The TV-B-Gone, which fits in the palm of the hand, is a universal remote whose sole purpose and power is to shut down televisions. During last year's Super Bowl Sunday, it resulted in at least one thrown bottle, two near fist-fights, twenty-seven (by my count) disappeared Hail Marys, touchdowns, and tackles, one half-time show half-seen (or seen, rather, in a kind of slow motion shutter effect â€” I with TV-B-Gone closing the screen, the bartender mashing finger into the on-button like a man poking out eyes), and one near-hammering-into-pulp of a writer waving a TV-B-Gone.
I deployed across Brooklyn that fateful Super Bowl 2006 with a single unit for a test run, assaulting mostly sports bars and taverns and also one restaurant (where no one in the crowd, not even the staff, noticed the quieting of the television â€” for me, a key indicator). I have since been terrorizing televisions almost daily. I go nowhere without the TV-B-Gone. I have killed televisions in Charles de Gaulle Airport, in Heathrow, on the streets of Paris, in the restaurants of small Utah towns, in a Virgin Megastore on Manhattan island, and in countless Brooklyn bars.
Mitch Altman, the 50-year-old inventor of the TV-B-Gone, tells me that when he feels depressed he arms himself and heads into the streets. "It's almost a compulsion for me. When I see a TV going in a public place, I go out of my way to turn it off," he says. "Imagine a room where there's an uptight person wearing really bright clothing and jumping up and down and yelling. It's hard to be relaxed when that person is present. When a TV goes off, I notice people's shoulders and arms relax â€” the body language changes completely. When I'm feeling blue, I turn off a television or two and life just seems a whole lot better."
Altman is a California technophile, a computer whiz, a self-described "geek." He pioneered virtual reality technologies in the 1980s and early versions of voice-recognition software. He built disk drives that were always smaller and faster, and eventually co-founded a company called 3Ware, which perfects disk drive "controllers." He was also a television addict. "I used to collect TVs off the street," he says. "I had 50 TVs in my mom's basement. She was very patient with me. I watched TV every waking moment of my life. But even as a little kid, I remember watching TV and telling myself, 'I don't like this, why am I watching this?' I was five years old when I asked that question. But I kept watching. The one show that I really hated was Gilligan's Island. But it delivered just enough to keep me coming back for more. That is the process of addiction."
Then, in 1980, Altman was watching TV as always, and the question came up that had been dogging him since he was five years old, and suddenly TV was over for him. "I was watching Gilligan's Island â€” nothing against Bob Denver, but I just couldn't handle it anymore. I went cold turkey. And I've never had a TV since."
It wasn't just Gilligan's Island. It was the physical and psychological awfulness of the experience of watching television. It was the fact that Altman one day sat down in a restaurant with old friends he hadn't seen in years, "but there was a television playing nearby and we found ourselves watching the TV â€” unable not to watch the television â€” instead of talking to each other, being with each other."
TV is unique in the EEG activity it summons in the human brain, and unique as well in that it drastically reduces the metabolic rate of the human organism. When you sleep, you use more energy than when you watch TV. When you stare at a painting or read a book or knit or fart in bed, you use more energy. EEG activity during television-watching is marked by alpha waves, those dreamy, spacey waves that also exist between sleeping and waking â€” a passive state in which sustained intense critical thought is pretty much impossible. Alpha waves are also associated with coma.
The technology that Altman devised to counteract this horror was simple. The TV-B-Gone consists of a computer chip programmed with a database of all the power codes of televisions in existence that Altman could track down from the public domain. The diode eye uses infrared light, which makes it felicitous to zap through clothing or across window panes or from a distance. "The chip speaks 214 power codes that work on thousands of different television sets," Altman says. "The power code for a Panasonic is the same as for a RCA. The TV industry made it so easy on me! I'd love to have a Cell-Phone-B-Gone, a Bush-B-Gone. But those things aren't so easy to get rid of." I suggested a unit that expands and clarifies the purpose, a unit that permanently disables the offending television. "There's no remote control code for 'blow up the tv,'" Altman tells me. "You can always buy a brick. Certainly a bomb is a technology that's been around for a while." One possible avenue is the use of a concentrated electromagnetic pulse that would burn out the circuits. "But how," Altman asks, "do you make it directional enough that it wouldn't harm the button-pusher? That's the question." Researchers should get to work.
Since Oct. 19, 2004, when Altman launched his product, more than 112,000 units have been sold in every state and territory of the US, and worldwide in over 80 countries. In 2005, Altman traveled on a TV-B-Gone tour across Europe, appearing on BBC TV sixteen times in two days â€” ironic enough. "My main reason for going to Europe," he says, "was for field-testing on European TVs." In January, a host on New York's WBAI talk radio, which was giving away TV-B-Gones for its winter fundraiser, noted that enthusiasts are now suggesting ingenious modifications. For example, one might mount the tv-killing diode eye in a hat, with the clicker device linked by cable in one's pocket. Or you might build an amplification unit with multiple flood-eyes that literally, as Altman put it, "turn off televisions any direction you look."
Super Bowl 2006 was effectively my own field test. Why go after the Super Bowl? The Super Bowl by its attraction of those scores of millions of human eyes brings to bear what is arguably the most expensive and sophisticated marketing and propaganda apparatus in history, and therefore it represents television's awfulness par excellence. Also, there is the issue of the essential but unspoken pathologic weirdness of men who never exercise gathering to peer at other grown men who run around on a screen in a plastic box chasing a piece of leather and smack each other on the ass when they catch the leather (at which sight the men watching the ants on the screen in the plastic box clap and jump up and down and touch each other as well).
When employing the TV-B-Gone among lunatics such as this, immense care must be taken. Here are suggested rules for terrorizing the upcoming event on February 4. First off, when the TV goes out, the TV-B-Goner should scream the loudest in protest to deflect suspicion. This makes strategic comrades of strangers who otherwise will want to smash your TV-B-Gone to bits. Second, order your drink before you strike; otherwise, the bartender will be too busy fending off the apes protesting the darkness at noon on the screen. Third, be drunk, even if you're not; everyone else is. Fourth, frequently throw up your hands in cheers; you can also, to look normal, produce a steady black-pantherish fist to celebrate "your team" (pick one); this allows innumerable angles to grab the eye of the target TV. Fifth, and most importantly, do not stand up in the midst of the horror of the evening to announce, after too many drinks, that you and the TV-B-Gone are the source of the trouble and that the TV-B-Gone is just wonderful and you can buy it anytime at www.tvbgone.com.
Christopher Ketcham is a freelance journalist who has written for Harpers', Penthouse and Salon.com. He can be reached through his website: christopherketcham.com