TV-Free and Loving It: Reflections on Nearly Three Years Without the Magic Box

TVs in a landfill, kill your tv, tv free, the new pursuit, deep ecology

“The television, that insidious beast, that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little.”
~Ray Bradbury

Last week, Courtney over at Be More With Less announced that she had canceled her cable and was starting down the TV-free road. As I wrote to congratulate her, it made me reflect on the nearly three years that our family has been without television. The tale and the lessons learned are worth sharing.

Going TV-free was not a conscious decision – at first. Mother Nature forced it upon us.

It was June 1, 2007. As I pulled in from work a massive thunderstorm raged overhead. My wife was in the kitchen making dinner and (at the time) our two kids were huddled on the couch relishing in that half-scared half-excited feeling that the big thunder booms brought with them. All in all, it was your normal spring thunderstorm.

Then it happened.

A flash of light surrounded the three sides of windows in our kitchen. The loudest CRACK! you have ever heard seemed to hit us from overhead. The TV and lights went dead. The kids were crying. Within seconds I smelled the trickle of smoke.

When the dust settled we discovered we avoided a direct hit, but that a bolt of lightening had come close enough to the house (likely it hit the huge silver maple just feet from our foundation) to wreak major damage: Our two TVs were fried; the phone lines and modem were baked; the smoke detectors and dish washer bit the dust too.

We fixed everything EXCEPT the TVs.
With summer starting we figured we would be outside a lot and wouldn’t need them. Well, summer passed. Then fall. Then the first winter of cold and snow… Twenty-two months went by with no TV.

Then we caved. My wife was two weeks from giving birth to our third child and I was headed over to China for twelve days as part of my MBA program. A distraction was needed. So we bought a new TV, ordered the most basic package of cable we could and re-joined mainstream society.

Within six months we ditched the cable again. The tipping point came when my then 4-year-old daughter looked at my graying hair and emphatically stated, “Daddy, don’t hide it, solve it.” Clearly, the Marketing Machine had infiltrated her young and impressionable mind. We weren’t going to let it happen again.

So what has nearly three years without television and/or cable given our family?

  • The Freedom of Time. The average American watches five hours of TV per day. Not us. Mornings, afternoons after school, and evenings after dinner—those prime TV-watching times—are no longer sucked up by mindless programming.
  • The Freedom to Pursue Other Interests. I read and write more; I am learning how to grow more things better in our garden; My wife taps her creative flair with everything from cooking to making really cool clothing for our kids. The kids are outside all the time having loads of fun doing all sorts of things that let their imaginations run wild.
  • The Freedom of Choice. The Marketing Machine no longer influences us in a major way (it’s so completely unavoidable, no matter how hard you try). We do or buy things based on what we need or what brings us joy. Nowadays a Netflix membership allows us to watch programming from time to time that we find to have value (entertainment, educational or otherwise) without all those mindless commercials.
  • The Freedom to Use Our Money in Other Ways. Going TV-free can save you some serious cash. Even the most basic cable package cost us $65 per month. That’s $780 a year! And don’t forget what you’re saving in electricity costs too. That money is better spent paying down debt (if you have it) or something else that brings you joy.
  • The Freedom to Have Really Interesting Conversations. When we tell people we don’t have cable, the reactions range from supportive to utter disbelief. “That’s fantastic!”, “We don’t watch much TV…”, or “I wish we could do that…” are typical phrases we hear. Guess what? You can.
  • The Freedom to Make a Difference. While we make sure not to over-extend ourselves, we do recognize the value that comes with getting involved in your community. From coaching sports to Scouting to helping with the schools and other organizations, the gift of our time can help so many others. Sure you don’t have to go TV-free to do this, but it sure helps.

Think you might want to join our family, Courtney’s family and the 800,000 other Americans who have gone TV/cable-free? It’s easy and not as painful as you might imagine. Once you fill that time you would have been watching TV with other more enjoyable things, you realize how TV is a waste of time and brainpower.

Go slow at first.
Start with one TV-free day per week and commit to it. Make it a weekend day or some other day when the whole family can be together. Support each other through that Digital De-tox time. Think ahead and plan out alternative activities to help you back-fill the time at first. Give that a month or two and then up the ante. Go TV-free for two or three days a week. Reduce your cable package to the bare minimum (and have fun with that cable company conversation!).

Then just do it. Can the cable. Walk away from the time-suck and the Marketing Machine. Pursue all those other things you’ve wanted to do. If you can give it a month, I bet you’ll be hard pressed to go back.

To help you in this journey, this Saturday’s post will be all about the awesome things our family is doing instead of watching TV. Hopefully you can take away a few things to jump-start your own Road to TV Freedom.

And don’t forget to read about Courtney’s reflections on starting the new TV-free chapter of her and her family’s life. She is one week in and going strong! Keep it up, Courtney!

Be well,

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23 Responses to “TV-Free and Loving It: Reflections on Nearly Three Years Without the Magic Box”
  1. Bill, Good for you and your family. It scary to think of watching TV 5 hours per day. And that’s an average, so some people are watching lots more. When people say that they don’t have time to exercise, I always think (but don’t say) that cutting down on TV would free up plenty of time.

    My BF and I have a TV and watch about 2 1/2 hours per week at most. (We’re hooked on Jeopardy, although I often go months without watching it at all.)

    “Nowadays a Netflix membership allows us to watch programming from time to time that we find to have value (entertainment, educational or otherwise) without all those mindless commercials.”

    We do the same, enjoying a movie and popcorn once a week or so. All in all, Digital De-tox is pretty painless.

  2. Bill, your TV free family is inspirational! As a parent of a 14 year old, I know that using the TV as a distraction for my daughter when she was 3 or 4 turned into a habit as she grew older. Even though we are only a week in, we are so much happier. The hardest part was actually making the call and disconnecting the cable boxes. Living without TV is a breeze with benefits!

  3. Bill Gerlach says:

    Madeleine // Thanks for the well-wishes. I’m with you — 5 hours a day! I wouldn’t know how to fit that in! So glad to hear you and your BF are TV-minimalists (though your mention of Jeopardy brings fond thoughts to mind — loved that show). Keep up the Digital Detox! And thanks for stopping by. Be well!

  4. Bill Gerlach says:

    Courtney // Thanks so much. What you’re doing is equally inspirational — especially given the age of your daughter. It makes me wonder how my kids might react if we were to pull the same move 10 years from now! Can’t wait to hear more about your TV-free journey in the future. Be well!

  5. Raam Dev says:

    I grew up in a home without a TV. My parents were adamant that we not be brainwashed by it. There was a TV in the house, but it had no reception and no cable. They ordered NOVA, Discovery, and National Geographic VHS cassettes… entire boxed series. Things on the universe, the African Serengeti (where I’m fairly certain my love for travel originated), and even things about world history.

    I watched those series a hundred times over, and I loved them each time.

    I was also home schooled my entire life, so you can imagine how much “free time” I would’ve devoted to the TV if there was cable. Instead, I was outside turning over rocks, inspecting trees, flowers, and watching ants an bees do their work.

    In my late teens and early twenties I had a TV in my apartment, but about 4 years ago I gave it up entirely. It just wasn’t a good source of information. It was more time consuming and full of non-information (commercials, soap operas, etc.) that it made no sense. Getting information from the Internet or through firsthand experience trumps the TV every time.

    I’m so glad to see this post and I think there needs to be more education (especially for parents!) so they can learn about the negative effects of having a television on 24/7 in the house. It’s bad for brain development, concentration, health… the list goes on.

  6. Chris Stroud says:

    Great Story. I will be putting my nice big LCD TV on craigslist this week. Looking forward to the beniifits of no TV. My first time in 24 years without one!

  7. Bill Gerlach says:

    Chris // Thanks. Seriously, you won’t miss it. There is so much more living to be done sans TV. Good luck. Thanks for stopping by. Be well!

  8. Bill Gerlach says:

    Raam // As always, I appreciate the thoughtful comments. I listened with amazement at you describing your life growing up during your recent interview. It’s a fantastic story. Like you, our kids are having more fun with the experiential learning that living sans TV brings. They pretend, they get their hands dirty, they are just BEING — which is awesome.

    You’re making me think that this could be bigger…. thanks.

  9. Lynn Fang says:

    Good for you! I bet your kids will grow up more sensible and independent because of it. I don’t watch much TV these days. If there’s a show I’m actually into I can always download it or watch it online. And, I definitely think about my time much more and the activities I choose to pursue in that time. TV doesn’t seem that important to me, so I don’t make time for it. Unfortunately, most of peers choose TV as their main source of entertainment.

  10. Tony says:

    I never really watched a great deal of TV, and I’ve never had cable/satellite TV, but I ditched the TV completely about a month ago, when the TV license came up for renewal (I’m in UK). I occasionally watch DVDs on my laptop. I am using the free time to read, write, and go cycling. I don’t miss the TV at all – I wish I’d ditched it years ago!

  11. Bill Gerlach says:

    Tony // Thanks for stopping by. Just like you, I think most people quickly find (quality) things to do very quickly once they ditch their TV. It’s really not that hard. In a way, it is like find a huge chunk of time to give back to you and your day. It opens up doors to pursue so many other things — things they used to do/like and new things that they never knew existed or thought they would like. It’s liberating! Be well.

  12. Brian Charest says:

    Hey Bill,
    I just called Comcast today and cancelled my entire cable package. I can still watch movies, but I have found that I put the TV on as background noise and end up watching so much crap that I wouldn’t otherwise have thought to watch. This way, I can consciously choose what I watch, save a bunch of $$$, and have tons more free time for things that I’ve always been meaning to do: read, write, learn an instrument, cook, etc.

  13. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hey Brian // That’s awesome! I am so glad to hear that. Give it a couple weeks and 1) you’ll won’t be thinking about it at all; and 2) you’ll be amazed at how much other stuff you’re getting done.

    Hope all is well!

  14. bob jenning says:

    I ditched the cable and love it…

    We switched to netflx and an antenna, and we get FREE hdtv, just local channels but love it.

    I can still watch games, and news, but NO MORE CRAP, and or channel surfing.

    Netflix for 10 dollars a mo, and free tv.

  15. Bill Gerlach says:

    Bob — Thanks for stopping by. It’s great to hear of someone else giving the Cable the heave-ho. We don’t have the digital antenna, but do have Netflix; it’s great for getting all those National Geographic and PBS stories (that our kids love). And you’re right — it filters out all the garbage that usually streams across the screen. Every time we’re at a friend’s house and we see commercials, it always reinforces our decision. Be well!

  16. Janine says:

    My parents raised my brother and I with no cable television – our only allowed television was one hour max. of Saturday cartoons on the basic channels and the occasional nature documentary on PBS. It definitely taught us how to be very selective with what media we consumed and allowed us to develop interests and hobbies outside of television. Instead of television, my parents gave us a choice of activities to do, including learning instruments, library trips once a week, math and reading games, nature camps and trips, and hand-raising a young parrot.

    When I was thirteen, we moved to a new house and got cable television. We also got a dog, which meant that while the television was there and available, we were spending our first months with cable TV not watching it, but instead working on training and playing with a rambunctious Labrador puppy. We took training classes, walks, and trips to the dog park as a family.

    When my brother and I would watch the cable television, it was hardly more than we’d watched before. Instead of making TV our primary interest, we made the TV a learning supplement for the things we were interested to. I’d supplement my book and internet research on dog training with shows on animal training and behavior, and my brother, having developed an intense interest in science and computers, would watch the technology segments on the Discovery channel.

    I think the way my parents used television was probably the best way: instead of using it as your main source of information, use it as another way of understanding what you learn from other resources. If/when I have children of my own, I’m going to try my best to raise them in a TV-free or minimal-TV environment. I hope resources for parents who wish to do that will become more plentiful, especially in this media-heavy world! Thanks for such a great post!

  17. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hi Janine,

    Thanks for sharing! I love how you positioned the limited TV you were watching as a supplement to other learning sources — that’s fantastic. It’s very similar to how it is with our kids: books and direct experiential learning set the foundation and direction; everything else is icing on the learning cake, if you will. It has really made a difference in how our family experiences things. Plus, I believe it help fosters a growing ability to be creative with everyday things. Be well!

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