Barbara Brock does not watch TV, but she does not mind if you do.
The Perry native and 1972 graduate of Perry High School—she was Barbara Bryan then, daughter of Bob and Nadene Bryan of rural Perry—is a professor emeritus of recreation management at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash.
Brock spent most of her career studying patterns of leisure, but she established herself in 2007 as the nation’s chief authority on the lifestyles of TV-free families with the publication of her landmark study, "Living Outside the Box: TV-Free Families Share Their Secrets."
Though now officially retired, she still keeps an oar in the water when it comes to her research interests, and her latest book, a follow-up to her 2007 study, is provisionally titled, "Growing Up without TV."
Brock watched plenty of television while growing up in Perry, as has almost everyone else raised here since the 1950s. When she and her husband, Vern, turned away from TV in the 1980s, the reason was not one of high-minded principle or snobbish superiority.
"It was an accident," she said. "In graduate school we forgot to get one, and that just became the normal thing."
That is why she does not watch TV but does not mind if you do. Brock is acutely aware of the dangers of television—her book is full of troubling statistics—but she does not damn it with the crusading zeal of a puritan reformer.
Others do, however, and the reasons are not hard to find. According to A.C. Nielsen and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American in 2013 watched five hours and 11 minutes of TV every day.
That one simple fact has profound implications for the quality of life of people living in the US. Our TV addiction, if addiction is what it is, Brock said, has effects on our health, on our schooling and on the values that inform our political and economic choices.
Cause and effect are not always easy to untangle in these matters. Every year children spend about 900 hours in school, but they watch about 1,500 hours of TV. That is one fact.
Childhood obesity has grown from a rate of about five percent in 1964 to about 15 percent today. That is another fact.
Are these two facts connected as cause and effect? About 30 years of research suggest they are.
Similarly, is the increase in Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) another side effect of our TV habit? Other studies suggest it probably is.
Violence is also a very significant public health issue. By the time the average child finishes elementary school, he or she has witnessed about 8,000 TV murders, assaults and other violent acts. By age 18, the number is 200,000. Factor in movies and video games, and violence starts to seem like our preferred entertainment.
On the education front, Americans rent or download about six million videos each day. They check out about three million items from public libraries.
Investigative journalist Chris Hedges has noted, "A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book."
Reading is not the only way to take in information, of course, and most Americans get their news, for instance, from the television. But literacy is still connected with most of the higher activities of our mental culture.
According to Hedges, "There are over 42 million American adults, 20 percent of whom hold high school diplomas, who cannot read, as well as the 50 million who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate. And their numbers are growing by an estimated two million a year."
Many things follow from these kinds of numbers. In politics, it leads to voters who make their decisions solely on the basis of television commercials. It also leads to voters who do not vote, and this is also the case for social activities more broadly.
As Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone," said, "We now see a public that is withdrawing from communal life, choosing to live alone and play alone."
Where people used to join bowling leagues and book clubs and quilting circles, now they mostly stay home and watch TV, he said..
"Electronic entertainment, especially television, has profoundly privatized leisure time," Putnam said. "It may contribute to up to 40 percent of the decline in involvement with groups over the past 25 years."
Television exists for the sake of commerce. Advertisers spent more than $65 billion on TV ads last year.
In 1983, before Ronald Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) completely deregulated children’s programming and turned it over to the control of advertisers, the annual amount spent on advertising to children was about $100 million. Last year it was about $20 billion, all of it aimed directly at children.
Today the average American child sees about 20,000 30-second commercials each year. By the time she turns 65, she will have endured almost two million commercials.
That our family values might today more justly be called consumer values is no accident but rather a direct result of saturating our souls with commercialism, chiefly in the form of television.
These are the kind of facts and figures Professor Brock sets forth in "Living Outside the Box."
They are not the centerpiece of her book, however. The place of honor is given to interviews with families who live outside the box and have developed alternate lifestyles.
Brock started her research in 1999, hoping to find a dozen or so families to take her 100-question survey. She placed a few small ads seeking volunteers and was deluged by more than 1,200 responses. People were coming out of the woodwork, wanting to tell the story of their lives without television.
Her survey got a 72 percent response rate, which for anyone familiar with social science research is astronomical, a 15 percent rate being much more typical.
"It’s as if they were coming out of the closet," she said. "And the three essay questions at the end of the survey produced 500 pages of writing."
The survey alone gave her enough material for a book and left her with the largest amount of empirical evidence of any researcher in the field.
She had stumbled on a gold mine, and her current work in progress follows the children of those TV-free families into adulthood.
Recreation management and alternatives to TV are still central to her studies, although now she and her husband, Vern, a retired veterinarian turned woodworker, are also kept busy with their 30-acre ranch near Cheney, Wash.
And Brock still has strong connections to Perry. She returns often to visit her aging father, Bob Bryan, as well as her brother and his children. Her daughter Sydney is a student at Graceland University in Lamoni, where Brock herself took a B.S. in biology in 1976.
Her son Adam is a musician in the Portland area. Some of his music will even be featured in one of the Super Bowl XLVIII commercials, so Brock finds ways to reconcile herself to the American TV world as it is.
Last year’s Super Bowl attracted a record 108.7 million viewers. On Feb. 2, when Super Bowl XLVIII kicks of, will that record fall?