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The wrong Box

July 2012

I’m getting increasingly irritated by television.  Not what’s being broadcast, which is irritating enough most of the time, but that’s for another day; for now I’m more annoyed that  the equipment we are being forced to buy and understand these days  is so expensive and badly designed that it’s actually acting as a barrier to watching anything at all.

The problem stems from the switch to digital systems.  On the face of it, the digital migration ought to be good news; it brings more channels, the ability to connect different bits of equipment, record or download programmes, play DVDs and more.  But that’s the problem.  With all this opportunity comes the inevitable complication and unreliability that will always accompany any infant technology.

In the old days, when televisions were just televisions, they had an on/off switch and four or five buttons to press; there were three or four knobs on the back to twiddle if the picture looked a bit odd.  A chap can handle those sorts of controls; we recognise them, they were like radios, which we understood.

There was even a whiff of mystery; when I was ten, I discovered Rock and Roll by listening to American Forces Network from Germany fading in and out on the Medium Wave; the signal struggled but was always there.  With a digital signal there’s no such romance, it’s either on or off. 

Television is an almost entirely digital affair these days; there remain a few transmitters working on the old system, but they will all be switched off this year.

So, if we want to watch Dads Army, we buy new, digital televisions, together with the other equipment to record programmes, watch DVDs, connect laptops and so forth.  This means that most of us have at least three boxes of flashing lights clustered untidily together, linked by a mess of cables which have a wide variety of different connectors, all of which respond badly if they are nudged by a vacuum cleaner or cat.

Once connected, they have to be taught to speak to each other; and many of them regularly want to update themselves, nagging us until we give in.  They then often have to be re-calibrated all over again to understand what its neighbours are saying.

That’s all bad enough, but we have to operate them using handsets with buttons and text so small that it’s hard to read (before it wears off) and pretty meaningless  anyway; many of the buttons have two or three purposes, depending on the phase of the moon, or something equally abstruse.

Even all that might be acceptable if the instructions that appear on the screen made any sense to the likes of most of us.

Then there is the quality of the signal.  The list of channels that I can watch seems to vary with the weather (that’s no exaggeration) and the room I’m in; and every so often they move them all around and everything has to be re-set, again.

The Internet makes it worse, especially if you have a feeble connection, as we do.  In theory, I am a great fan of the BBC iPlayer and its commercial competitors; they remove the need to record programmes and you can watch it on your television, if you understand how to connect your laptop to the TV or your TV to the internet.

But when you do all that, guess what:  the picture quality is not as good as a live broadcast, or doesn’t quite fit on the screen, or freezes, or is of synch with the words.

What this all boils down to is that despite all the clever technical advances, which I admire, the service we are getting from our televisions and associated equipment is getting worse and costing more.  To quote the great Patrick Hutber’s law yet again in this column: “Improvement means deterioration “.

The truth is that we are in an interregnum;   I suppose in ten years we will find using televisions easy, just as we did ten years ago.  I hope I can keep my temper until then, but I doubt it.