hours, hoping they will have the energy to enforce strategic television limitation as opposed to a complete ban. It is early in the season and parents seem optimistic that, this year, they have found a formula to keep peace in the family.
No one seems sure. They seem gun shy from the defeats of the past. But they're not going to find a judgment on what rules are best, what formula works here. As I said earlier, this sort of problem has never come up in my House.