The Damnable Black Box

A contrarian user's guide to digital television

We finally got the Box. You know the one. People who still receive their television transmissions over the air now need a converter. This little black case not quite as big as a cigar box is part of a global initiative to make broadcast signals more efficient by converting them to digital. The trend started in Northern Europe. The Netherlands went all-digital, then Finland. Great Britain is in the process.

Americans are famous for resisting global mandates. When it's the metric system, public transportation, socialized medicine, or emissions standards, our well-practiced answer is, "Screw you, we're Americans." But when the global initiative for mass-enforced cooperation is to improve TV, we respond, in one voice with our international comrades, "Da!"

My wife and I are in a diminishing minority. We don't have cable. I've never even lived in a house with cable television, unless you count those months misspent in a fraternity house in Mississippi in 1978. Somehow I don't remember watching much TV in those days.

My wife and I make time for maybe a dozen hours of TV a week. Those zany Thursday-night comedies on NBC. If there's nothing else to do, The Simpsons. There's CBS Sunday Morning, over breakfast. Frontline, American Masters, and the only unpredictable reality show, Antiques Roadshow, on PBS. Jeopardy, when I'm home in time. The top of the local news, or a bit of Letterman until he gets tiresome again.

That's about all we've watched lately. Sometimes I worry that we don't do our part as electronic-media consumers. But embarrassing as it is to mention it, but we still have to deal with some damnable limitations of the pre-tech era—namely, the 24-hour day, and mortality. If we had more TV to watch, I'm not sure when we could. Somehow we've stayed plenty busy with raising kids and making money to pay the bills. We do listen to the radio and watch movies on DVD or oddities on YouTube. Boredom is a rare luxury.

And, of course, we have a finite budget, never more finite than this year. Considering the urgency of our other bills, it's hard to prioritize extra TV. Never mind satellite, plasma screens, or HD. Whatever that is.

Through 24 years and raising two kids, my wife and I have been content with an old TV set with rabbit ears and a little aluminum foil for luck. Maybe we're dull or something, but five channels has always seemed plenty. Even our kids never seemed to care much. No one has ever said, "Sure wish we could watch more TV." That phrase has never been pronounced in our house.

We figured we could go forever with our old sets, unhooked to anybody's cable. All we needed was a live socket to plug into. Then came the digital mandate. Did we ever say we wanted this? I don't remember.

The two newest remote controls have no purpose

Our current TVs are Clinton-era, droll antiques. The one we bought in the early '90s was a minor trauma still fresh in my mind. I once regarded remote controls as hospital appliances, adaptive equipment for invalids. They were the home-entertainment equivalent of catheters. When my wife convinced me we needed a new TV to replace the one I'd inherited from my grandmother, she went to the mall conveying my only specification: "anything without a remote." They smiled politely and told her that in the '90s, there was no such thing as a TV without a remote. And so we got one.

First, the one remote was plenty. Then we got another, to control the new VCR. Then another, for the new DVD. Then we got a couple more TVs, for the bedrooms. Each eventually got extra attachments to play DVDs or videotapes, and most of the attachments have their own remotes. Then we inherited a radio with a remote, too. So in the home of the guy who hates remote controls, there are now approximately 13 of them, skittering around the house like cockroaches. Often we can find as many as five.

The two newest remote controls have no purpose except to operate the new digital boxes.

All the public-service ads made digital conversion sound urgent and necessary and maybe patriotic. Unfailing good sports, we applied for and got the government coupons to help ease the switch. We'd heard that might cover it, but it turned out we had to pay more than $20 extra, for each of our two televisions, about $50 in all. It was the first time in my life I've ever spent money for television, except for the actual television. It wasn't the first thing I'd thought of doing with that 50 bucks, but we came to see it as our civic duty as citizens of the world.

The first thing we discovered was that, now that we're in the future, turning on the TV is no longer a simple task. Turning on the television has become a process that requires the use of two remotes. One turns the box on. Then, with the TV remote, we tune it to Channel 4, a maneuver impossible by using the up and down switches on the set itself, because Channel 4 doesn't really exist. But like the pineal gland that was once posited to contain the human soul, it's where the Box's universe resides. Once safely there, you've got to go to the menu, and then to the listings, and scroll down them one at a time. So to turn it on and get a signal from a station now requires two remotes and seven to 18 deft finger actions.

When we first completed that sequence successfully, I waited, wide-eyed, for awe. Was the image sharper? Well, maybe it was, now that you mention it. Image sharpness is not something I've ever calculated much before. With time maybe we'll learn more about how to appreciate image sharpness. The only way I've been able to learn that some wines actually taste bad is by attending wine tastings.

And then we had an interesting surprise. There were stations we hadn't seen before. Well, a couple, anyway. One is just a sort of shadow PBS station, mainly playing reruns from the other: the sort of thing the main station plays on weekend afternoons, cooking shows, travel shows, home-improvement shows. Another seems to be more or less a weather channel. We're not quite old enough for that yet.

But one is a commercial station called WMAK. When we first discovered it, it seemed a wonderful thing. We got the boxes on a Sunday evening, and the first time we tuned in WMAK, I saw Alfred Hitchcock. I'd never seen his TV show before. I knew the theme well, because my parents would always send me to bed when it came on. Since it went off the air in 1965, I'd never had a single opportunity to see it. I've seen almost all of the master's movies on video—even the old black-and-white British ones of the '30s. But I'd never seen a single episode of the TV show. The Hitchcock show has been a forbidden delight for more than 40 years. And it was great. Every one is a miniature noir comic tragedy with a dependably unpredictable denouement.

The rest of the week, however, that station just plays reruns of cornball action shows: Simon and Simon, Airwolf, Knight Rider, The A-Team. The years seem not to have improved them much.


I should say here that my wife was the one who took the initiative to get the Box. She's the one who talked me into a DVD player, the one who keeps the computers updated, the one with an account on Facebook and lots of e-friends. She's always trying to keep our house modern, even though I live there.

But I knew something was amiss the other evening, as she knitted a scarf by the fire, with a troubled expression on her brow. "I don't know about this digital shit," she said.

I looked at the screen which once again had scrambled into something incomprehensible, like an abstract painting, perhaps one of the lesser early Picassos, or something by a freshman studying Cubism even though he didn't like it much. A scrambled image of Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke was saying Ga-Ga-Ga-Ga-Ga-Ga-Ga!

A radical all-or-nothing ethic

This is a hilly city, if you hadn't noticed, and we live at the bottom of a long cascade of slopes. The reception at our house was never perfect, even when we pulled the rabbit ears all the way out. A rainstorm or a passing car can cause some light precipitation on the screen. Before the Box, it was never any big deal. Audio's what I go by, and the audio always came through clear enough. We might encounter a flurry of interference, but we could always follow the stories enough to get the jokes, regardless of the vacuum-tube weather. We are realistic people. Sure, we get snow. I grew up with snow. I overlook snow like I overlook leaf blowers, my astigmatism, and human frailty. My main frustration with our TV reception over the past several years, in fact the only one I can think of right now, is that I sometimes can't make out what Bart's writing on the chalkboard at the beginning of The Simpsons.

We've learned that the Box lives by a radical all-or-nothing ethic. If the signal's not perfect, it refuses to participate. It's like a moody postman who won't deliver mail if he disapproves of your neighbor's shrubbery. Every electromagnetic signal has to be approved by the Box as worthy of human viewing, or it's just not going to show it at all.

Now, with our improved TV, signal interference is no longer a flurry. It comes across like a catastrophic event that can convince you Al-Qaeda has blown up greater Los Angeles. It scrambles the whole signal, in exactly the same way live television reports from the eye of Hurricane Katrina would freeze a reporter into a third-grade collage, and then sometimes, but only sometimes, pick up a few moments later. It makes you think of Max Headroom, except that Max Headroom was sometimes funny.

Sometimes we can't tell what's causing the interference, but often a glance out the window will identify the problem. An impertinent car, driving by out front. It can kill a narrative.

A Honda can make a character stammer humorously. An SUV can inflict apoplexy. Cars have a tendency to drive by at moments calculated to thwart a punch line or a denouement or a Jeopardy answer. "I'm sorry, you all seem to have lost the Final Jeopardy round. The correct response, of course, is-is-is-is-is-is-is. Better luck next time!"

Or, "We didn't realize what a clever killer we've been dealing with. Throughout all this lengthy investigation, no one would ever have expected the-the-the-the-the-the-the-the. Shocking, really."

One of our TVs shuts down completely when it's raining. "No Signal," it shrugs, for every station, without apology. DTV has left us more subject to the elements than our grandparents were. But maybe we complain too much. Who needs to watch TV in the rain, anyway?

In recent weeks the originally cheerful public-service ads have amended their message somewhat. Now, an older man says, with the seriousness of a prostate-ad doctor, that if you have perfect reception now, you'll probably love the improvements wrought by the wonderful Box. If not, he admits, you may need "an upgrade."

Like, I'm assuming, cable TV. I'm still hoping this whole thing isn't just a wickedly clever ploy.

If we re-prioritized some other expenses, eliminated ice cream or wine or cars, we could probably afford cable. But lots of folks don't have cable TV because they can't afford it. And they're the ones who have to buy the Box. We've passed a law requiring the poor, disproportionately, to pay extra to maintain an amenity they thought they already had.

Enjoying the analog signal

Still, there was Alfred Hitchcock. Even with hiccups, he was to me the sole saving grace of digital TV.

Hitchcock reruns are rich with startling "Isn't that—?" moments, actors you recognize but can't place. They cast a sometimes bizarre variety of old movie stars. After one of those moments, I couldn't help looking up a more obscure character on IMDB. When I did, I noticed a video window suggesting, "Full Episode." I clicked it, and watched a full episode. Suddenly, I discovered, the entire Hitchcock TV oeuvre is available on the Web, with shorter commercials than the ones on the new station. And you can pause it if you want to get a drink. An organization called Hulu is responsible.

Thanks to the black box, Sunday night is still Hitchcock night, but now we watch it on the computer. At the end of one 1955 episode, the always wry maestro turns to the camera and remarks with confidence that his shows are on film, and therefore will be watched in the future, "even in the year 2000." He adds, "If you're watching this in the future, please write me, won't you, and tell me what it's like."

I'll drop him a postcard and tell Alfred Hitchcock about DTV.

Lately, when nothing else works, we've been just turning off the Box and, in its waning weeks, enjoying the analog signal. By the time that's up, I bet we'll have found better ways to spend our time. The Box has had a big influence on our lives. We watch less TV than we used to. Perhaps it's a success.