I’m not one of those people who say they never watch television. I won’t even say I’m one of those folks who claim they don’t own a television or if they have one, it’s some tired old black and white set they inherited from their granny that will only pull in PBS and the news. I like TV, and in some cases, I actually love it. I think good TV has a place right next to books, theater, and music. I have a short list of favorite shows, and if I’m not outside, or reading, or puttering around, I’ll watch something on TV. I have to admit that it’s not as easy as it used to be and that’s all because of something that was supposed to make life simpler.
The remote control.
At a minimum, most of us have one remote control, but if we have a cable or satellite box we have two. Toss in a DVD or Blu-Ray player, and we have three. If there is a streaming device, that’s four. Maybe you’re the type of person who likes nice sound, so you may have an amplifier with external speakers. That makes five remotes. And you know—since you have the sound set-up, you may as well connect some sort of music device such as a CD player or satellite radio or something online. That’s six. Six remote controls with an almost infinite number of tiny buttons that have to be sorted out, figured out, and powered up. The technology that it takes for me to watch Jeopardy eclipses what it took to send John Glenn into space.
We had a six remote dilemma when we set up our television/audio system almost eleven years ago, so we choked down the cost and added a high-tech multi-purpose remote control. This particular universal remote was a complicated, battery-swilling contraption, but it did pare down the pile of remotes to one. The only problem was that my wife did not adapt to this device at all.
“How do I turn this thing on?” she asked while staring at the remote as if it were a loaf of bread. Since I was given the half-hour tutorial on how to work the device, I showed her.
“Press Main, then wait for the view screen to read ‘TV.’ Then press the button next to where it says ‘TV’ and wait a few more seconds while everything gears up. The picture will come on first because the amp takes a little longer to sync up but when it does, you’ll get sound and you’re all set. Oh, and you have to point the remote right at that little thing in the corner. That’s called an IR frequency repeater.” I looked over to where she was sitting, and she had long ago left the room and was out in the yard planting flowers.
It took actual years for her to get used to this remote. She eventually figured out most of it, but if she ever hit a button out of sequence, she put in a call to tech support.
“Rick, hi. It’s me. I want to watch Dr. Oz, so how do I do that? The screen says something like ‘devices not synced.’ OK, it’s on now. So do I watch it on 10 or 1245? Why are there two channels for the same channel? Why is the picture all expanded? I feel as if I’m watching TV through a fishbowl. Also why is the closed-captioning on? In Spanish?”
It was a daily grind, but it suddenly got worse when certain functions on the universal remote simply stopped working. I’d find my wife standing in the living room, pointing the remote directly at the TV and stabbing buttons so hard, I thought her fingers would pop out the other side.
“I can’t change the channel,” she said one day, pointing the remote at the TV as if she were trying to entice a twitchy chipmunk with a peanut. Being the all powerful techno-whiz husband, I tried it and it didn’t work for me either. “You broke it,” I said, figuring this was at least possible since she was pushing the delicate remote control buttons as if they were attached to a dawdling elevator.
“Easy fix,” I said and went into the cabinet drawer and got the cable box remote. Now she could change the channel, but that particular remote didn’t adjust the volume.
“I can’t hear it,” she said.
I tried the volume on the universal remote but nothing seemed to happen. I held it down for a second longer until the volume exploded to levels so loud, people in airplanes could hear Dr. Oz explaining how a colon works. So I hit mute. “There. Just follow the closed-captioning until I dig out the remote for the amp.” We were back to three remotes for different TV-watching functions, but we still had to turn the system on and off with the universal remote.
It was ridiculous. Sometimes it worked fine, but most of the time the channel up/down button didn’t work. We started keying in the numbers directly but by the time the squirrelly buttons activated the multi-digit channel numbers, the cable box would go to whichever numbers made it in under the wire. On some days, we just gave up and watched whatever popped up on channel 1.
It got worse when the zero started to fail, so we’d cue up the guide and scroll to the channel we wanted and then hit “select.” This was the same as starting the car by turning the key in the trunk lock. By the time we found the channel we wanted, the show was over. The last straw came when we left the remote on the couch, and the volume started to creep up on its own, then the channel suddenly changed. We were ready to call a priest when we discovered that Milo, our dog, was resting his paws on the buttons. The dog could get the remote to work but we couldn’t.
We finally had enough.
I went out in search of a new universal remote, figuring that the price on these things must have come down since we got ours all those years ago. On the drive to the place that sells home theater stuff, I was thinking about the TV we had when I was a kid. The only way to change the channel was with a pair of pliers. The knob broke off years before the TV bit the dust, and we used pliers until the leftover tuning nub was worn away. I suddenly missed those days.
“Hi, I might need a new universal remote. What do you have?” I asked of the store tech guy.
He started with their cheapest model, which was still pretty expensive, and actually more than a brand new TV.
“You don’t want this one,” he said.
“I don’t? Why not? Why would you stock such garbage if you didn’t want to sell them?” I asked sincerely.
“Well, you’ll spend days programming it, and it’ll be frustrating and I know I wouldn’t want to do that,” he said.
He put that toxic remote down as if he had accidently picked up a dead animal, and then held out a remote that he claimed did it all. “This is the one you want. $699.00,” he said. “Just give us the model numbers of your components and we’ll set it up right here for you.” He then held it in his outstretched hands as if he was Rafiki holding up Simba. I swear I heard a choir of angels humming in the background.
Since the price was way more than we paid back in the electronic Stone Age for a remote control, I had some questions.
“So I have to go home, get the component numbers, come back here, give them to you, leave, come back again, and it’s all done? For $699.00?”
“Exactly!” he said, as if this turd hunt was the most desirable thing that anyone would ever want to do, even better than a noonday nap in a hammock on a beach in Hawaii or smelling a newborn baby’s head. And let’s not even mention the jaw dropping price tag.
“What if I want to add a new piece of equipment or adjust a favorite channel?” I asked. “Well, you have to bring it in so we can do that for you,” he said slowly and deliberately, as if he was explaining this whole process to an earthworm, and not even a regular earthworm. An idiot earthworm. I’m not a malevolent person but at that point, I wanted to clip his nose ring to the back of a horse and slap that stallion hard on the ass. I made my apologies, thanked him for his time, and left empty-handed.
A few days later, we were tipped off to a marvelous all-purpose remote for a heck of a lot less, so the following day, I went online and bought one. It even came with in-house tech setup. The setup looked easy enough to do on my own, but my patience for this sort of thing runs the spectrum from saintly to smash it with a hammer. Safer to let someone else do it.
It took him about an hour to set up the remote and install the app on our computer so I could make any changes on my own. I have to say it’s pretty great, plus the remote has a slick little charging station, so no more batteries to buy, and Mrs. G. figured it out in about thirty seconds. It has a full color screen with channel icons that work the same as an iPad or a smartphone. Just swipe and tap.
So now I’ve banished every other remote control to a box in the closet, their arcane commands and miniscule buttons having been replaced with a simple, no-bifocal touch screen. Sure, there are days when Mrs. G. gets a little impatient and starts hitting random buttons, sending the thing into an electronic dervish, but for the most part everything works OK, or at least as well as a pair of pliers. That in itself has to be progress.