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Tame your TV without turning it off

It's true, the numbers are frightening.

According to a recent study commissioned by the National Cable Television Association, TV programs containing violent content have become more frequent during prime time, rising 14 percent on broadcast TV since 1994.

These days, the study says, 61 percent of all TV programing contains some sort of violent scene, meaning the average preschooler who watches cartoons will see 500 such portrayals of TV violence every year.

Is it any wonder Henry Labalme is such a busy guy these days?

As executive director of TV-Free America, Labalme is the man behind National TV-Turnoff Week, seven days of tube-time abstinence that began Wednesday and is aimed at weaning Americans from the device once called "the electronic teat."

"We watch more TV than any other nation on earth," he says, sounding a lot like an evangelist delivering his own form of the gospel. "It's a very habit-forming medium. We don't always know when to turn it off."

There must be others who share Labalme's concern about TV's couch potato values; according to TV-Free America's figures, more than 8-million people have participated in the event, now in its fourth year.

But let this humble TV critic suggest another option.

Rather than turning the TV off for a week every year and patting ourselves on the back for our fortitude, why not try something more effective every day of the year?

Smarter viewing.

The principle is simple. When you're watching TV, don't settle for less. Insist that everything you watch be of some value, either as entertainment, education or both. And apply even higher standards to the stuff your children will watch.

How does it work? Again, a simple concept. Think about what you're watching as you watch it.

Don't sit through a boring TV comedy just because it airs between two shows you like. Here's a novel _ if oddball _ idea: Talk back to your TV set. Challenge it. Question what your TV tells you, especially when your children are watching, so they also learn to question what the box serves up.

For example, the next time one of those glitzy toy commercials blazes across the screen, making the Mighty Morphin' Barney Turtles Ranger look like the Second Coming, explain the reality.

Talk about how it won't work all the time, parts will get lost, the rocket launcher won't really push a missile into space, and G.I. Joe's Kung Fu grip isn't really all that tight (a personal disappointment from the '70s, I admit).

Sure, your kids will shrug off a lot of what you say. But by the time they've opened their third or fourth highly hyped disappointment, some of what you say will start making sense.

Most of all, don't be afraid to turn off the TV if it's not challenging, informing or actively entertaining you.

And don't be afraid to turn it on, either.

Not surprisingly, this is a concept that TV executives, especially those at the National Cable TV Association, are advocating.

Working with the National PTA, the cable group has assembled a how-to book on critical viewing skills called Taking Charge of Your TV, which worked well enough to spawn a companion video featuring that bastion of media literacy, talk show host Rosie O'Donnell. (You may order it free of charge by calling (800) 452-6351.)

Aimed at the parents of TV-watching children, both the book and video emphasize four key guidelines:

Set rules for TV viewing and stick to them.

Recognize how TV manipulates viewers and discuss it with your child.

Talk to children about violence on TV.

Use TV to start positive family discussion about life issues.

It may sound silly, but parents might actually find TV a great springboard into talks about the environment, racial issues, materialism, crime or any other important social issue. And you don't have to watch PBS or the Learning Channel exclusively to make this work.

Labalme says his TV-Turnoff Week also espouses critical viewing.

"Moderation is a key concept," he says, noting one study showing that the average 70-year-old will spend nine years of his or her life in front of the TV set at current viewership rates. "The concept is to get Americans to reduce their amounts of TV consumption, to stop people from engaging in a non-activity, instead of an activity where they can ask questions and receive tactile feedback."

Perhaps he's right. But teaching people to go cold turkey for a week or a lifetime hardly seems a fit answer. After all, TV can bring new worlds to your living room, connect you to people you'd never meet in your lifetime and help teach skills you might never acquire otherwise (I'm still amazed at how well my children can sing the Barney theme song in Spanish).

None of that happens unless you turn on the TV.

I'll admit, as a TV critic, I have a vested interest in advocating that people keep watching. And the cable association, which represents more than 100 channels and cable systems serving 80 percent of the nation's subscribers, has its own reasons to keep you hooked.

But in a media-centered world, where information increasingly translates to power, turning off one of the best sources of news, information and artistic experience in your house seems a little foolhardy.

Better to turn the beast to your own ends _ making sure TV always serves you instead of the other way around.

To reach Eric Deggans, call 893-8521, e-mail or see the Times Web site at