Mark Russell had been complaining for years about the TV. The Anniston attorney felt that it caused too many problems in his family. The kids would put off homework because they were watching TV. They would be late getting ready for school, they would be late getting ready for church, because they were watching TV.
"We'd send them downstairs to get their shoes on, we'd come out ready to go, and they're just finishing watching TV ... and they don't have their shoes on," Mark said.
"It just added a level of consternation that we didn't really need."
And so, one day in February after a bad storm knocked out their cable, the Russell family just left the TV off.
Now, when they turn it on, all they get is static.
No more SpongeBob. No more iCarly. No more Suite Life of Zack & Cody.
"The most surprising thing has been how little we miss it. It has really not been torture," said Polly Russell, also an attorney. "The most surprising thing to other people is that we really did cut it off.
"And it's been much pleasant at our house. It's one less source of chaos. You don't have the constant noise of the TV."
The Russell children — Wilson, age 10, and Maren, age 8 — second that.
"We don't miss it AT ALL," said Maren. "We used to watch every day after school. Now we just come home and play."
Added Wilson: "Now we turn it on and it's hard to watch. It gets kind of boring and stupid when you don't watch it. Once you turn it off for a month, you don't want to watch it anymore."
Well, except maybe for college football. We'll get back to that.
Turn off the TV Week
This week has been declared "turn off the TV week" by a grassroots organization called the Center for Screen-Time Awareness, which holds that too much TV can be damaging physically and mentally. Instead, the group advises folks to get up and do something active, or interact more with family and community.
For 10-year-old Wilson, the first day without TV was the hardest. "I just kept pushing the TV button over and over, and I wiggled with the wires," he said. He'd forgotten that his parents had pulled the plug on their cable.
It took about a month for the kids to adjust. "We couldn't think of anything else to do," said Wilson.
"It was boring," added Maren. But then she realized that TV was MORE boring. "It was boring to just watch people stand around and talk on the TV," she said. "It was more interesting for us to get up and DO that stuff with other people."
Added Wilson: "We also don't miss all those commercials trying to sell you stuff."
The whole family has adjusted to life without TV.
It helps that they haven't turned off all the screens in the house, just the TV.
Polly gets her news and weather from the newspaper or the Internet.
Mark has gone to his office to watch the Masters and the U.S. Open.
Wilson still plays video games on his DS and Playstation. He's hoping for a Wii for Christmas.
They still watch movies on DVD — but make a point to do it as a family.
Most of all, they read.
"We've read more books than we ever have," said Maren. "We come home, we read."
And they read together most every night after dinner, as a family.
"My mother did that," said Polly. "Every night she sat down and read to me and my sister. And I had always intended to do that when I had children."
Television, though, interfered with that. "When we had the TV, after dinner I'd be cleaning up the kitchen, the kids would go into the den and turn on the TV. When I was done, I'd say, 'Let's read!' And somebody would say, 'We have to finish watching this show.'"
Their family reading has increased greatly now that TV is out of the picture.
"We always have a book going," said Polly. "After dinner and homework and baths, we sit around together and read a chapter. That's the family tradition we've started since we've been without TV."
They are working through some of the classics of children's literature, such as The Swiss Family Robinson, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Pollyanna, Shackleton's Valiant Voyage, the Civil War story Rifles for Watie. Their all-time favorite is Carry on Mr. Bowditch, an epic biography of pioneering sailor and mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch.
What happened to good old sitcoms?
The Russells never watched all that much TV to begin with. "My kids were never couch potatoes," said Polly. "They've never seen American Idol. Even when we had TV, we didn't watch that."
Primetime TV, at least in Polly's opinion, was a wasteland of crime shows and reality shows. "What happened to the good old sitcoms?" she asked.
The kids did like to watch the Disney Channel's shows for tweens, especially iCarly and Suite Life of Zack & Cody. But one day Polly sat down to watch with them, and was not amused. "There was no profanity or nudity or violence or anything like that," she said. "But there was a complete lack of respect for authority. The kids would get in different scrapes, and try to get out of them without letting their parents, or their teachers, know."
Polly particularly remembered an episode of iCarly, in which the lead character secretly videotaped her teachers for a webcast. "She was making fun of her teachers, mimicking them behind their backs," Polly said. "I thought, 'This is terrible. These are not shows I want my children to watch.'"
Or, as Mark put it, "There are some things on TV that are redeeming, but when the kids selected shows, they generally weren't the redeeming ones."
The TV was turned off not long afterwards.
"Everybody is shocked when we tell them," said Polly. "I actually had one person tell me — not jokingly — that they felt sorry for my children."
The childrens' friends are equally shocked when they find out. "They say, 'You're kidding,' or 'You're lying,'" said Wilson. "They're like, 'Oh my gosh, how do you do it?'"
"My teacher looked at me in amazement," added Maren. "Mom says when she tells her friends about it, they always say, 'I wish I could do that.'"
The Russells are being realistic about the challenge they have undertaken. "We recognize that this is not forever," said Polly. "Mark's mother is coming for an extended visit this fall, and she's already told us she's not coming unless we turn the TV back on."
And then there's the matter of college football. Mark and Polly were sorely tempted to cut the TV back on at the beginning of the season.
"I've been concerned about not watching football," said Mark. "But I've discovered radio. They still have those!"
So far, they are holding firm, and the TV is still off. Although Mark and Polly — both Florida State alums — did decide to go out to dinner at Rookies on Labor Day, so they could watch the Florida State-Miami game on one of the big-screen TVs.
Turn off the TV Week
This week, Sept. 20-26, has been declared Turnoff Week, part of a grassroots effort that encourages folks to turn off their TVs and any other screens that are eating up too much of their lives. Not for good, just for a week.
Organizers say that screen time cuts into family time, and is a leading cause of obesity in adults and children.
Instead, organizers encourage people to get outside and do something healthy, and connect with others in the community.
Turnoff Week, which started in 1994, is sponsored by the non-profit Center for Screen-Time Awareness.
It's endorsed by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Education Association and the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
Last year, more than 20 million people participated.
For more info, www.tvturnoff.org.
Some amazing TV facts
• The average American watches four hours and 35 minutes of TV a day.
• Then that average American spends another four hours with computers, games, video, iPods and cell phones.
• The average World of Warcraft gamer plays for 892 minutes a week.
• There are 2.55 people in the average American household.
• There are 2.72 TVs.
• Half of American homes have at least three televisions.
SOURCE: Center for Screen-Time Awareness