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Better to Zap One TV Than To Curse the Din

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, January 6, 2005; Page B01

First, the power: I sauntered into my branch of Hollywood Video, stepped up to the wall of 12 giant TV screens simultaneously pumping out a Bruce Willis action flick, aimed my trusty new weapon and -- presto -- the screens went dark. We customers could proceed with our browsing without all that hopped-up banging, shooting and thundering assaulting our brains.

I've spent the past few weeks wandering around with a simple little plastic device tucked in my pocket. It has changed my relationship with our media-saturated society. It has turned me into devilish jerk and conquering hero. It has enabled me to fight back against faceless institutions, including airports, video stores and theme restaurants.

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It cost me $19.

My new toy, called TV-B-Gone, is essentially a universal remote control that does one thing only: It turns off TVs. I love the heck out of it.

My kids and I have a new mission in life. We have a ready response to companies and institutions that try to stun the unwashed public into submission by drugging us with video Valium. In airport waiting areas, where all people want is a chance to read or sleep, there is finally a way to silence CNN. In queues at the dry cleaner or in the jurors' waiting room, you can finally stop the blaring video messages. TV-B-Gone fits neatly on a key chain. Tuck it in your palm, aim, press and you're back in control of your life.

The power went to my head. At Dryclean Depot, I zapped two screens that were blasting loud promotional videos. It was here that I first discovered the most curious thing about my vigilante video-blanking: Folks who had been dully staring up at the screen simply looked down again when it went blank. No anger, no questions. Just, Okay, that's over, now on with life's live show.

I walked through the Post newsroom, zapping 14 TV screens that provide a video news backdrop to our work. Not a soul noticed.

At the food court during the auto show at the Washington Convention Center, four guys were watching CNN Headline News when my kids and I sat down with our sandwiches. We zapped the TVs, and the guys immediately turned their heads from the screen to each other and commenced a conversation. A victory for social discourse!

On the other hand, when I dared to zap a couple of screens at the ESPN Zone -- yes, I know, this was an irresponsible risk of life and limb -- I did hear a couple of miffed heys. But it had to be done -- all in the interest of social science, of course.

But for that gratuitous bit of obnoxious behavior, my zappings have been undertaken for the good of mankind, as quiet revenge against the media machine and those who would steal away a small piece of our humanity by putting us into couch potato mode in public places.

The TV-B-Gone was invented by an engineer from San Francisco who grew up addicted to Mary Tyler Moore reruns. Mitch Altman, now 47, had dozens of TVs in his house. He'd take them apart to figure out the electronics. But as you'd expect in a tale of extremes, he grew so sick of TV that he turned against it, and TV-B-Gone was born.

His tool has taken off. Yes, this social leveling device eventually will result in violence. A sports-widowed wife will zap the wrong Monday Night game at the wrong moment. A wiseacre will end the entertainment at a sports bar, triggering the end of his own existence.

But used judiciously, TV-B-Gone is the most stirring form of citizen empowerment since universal suffrage.

Last stop: The waiting room at Children's Hospital. Nobody was watching the blaring TV; its incessant yammering had forced waiting parents to the far corners of the room. I tried to point my vigilante device without being noticed. Suddenly, the cacophony ceased. The children grew quieter, the parents relaxed. Mission accomplished.

But I had been caught. A mom slowly turned toward me. She made the connection between the blissful silence and the odd gadget in my hand. Uh-oh, I thought, I have stolen her distraction, her video solace. I'm in for it.

But no: She pointed at my cherished weapon for the enforcement of civilized life and smiled in grateful, silent relief.

Hail the TV-B-Gone! (Just be careful where you use it.)

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