Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Any idiot could tune TV back then

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Once upon a time, there was a television set. It had rabbit ears that were connected to a roof-top antenna, which captured some kind of invisible broadcast signal in the atmosphere. No one really understood how or why it worked, but the TV was easy to use.

There were two channels, which were obtained by getting off the couch and literally turning on the idiot box, as it became known even then. A knob on the set was used to manually change channels. When no one was looking, some kids turned the knob as fast as they could back and forth between channels to see what would happen. They were amazed at how the picture changed instantly. How did it really work?

The TV set was also a piece of furniture, sometimes very beautiful furniture, if you could afford the elaborate carpentry and better grains of wood that enclosed the glass picture tube. In Norman Rockwell's world, and, indeed, in many real-life families, mom and dad and the kids gathered around the set and laughed, smiled and cried together at whatever was available. Hockey Night in Canada was huge. Mom usually darned socks during the games, occasionally gazing up when the male species shouted at the box.

When the TV didn't work, the TV repairman was called. He opened the back of the TV, which was filled with giant tube-like things, and set up a mirror in front of the TV so he could see if his tinkering and banging were working. It was always a great relief when the fuzzy black and white images magically reappeared.

Even grandma and grandpa weren't intimidated by the new technology of television. You plugged it into a wall socket, turned it on, and it worked.

Any idiot could do it in those days.

In the late 1960s, things started to get complicated. Cable TV and colour images were introduced. Video casette recorders arrived about a decade later. Decisions had to be made.

Most moms and dads didn't want a VCR, but their children bought them one for Christmas anyway. Dads looked at it warily -- where do all those wires go? Why is that light flashing? Where's the wood case? -- but they eventually learned to live with it.

Today, the kids who foisted VCRs on their poor parents 30 years ago, are reaping the whirlwind.

I mean, have you tried to buy and install a television today? It's become impossibly complicated and expensive.

A couple in their fifties went through this recently after the husband was bulldozed by his wife and adult children to "go modern" and buy a big flat-screen TV for the living room. I can report they are still married, but it was close.

First, new furniture was needed to hold the TV, which involved visits to a series of furniture stores.

The next thing to figure out was what kind of TV to buy. Plasma, LED, LCD? What about other equipment? What's high definition? Don't these new TVs require high-tech boxes of some sort? And what about a sound system? Which cable provider is best?

The wife enlisted a technophile friend who led the husband by the ear through a series of electronics shops to help in his re-education, but it merely raised his anxiety level. He abandoned any decision-making responsibility -- "just do what you want" -- so the wife made a decision, based on her friend's advice, to purchase a LED Internet TV, whatever that is.

The husband did not attend the purchase.

He completely withdrew from the experience, including a subsequent decision to purchase two more TVs -- it's a big house -- to replace the old models that grandma would have recognized. Then the techno-friend showed up with a bag full of wires and gadgets to do the initial setup, including the wiring of a sound system and other apparently necessary modifications.

To his credit, the husband took a day off work to be home with his wife when the cable provider showed up. The technician arrived around 9 a.m. and was up and down stairs and all over the place for about four or five hours.

Four or five hours?

Well, the phone service was changed, a new Internet wireless router -- like anybody knows what that is -- was provided and some kind of recording device was installed for each television. It apparently means a live show like the nightly news can be paused for a trip to the fridge and then restarted where it left off. I'd really like to know how that works.

It's bourgeois decadence, if you ask me.

And what about those remote controls? Are they all necessary? You should see all the wires. Good luck if something goes wrong.

Well, my wife says not to worry. It'll be OK and I'll learn to live with it.

But I still haven't tried to use the big 50-inch beast in the living room. I mean, what if I push the wrong button and a light starts flashing?

Someday, maybe.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 16, 2011 A14

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