A mom as $500 lab rat: WCCO’s TV-free 1979 experiment

In 1979, Patricia Gessner was a 30-year-old Minneapolis nursing student, a single mom with a 2-year-old son and six months pregnant with a baby girl. She was on welfare, and needed money for a crib and new tires for her car. So when she saw the ad seeking paid subjects for a study on “television addiction,” she answered it.

Almost thirty-three years ago to the day, a technician unplugged a module from Gessner’s set. With that, she and son Ben joined four other families as part of a month-long WCCO-TV experiment that eventually became the documentary “A Death in the Family.” They received $500 — $1,500 in today’s dollars.

Wednesday, I noted local media historian Tom Oszman had found the documentary and put it on his TCMediaNow site, adding Oszman’s plea for participants to come forward. That night, I received an email from Gessner — now retired as a nurse from Minneapolis’ Phillips Eye Institute — and she was willing to talk about how that month did, and didn’t, change her family.

In the documentary, Gessner explains she was concerned that the family’s tube-watching – 9 hours and 8 minutes per day, according to a diary she kept before the TV was turned off – was eroding her relationship with Ben. She worried she wasn’t paying enough attention to him, but the anecdote that sealed the WCCO deal was when she told the producer about Ben imitating Lou Ferrigno’s “The Hulk.”

“He’d take the Hulk stance and growl the Hulk stance,” she explained in the documentary. “He picked up a kitchen stool and threw it across the kitchen and broke it.”

“A Death in the Family” used Gessner as the human face of the debate about violence on TV. (Other families exemplified different social problems.) Narrator Dave Moore noted the tens of thousands of violent acts a viewer witnessed, asking, “Are we leading the young to expect — even crave — a level of violence they will never experience unless they start it themselves?”

Gessner chuckles when I mention The Hulk. “Ben is 34 now, and he’s a big guy — he looks like The Hulk. He’s 6-foot-5 and he body builds,” she says, prompting one to wonder anew about nature versus nurture.

The biggest gift Gessner says she got from the experiment was “hearing myself think again. I remember that fall, we spent more time outdoors, and more time indoors being creative. I built a cardboard kitchen for Ben, and we did a lot more reading. I didn’t have too much in the way of withdrawal; it was more the experience of discovery.”

Still, she confesses that the moment the experiment ended, the TV went back on. Her daughter was born in December, and the “chaos” of two small kids made the zone-out factor that much more alluring. Of her TV viewing, she says, “There was a decrease for awhile, and then I guess it went right back to normal.”

But if it didn’t change her behavior, that long-ago month changed her consciousness, perhaps in a way that paid off three decades later.

“It definitely had a long-term effect on my awareness – that was probably the biggest thing,” Gessner says. “An awareness of how I opted out emotionally by having the TV on all the time. Things were chaotic with two babies, but now that I’m retired, I find myself with the TV off a great deal more. I like the peace, being able to hear myself think.”

Gessner is not a technophobe: She says the first thing she does each morning is fire up the computer to check Facebook, the news and the weather. Still — unlike some of us — she has not found the computer more addictive than the tube: “After I’m done, I do my mediating and journaling and prayer.”

Her grandson — Ben’s son — is a different matter. He’s over at her Chicago Avenue house a couple of days a week, and she says, “Oh my God, the kid could play games 24/7 and not hear anything. He’s more on the video games, the mind-numbing, brain-mushing kind of activities. He’s into YouTube and Twitter and Gmail. He’s 10.”

It does make one wonder how much a TV station would have to pay today to get a family to turn off all its myriad screens for a month. Of course, stations had more of the media market to themselves 30 years ago, and more profits to make documentaries and fly around to interview experts.

Gessner says Ben is now a carpenter who lives in Bloomington, believes “anything that comes along is cool” and loves picking up new skills. Her daughter grew up to be a General Mills globetrotter: “She was in charge of Cinnamon Toast Crunch — it’s still my favorite cereal.”

Coincidentally, when one of her kids graduated from Minneapolis Washburn High School, Dave Moore was the graduation speaker, and about five years ago, she got around to requesting a copy of the documentary for her personal collection.

“I remember when I first saw the program, I was incredibly impressed with the amount of research and expertise in talking about the media and the effect of the media — that was a bigger part of the story,” she notes. “It was an impressive and award-winning program, and [a network] picked it up. My mom in Arizona got to see it, too, and they used if for many years at the U in their sociology and psychology programs.”

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Russ Rogers on 09/16/2010 - 07:33 pm.

    Great article, David.

  2. Submitted by B Maginnis on 09/17/2010 - 02:44 pm.

    Ditto.

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