A practical joke that may do more good than harm.

I should start out by saying that I’m not a big fan of television. It is the pacifier of the masses. Got a bunch of people liable to complain about a long wait? Put on a TV with something mildly entertaining on it and they’ll sit quietly, hypnotized by the images on the screen. Even if the sound is off! That’s why we see televisions in so many places we’re required to wait, from airport gate areas to doctors’ waiting rooms to restaurants.

My Relationship with the Boob Tube

Keep in mind that I grew up with television. We had one in each bedroom and in the kitchen. We weren’t wealthy people — most of those televisions were black and white — but we were thoroughly hooked into TV. We watched the Today show every morning at breakfast before school and game shows at dinner. I clearly remember seeing first-run episodes of I Dream of Jeannie and Gilligan’s Island. (We weren’t allowed to watch Laugh In — that was for adults.) Every Saturday morning, we were glued to the family TV watching cartoons like Scooby Doo. I remember the birth of Sesame Street and other kids shows like Electric Company. I was introduced to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood at a neighbor’s house.

I was fifteen when we moved from New Jersey to Long Island, NY, and I got my own room for the first time in my life. Although my sister got a TV almost right away, I didn’t. I got a stereo instead. I got tuned into rock — the real stuff that’s probably considered “classic” now. I clearly remember sitting in my bean bag chair — this was the 70s, you know — near my stereo reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy while a Connecticut-based rock station introduced me to Yes with a 45-minute commercial free segment of Yes music.

I didn’t need a television. With books and good music, I could cook up my own fantasy world right in my head.

I got my own television — a 12″ black and white — right after graduating from college and moving into my first apartment. I was 20.

I got my first color television — a 20-inch Sony — as a Christmas gift when I was in my 30s.

My husband and I now have a 36-inch JVC we bought about five years ago, just before flat screens caught on. At the time, it was the largest television you could buy that wasn’t a projection TV. We bought it to better see the letterbox movies we occasionally rented or watched on various movie channels.

To this day, I’d rather sit in a comfortable chair with a good book than watch the crap that’s on TV. Better yet, I’d rather go out and do something — fly, work in the garden, take a hike, ride a bike, go for a drive, or hang out with friends — than watch TV.

There are exceptions, of course. I really love Jon Stewart on The Daily Show: a dose of reality wrapped in a package of laughter. The Colbert Report is a bit over the top sometimes, but usually worth sitting through. Boston Legal is my favorite fictional show — outrageously funny while clearly making social statements about current events. Other than that, I like informative shows on the Discovery, Science, and History channels, as well as PBS. Shows that can teach me something interesting or make me think.

I watch all television via DVR. For those of you not familiar with the concept — my mom wasn’t — DVR stands for digital video recorder. (TiVo is a DVR device.) It’s build into our satellite TV box and makes it very easy to record the television shows you want to watch. Once recorded, the shows sit on a hard disk and can be easily accessed and watched any time you like — even if the DVR is recording something else. But best of all is the 30-second fast forward button, which makes it easy to skip the commercials.

My TV Problem

I do have a problem, however. If you put me in a room that has a television on and it’s within view, I will get sucked into it. It with grab and hold my attention, turning me into just another one of the TV watching zombies around me.

You know what I mean. You’ve been to restaurants or waiting areas where there’s a TV on. If you’re facing it, you’re watching it. It’s as simple as that.

How can you help it? All those pretty colors flashing about. News channel screen titles and scrolling news tickers grab your attention even with the sound off. You see the pictures, you read the text. Why are the police following that white Blazer? What’s with the yellow tape around that wooded area? Why are they taking that man away in handcuffs? Who’s the guy with [fill-in-the-blank famous celebrity]?

In my case, even if I don’t care about what’s on the screen, I’m still sucked into it. The only solution is to sit with my back to it. But then the person I’m with might be facing it and I can clearly see him or her being sucked in. This makes normal social interaction — like conversation — difficult. It’s as if your party of two or three has just been joined by an invited guest who is demanding the attention of the people in your party.

Think I’m kidding? Exaggerating? The next time you’re in a restaurant or airport gate lounge or other place with a TV on, watch the people around it. How many of them are staring at the image like zombies? How many of them are preferring the onscreen image to conversation with their companion(s)? I’m willing to bet it’s more than 50%.

The universal pacifier.

Enter TV-B-Gone®

I read about TV-B-Gone in Make magazine. It was presented there as a project, but for those of us not comfortable with a soldering iron and circuit board, it was also available for sale.

TV-B-Gone is a universal remote control with just one button: an On/Off button. With it, you can turn virtually any television off (or on).

According to Mitch Altman, inventor of TV-B-Gone:

You can use TV-B-Gone® to control access to television for philosophical or practical reasons, or simply to have fun!

Mr. Altman echos my sentiments about television on the Responsible TV Watching page of his Web site:

How much of the TV that you watch do you really like a lot? If you could choose whatever it is that you’d like to be doing right now, anything at all, what would it be? Was your answer, “Watch TV!”? Whatever your answer was, my wish for you is that you have time in your life to do it. Please make time in your life for what you really like. Better yet, please make time to do what you love. Wouldn’t that be great? Don’t know what you love? Try out a few things, see what happens.

Me, my life got so much better from watching TV less. As a result, I had enough time to invent TV-B-Gone®! My idea was to give others a similar chance – so I created a fun way to get the message out there that turning a TV on or off really is a choice. Anywhere, anytime. Please, go out there and choose.

If you do visit the Responsible TV Watching page, please be sure to check out the links at the bottom of the page. If you’re an avid TV watcher, they may open your eyes to many alternatives.

Anyway, when I read about TV-B-Gone, I had to have one. So I coughed up the $20 plus shipping and bought one.

TV-B-GoneIt looks like the keychain you might have with your car. You know, the kind with buttons to lock and unlock the door and open the trunk. There’s just one button on it and, when you press it once, a flashing red light inside that lets you know its working. Pressing the button twice activates it in stealth mode so the red light doesn’t flash.

You use it by pointing it at the TV and pressing the button. The TV-B-Gone then takes up to 69 seconds to run through all the codes commonly used by television manufacturers to toggle the power. When it gets to the code that activates the TV you’re pointing to, the power goes off (if it was on) or on (if it was off). Pretty simple, no?

Of course, there are some limitations. It won’t work with every television. You have to be line-of-sight with the TV’s remote control receptor thingie. There’s a distance limitation; closer is better. But overall, it’s an effective device for playing practical jokes.

TV-B-Gone in Action!

I took my TV-B-Gone with me on my recent trip to Florida. I wanted to test it out in a variety of settings.

I had no success with the televisions in the gate waiting areas at Houston Airport (IAH). I think it’s because I was too far away. In today’s paranoid world, I didn’t want to be obvious because I didn’t want TSA to come down on me for using a suspicious device. (Perhaps I’m more paranoid than they are?)

I did manage to turn off the TV in the waiting area just before I boarded the plane. It was interesting to see the faces of the people who had been watching it. They went from blank stares to confused stares. Nobody said a word.

A few days later, while having lunch with my parents at a St. Augustine restaurant, I got real satisfaction. We were seated at the counter of the rather small restaurant. There were four — count ’em! — televisions within sight of my seat. One was tuned to some sport channel that appeared to have some kind of log-cutting competition. Another was tuned to CNN. A third was tuned to something else — I couldn’t see it clearly because of the way my seat was angled. And the fourth, a small TV close to the first, was turned off.

I should mention here that no one was watching the two TVs closest to me (log-cutting and CNN). Well, no one other than us, trying to figure out why anyone would compete in a competition that used chainsaws to cut through logs.

I whipped out my TV-B-Gone. A moment later, CNN was turned off. I aimed it at the log-cutting competition. The TV next to it went on. It was apparently some kind of security monitor because it showed images from various locations around the restaurant. In trying again to turn off the log-cutting TV, I turned the security TV back off. That’s when I realized that I probably didn’t have a straight shot to the log-cutting TV.

We continued waiting for our lunch. They were taking their blessed time about it. In all fairness, they were kind of busy.

One of the guys who worked there noticed that the CNN TV was off. He picked up a remote and tried to turn it on. Wrong remote. He tried with another. The TV came back on.

I waited a few minutes and turned it off again.

We’d just gotten our food when the same guy came back and noticed the TV was off again. I clearly heard him say to himself, “What is it with this TV?” He went through the same sequence of trying to turn it on with the wrong remote and then turning it on with the right one. It was tough to keep a straight face. I was seated at the end of the counter and the guy was less than 4 feet from me.

I turned it off again just before we left.

Later, the same day, at Houston Airport, I happened to walk though an area of terminal E that used about 50 televisions to create a display of moving colored lights 15-20 feet over the walkway. How unbelievably wasteful! I activated my TV-B-Gone as I was walking and managed to shut off four of them at once. Later, when I had to walk though the same area because of a gate change, I killed another four on the other side.

Is This a Cruel Joke?

When I bragged in Twitter about turning off the 8 televisions at IAH, @Miraz sent me an @reply message:

Doesn’t turning off TVs annoy the folks watching them? I’d be pretty peeved.

Well, in the case of the 8 TVs with moving colors, I don’t think anyone missed them. They might still be off for all I know.

And my observation of the people in the gate area a few days before didn’t reveal any anger. I think it’s because they weren’t really watching what was on. They were looking at it. Sucked in because there was nothing more interesting (to them) to look at. Or because they have the same TV problem I have.

It’s actually interesting to watch the reactions. It proves, in a way, that they don’t need the television on in front of them. Maybe when the TV goes off, they’ll actually engage in conversation with the people they’re with. Wouldn’t that be special.

But I wouldn’t try my TV-B-Gone in a sports bar. You know the kind of place. They have a bunch of TVs showing whatever real sporting events are on. (I’m not talking about log-cutting here.) Guys are drinking beer and watching the game. They’re shouting at the TV about the plays and the calls. They’re absorbed in what’s going on in front of them.

Get caught turning off one of those TVs, and you’re likely to get a black eye.

And I wouldn’t turn off a TV displaying breaking news about something that really mattered. Or the TV in a doctor’s office if it were displaying content that was keeping kids quiet.

You have to be responsible with your practical jokes.

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6 thoughts on “TV-B-Gone

  1. Posts like these are proof of the “quality over quantity” approach.

    Didn’t someone use one of these devices to shut down televisions at some trade show in 2007? Maybe CES?

    In airport waiting areas, I work very hard to be seated facing away from the ubiquitous CNN. Sometimes it is merely annoying, sometimes it actively pisses me off.

  2. It seems a bit like smokers that want to inflict their right to smoke on the masses of non-smokers.

    I don’t think turning off televisions that others may be interested in to suit your own goal is cool.

    Just because nobody complained does not mean that they didn’t enjoy being pacified by mindless television while sitting in a mindless place like an airport, waiting for a flight.

    Surely you can be more understanding that inflicting your will on others to serve your whim. Just my opinion from a long time reader.

  3. Yes, they did shut off televisions at CES. That was WRONG. The televisions were being used at a trade show to demonstrate products. In at least one instance the TVs were turned off during an actual presentation to an audience.

    This is an example of an irresponsible prank. While it would have been funny to toggle the TVs before the show floor opened while the booth guys were setting up — no harm done, right? — by doing it during a presentation, it made the presenters look like idiots. The guys who did it got kicked out — as they should have.

    The TVs in waiting areas tend to show so much crap these days. Why not take a lead from one of the airlines, which shows soundless trivia tests on their screens? Kind of fun and more than one person in a group can play together. At least the viewer isn’t subjected to the media’s idea of what “news” is and how it should be covered. Even a slide show of airline destinations would be more acceptable than a nonstop barrage of CNN garbage.

  4. Steve, I don’t agree at all. Second hand smoke is harmful to people’s health. It makes clothes spell, too. Personally, I think tobacco products should be made illegal as they are proven to be dangerous and they increase the cost of health care in that non-smokers are forced to subsidize smokers healthcare through their insurance premiums.

    You really need to lighten up. It’s a joke. Did you read the whole post or just zero in on the part that got under your skin? Because if you read it all, you’d know that I never said it was “cool” and I provided clear examples of when it was not appropriate.

    Gotta work on that knee-jerk reaction, Steve!

  5. hahaha! funny stuff, my friend. i agree that there are definitely times when this would flat out not be funny, but other times, as you’ve mentioned, when it shouldn’t hurt one bit.

    i, too, find myself “sucked into” the TV if it’s on, whether I want to watch it or not. are there support groups for people like us? =]

    riks last blog post..exciting news

What do you think?