Personal Strategies for Winning TV Diets*

By Jody Baram


When cultural historians look back at the last half of the 20th century, they may discover that the two major preoccupations of the American public were dieting and watching television.  It seems the more choices we have in television viewing; the more time we spend watching with a corresponding widening of our waistlines as well as a passive acceptance of what we are seeing.

Just as choosing wisely what we eat may streamline our figure, screening what we watch on TV can ultimately enhance our life experience.  This article offers some practical tips  to raise the quality of your TV watching experience-- balancing some of the fats and sweets served up nightly with the protein that may well build better minds and bodies.

Where’s the Beef?

If  you were to go on a diet, the first thing you would want to do is to determine  what foods you need to limit or eliminate entirely.  If we categorize TV programs the way we do foods, then fats would be the equivalent of mindless, effortless viewing of shows such as soaps, talk shows, as well as violent/reality-based programming. We might think of  entertainment shows, movies of the week and sitcoms as sugars, and  we could consider educational and high-production-value shows protein.  Of course, there are exceptions, and some shows may fall into multiple categories.

You are what you watch

Next it’s time to start your calorie counting. Go on a TV fast for 10 days. It’s tougher than you think. Observe yourself watching TV and figure out how you are using it. Strictly for entertainment? As a companion? As an escape?  If you are a channel surfer, record what it is you’re watching.

Strategies for Kids

If you have a household with youngsters, there is a strong tendency to use the television as a baby-sitter. As an experiment,  start watching television with your kids and limit their viewing time to 3 hours per day. Talk to them afterwards, and find out why they liked a particular program.  Ask them to come up with a different ending to the program; what kind of feelings they experienced when they watched; and what kind of products they saw during commercial breaks.

Parental Controls

For the pre-school and pre-teen set, if you have concerns about what it is they are watching start using the parental control features on your cable remote or TV set. The “Kid Control” remote  installs logos for channels kids like to watch such as Nickelodeon, the Family Channel, the Disney Channel, and the Discovery Channel, on a bright orange dinosaur or a purple puppy-shaped device. Find out if it is available in your area.

TV Account Cards

 Be on the lookout for TV account cards that let parents credit their kids with a certain number of viewing hours. By supplementing classroom instruction with PBS specials and Internet topic-specific browsing , children will have access to  a wealth of edutainment not previously available.

Plan Your Weekly Viewing Menu

Now that you’ve figured out what you’ve been consuming, you can better determine what you may have been missing or overindulging in. Whether it’s food or TV, it’s a good idea to try new things occasionally. This can energize you and stimulate new appetites.

Start Time-Shifting

 As soon as the TV Guide or Sunday newspaper  arrives, start planning your weekly television menu. Set your VCR to record those programs you want to time- shift or save.

If you don't subscribe to a cable TV or satellite service, look into them. Check out magazines such as Cable Guide, Satellite Direct or Satellite Orbit to get an idea of what’s available. You may decide to add some quality pay channels to your current over- the- air broadcast viewing.

New Ways to Find Quality Programs

With the arrival of HDTV, digital video formats and 500 channels, our weekly grid views of upcoming TV viewing fare will be less useful than they are now. New ways of finding quality programs will emerge. Look into electronic program guide services such as TV Guide online or those offered through GIST, Tribune Services, or Gemstar. All offer a one-week on-screen program listings in  grid format.  VideoGuide which was acquired by Gemstar in 1998 and StarSight offer one touch VCR recording and news feeds.

Sort Your Selections

While StarSight comes  bundled with TV sets or cable boxes. The VideoGuide Service,  which was available nationwide over paging networks, offered a SmartSort feature that learns your viewing habits and news reading preferences and moves your favorites to the top of the list. Look for similar features in new versions of Gemstar''s product lines.  Starsight, like Intel’s SmartTV and Electronic TV Host, allows you to  search by theme categories, including sports and movies and favorite programs. These services also enable you to sort by subject, genre, director, and eventually parental ratings, or quality (Show me all the 4- star movies on Saturday night rated TV14).

If you have access to the Internet and the World Wide Web, check out GIST, TV Tonite and TV Guide Online.  All have descriptions of the evening’s offerings with recommendations and comments. TV Guide Online can also assist you in your customized viewing plan.

If your PC has a TV tuner, you can watch TV over your computer. This will become more and more common for viewing DVD's and High Definition TV.

Program Your Own Personal TV Station

Look for active agent software to assist you in selecting quality programming. More than just a search engine, this type of service helps you define the kinds of programming and information most interesting to you. Based on your profile and profiles of people like you, the software can make inferences about the types of shows you might like to watch but don’t know about. Digital access of this sort will also assist  you in  planning your schedule  just as if you were programming your own personal TV station.

The WebTV Phenomenon

If  you own a “WebTV” type box, cable modem or a game machine like the Sega, XBox, or Gamecube and are connected to the Internet,  you can really get hooked. Using the PIP feature on your TV to add an Internet window with one of these boxes takes your surfing experience to a whole new level. Imagine watching the movie The Last Wave on the Independent Film Channel. You’re fascinated by the tribal customs and want to find out more. Now you can easily jump onto the Web and read to your heart’s content.  Or how about seeing an ad for something on TV you’re interested in buying. You can go to the Internet, get all the information you need to make your decision, and order it from your living room for the lowest price in town.
Or, better yet, how about playing videogames with friends you meet on the Internet. Everquest is such a networked game and has become the world's number one multiplayer online game.

Get Smart

With the addition of  a printer, a keyboard and an erasable  DVD disk, your WebTV becomes an integral part of the new home communications center. But that’s just the beginning.   Add a camera and you can send videomail. With the addition of a smart card as part of your WebTV, set top box, or TV set, your television becomes the gateway to electronic commerce. You can  even control many of the systems of your smart home with a card from AMX Corporation!  How about turning your TV set into a consumer grade Videoconferencing station? ViaTV, a new product from 8x8, Inc. allows you to do just that. The possibilities for using your television for things other than standard entertainment are becoming more real everyday.

It’s Ultimately Up to You

For both your TV and physical diets, there is a lot of help available. Experts in both are eager to advise you. Ultimately, however, the decisions are up to you. What you eat and what you watch on television are personal choices which can either help you or harm you. A balanced diet of food or TV can enhance your enjoyment of life. On the other hand, indiscriminate indulging in the kinds of fats and sweets we discussed here will create a mediocre quality of intellectual and physical life.  So take advantage of the options that are available--it’s worth the effort. 

*Updated for 2002 Originally published in Smart TV Magazine Fall 1997 



Ten Commandments for Quality TV Programming


Thou shalt watch TV with your children, spouse, or significant other and discuss what you saw.

Thou shalt plan your viewing a week in advance.

Thou shalt get an electronic listing service to assist your weekly program selection.

Thou shalt read reviews of upcoming programs wherever possible.

Thou shalt use a VCR to timeshift whenever possible.

Thou shalt not imitate any anti-social behavior seen on TV, and teach your children the same.

Thou shalt not covet characters, persons, or lifestyles seen on TV.

Thou shalt always pay more attention to the people you’re with than what is playing on your  TV set.

Thou shalt use the PIP feature of your TV set to enhance your viewing experience.

Thou shalt find alternatives to TV when you don’t find a selection worth your viewing time.



Children and Media

“The Age of Missing Information” Bill McKibben (New York: Plume) 1992

TCI Kid Control remote control for kids: Call 810 549 8288

Parental Guidelines

Just Think Guide

Media Literacy References


Electronic Program Guides


TV Guide

TV Host

VideoGuide          Call 1-800-VGUIDE1

StarSight Telecast    Call 1-510-657-0621


Note: Intel bought this product from Harmon Interactive and will be incorporating it into its Intercast product.


Agent Technology:             Firefly

VideoConferencing:            8x8, Inc.

Smart Home Controls:      AMX Corp.