What Stays Dark on Weeknights?

UPDATED 12/02/1991 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/02/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

PITY AMERICA'S TELEVISION NETWORK: During the past five years they've lost nearly a quarter of their audience share to that Nielsen eroder, cable. Now they have something—and someone—else to worry about: Pat Marker, a Minnesota elementary school teacher who has persuaded more than 37,000 students to give up the tube Mondays through Thursdays. How does he succeed in a battle that so many parents have lost? Simple: bribery. Just say no, Marker tells students, and you might win prizes, donated by local merchants, that range from erasers to autographed hockey sticks to even boom boxes.

Started in 1987 by Marker in Cosmos, Minn., T.V. Busters!, as he calls the campaign, is now used in 200 schools in 42 states. It works because it's "fun for the kids," says Marker, 26, currently teaching fifth grade at Kimberly Lane Elementary School in the Minneapolis suburb of Plymouth. "It shows them they can exercise control. And it gives them a lot of free time—time to study, sure, but also to play outside, to be with family, to read, to be kids."

Indeed, a side benefit of T.V. Busters! may be to increase adult participation in their children's lives. "Unfortunately, many parents don't play with their kids and rarely talk to them," he says. "It's too easy to let kids come home and turn on the TV. Parents think of it as educational and entertaining when it's really not. They'd rather have Roseanne tell their kids about birth control than do it themselves." Marker also thinks what kids watch is often unsuitable: "If parents got involved, watched what their kids are watching, they'd speak up and say this isn't appropriate. There'd be some changes in programming."

T.V. Busters! is currently conducted only in October and April (there are, after all, limits to the sacrifices a child will make). Audiotapes and CDs are permitted, and even the rules on TV have some give. Kids can, when accompanied by a family member, watch the news and educational shows. "National Geographic specials, yes," says Marker. "Rescue 911? No." (In October his students got bonus viewing hours when Marker gave special dispensation to the postseason games of the home-state Minnesota Twins through the World Series.) Each otherwise tubeless school night entitles a student to fill out a slip, countersigned by a parent, that becomes an entry in the end-of-the-month drawing for goodies.

T.V. Busters! has its origins in Marker's own couch-potato youth. Born in Salem, Oreg., the third of seven children of Mike and Rita Marker (today coordinators for a pro-life center in Steubenville, Ohio), Pat got the yen to teach after an epiphany in fifth grade. "My teacher, Mrs. Luce, was reading The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and I thought it was neat how she could control the class with her voice. I decided I'd do that too." Trouble was, Marker admits, "I was an average student at best. I spent a lot of time watching TV, and my grades suffered. It wasn't until college that I started to do well in school." Well enough that he needed just 3½ years to graduate from Jamestown (N.Dak.) College with a degree in education.

Marker informally launched his program at his first teaching post when he discovered that TV was interfering with his Cosmos fourth graders' homework. He asked them what it would take to pull the plug. "They all agreed they'd give it up for $500," he recalls with a laugh. Marker forged this compromise: If the kids went cold turkey on school nights, he would tape favorite series like Alfor The Cosby Show and rack them up on the classroom VCR on Fridays. Later that year, he came up with the T.V. Busters! name as well as the lottery concept.

Today, Marker, a bachelor, devotes much of his free time to handling the flood of inquiries about his campaign prompted by accounts in the media and in educational newsletters. He replies with a $4 starter kit. Classes that complete the membership form receive a free T.V. Busters! T-shirt (extras are $7.50 each). The venture may not be financially rewarding—"I just want it to pay for itself," he says—but it has proven emotionally gratifying. By next spring, Marker proudly predicts, his campaign will reach 50,000 participants in all 50 states. The networks may not like it, but give Pat Marker enough time and America could discover a source of delight and amazement: kids who have kicked the video habit.

TONY CHIU
MARGARET NELSON in Plymouth

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