Look away now: not everyone watches TV

The industry doesn't like to think about it - and the licensing people can't accept the idea - but there are plenty of people like Matt Salusbury for whom the box plays no part of their lives
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The Independent Online

Television executives already wincing at their falling advertising revenues can wince a bit more later this month when seven days are officially given over to boycotting the medium.

For me, along with just over one in 50 of the UK population, complying with Turn Off the TV Week won't be a problem - I don't have a telly in the first place.

For some, this boycott is a serious business. From 24 to 30 April, anti-consumerist groups such as Adbusters and White Dot will be leading a campaign targeting pubs and restaurants that choose to distract customers with television coverage.

The activists are planning to go out armed with hand-held remote control devices called TV-B-Gones, which are capable of turning off a TV from up to seven metres. Several thousand of these have reportedly been sold globally. Not great news for those planning to head down to their local to watch the Premiership face-off between Chelsea and Manchester United on 29 April.

The White Dot website, (www.thewhitedot.com) has drawn up a target list under the heading "Supporters tell us where to zap". It includes pubs in Liverpool, London, Brighton and Norwich, a shopping mall in Hertfordshire, a students' union in Lancashire, an Ikea store in Bristol and a hairdresser's in Eastbourne.

The correspondent irked about her former hairdresser's complains: "Used to be a lovely place to relax and get my hair done. I really liked the woman there and what she did with my hair. But now they have TVs on either side, in the mirrors and, when you lean back to get your hair shampooed, on THE CEILING! I'll never go back."

But for those who've not tried it, living without television can be a liberating experience. Many of those already in my position came into their TV-free state of grace through a happy accident. Like myself, most of the half-dozen I interviewed moved into a house with no telly in it, never got around to hooking up a new set and - in a kind of TV-free epiphany - realised they didn't really miss it.

Anti-TV zealots such as "Lorraine", who has three children and thinks it's a "bad influence" on them, are the exception. TV-free people tend to be childless and unconventional. (Opinions not influenced by TV often seem weirdly original to many.) For various reasons, many of them didn't want their real names in print.

One female TV-free friend told me: "Since I left home when I was 19, I have never had a telly. There was always somebody else's telly in the house. Then when I got my own place, 11 years ago, I just didn't miss it. Other people's houses are where I watch telly. The licence people check up on me; they really, really irritate me. They don't believe me. If I watch TV for too long, I feel ill. I don't tend to buy into ads. I've got a selective attitude. You don't miss anything."

College lecturer David Coleridge took his rental TV back to the shop in 1997 when he prepared to go abroad for a long sabbatical. Days later, Princess Diana died, and Coleridge realised he didn't feel the lack of TV coverage at all. Since then, he's never looked back. But, like all the TV-free people I spoke to, this hasn't stopped Coleridge's life from being an intermittent war with TV Licensing, which cannot imagine anybody living without the goggle box.

In a recent doorstep conversation with "Crispin" from TV Licensing, Coleridge told the inspector he was not inviting him in. Coleridge says: "Just because you don't have a telly it doesn't mean you have to let the TV licence guy in."

Non-TV owners generally know that TV Licensing has no power to enter your home without a warrant. I fully expect a knock on my own door after two years of "Read my lips - I do not own a television" explanations. Their attempts to frighten me have been ineffective. Somebody came round when I was out to warn me that the proper TV Licensing squad would be round "with a van and everything" but they never showed up.

TV Licensing's press office admits it has no figures of its own for how many households had no TV, and relied on figures from Barb, the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board.

Barb's figures for January 2006 are based on an estimate of 25.8 million "private domestic households" in Britain and show that 25.2 million households owned a TV last year, which means that there are about 600,000 households without tellies. (There are just over two people in the average household.) Barb's figures suggest a slight increase in TV-free households of late - up almost 100,000 from half a million in January 2005. But that's still only 2.2 per cent of the population, insignificant enough for broadcasters and advertisers to sleep comfortably at night.

The overall trend in TV-free households has been one of slight but steady decline since the start of the century, down from 1.1 million in 2001 to less than half a million last year. The Office of National Statistics no longer tracks in detail the acquisition of tellies in its General Household Survey of consumer durables, and assumes that the proportion of households without TVs is still around its 2002 figure of 1 per cent. Market research company TNS's TV Average Reach 2005-2006 figures show that 94 per cent of the population watch TV in an "average" week, so during any given week 6 per cent of us don't bother with the telly at all.

Other evidence suggests that those who do watch are viewing slightly less of it. The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising's Trends in TV report reveals a peak of four hours' viewing a day in early 2004, but year-on-year figures show that viewers watched an average 3.42 hours a day throughout 2005, down from 3.46 hours a day throughout 2004.

Anti-TV fanatics may find that their biggest ally will be the Government's planned 2010 analogue TV channels switch-off. Given the costs of a new digital box, new recording equipment, new sockets, and fitting a digital aerial, some fear that, in remote regions, switching off the analogue signal will mean no telly at all.

The tiny TV-free community has celebrity role models such as John Humphrys on their side. The undoubtedly well-informed Humphrys has not owned a telly since 1999. To prepare for his speech at the 2004 Edinburgh International Television Festival, he asked 16 channel controllers to send him their 10 best programmes on DVD for him to view.

Humphrys' speech became an anti-TV rant as he described his astonishment that TV execs sent him programmes such asBreast Uncupped. "If they really think this is the best, God knows what they think is the worst."

You won't catch me ranting against telly like that, though. I even occasionally go to friends' houses to watch their TV, and it becomes a social occasion.

One thing puzzles me, however. How do those in "television households", given that typical weekly TV consumption amounts to almost two-thirds of a full-time job, find the time to do anything?