Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Job of Thinking People

It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners. - Albert Camus
   More than occasionally, I have come across television commercials that do little more than try to make me accept what would be charitably described as a half-truth, one coincidentally that would enrich someone else at my expense. I have an unique viewpoint on commercials. I have not been at their constant beck and call since I was about 20 when I bought my first VCR. From this age onward, when I wanted to, I would skip commercials. At first the task was arduous. The earliest VCRs had only a fast forward button (unlike the "scan" that we assume is fast forward today). Fast forward on a 1978 VCR was almost exactly like the fast forward on a 1978 audio cassette recorder. I know I have entered the realm of dating myself significantly when I can think of no current analogy to the old Fast Forward (FF) button but only can reference other antiques. Here is a picture of my first VCR, if that is of any help:

Note that the tuning controls are on the right side. These could not be changed automatically by the timer. That is, one had to set the channel and set the timer. One could only record one channel at a time for a certain length of time. 

The tape popped up from the top in a tray. My memory is a little hazy so I might not get these right. From left to right these buttons were "eject" (a very tactile button in which the force on the button actually pushed the tray upward), "rewind," "stop," "fast forward,"  "play," and "record." You had to stop before you could eject. If one wished to record, "play and record" needed to be pressed at the same time (just as on the antique audio cassette recorders.) The two tuning dials are VHF and UHF. Both clicked to the next channel. This was an improvement over the old UHF tuner that had no clicks. The old kind was sort of tuned like an antique radio dial. It was very hard to lock in the correct signal. So the VHF tuning dial clicked harder because it only had 12 stations or settings. The UHF had many more and the clicks or cogs were numerous. It always felt like you might strip the cogs if you turned it too fast. One setting on the VHF dial switched on the UHF dial. The FCC had mandated that tuning UHF channels must be easier and done with the same system as VHF to help out the less powerful and obscure UHF channels and insure programming choice for communities. Later when cable came out UHF channels were required to be carried, the "must carry" rule and forced these stations into the first 12 choices on the dial. Thus channel 32 might become channel 4, and so evening out the playing field even more, local channels being grouped together rather than spread as their actual call numbers would have had them.

So, to record a television show one had to set the tuner, then set the timer, then press play and record at the same time. The timer would hold off the recording until the set time and would stop the recording at another set time. Only one event could be set at a time. For my part this involved marking the TV guide for what shows I wanted to record. Keeping it on top of the VCR and setting the timer when I saw that it had finished the previous timer. There was no provision for watching a program while one recorded, but one could easily split the cable before it entered the VCR and send one line to the TV. Thus, one could watch regular TV while recording a show on a different channel. In practice I tried to keep this at a minimum. And when I did watch regular TV, I would carefully keep track of when commercials stopped and started. More on this later. I should just finish off explaining the buttons on the picture. From left to right around the mass of buttons I have described before was the flip button that chose the speed. One could record SP or LP, that is short play or long play. On the longest tapes this would be 2 hours on SP and 4 hours on LP. SP was better quality because the tape moved faster. The other buttons on the top were the counter reset push button, which reset a counter to 00000 which presumably would help one in finding the placement of a show on the tape but in practice was basically useless. To the right of this button was the "timer" flip button. When this was flipped on, nothing would happen. This was the purpose of it. It would only turn on the electricity when the timer reached the time set. At that point it would record your program IF you remembered to press play and record after flipping timer to the off position.

Recording shows was difficult but with time this became commonplace and a habit. Every time I came home or thought about it, I would check the VCR to see if it had recorded a program (the play and record buttons would pop up at the end of a timed recording) and I would look in the TV guide to see what the next program was that I had marked. Oh it was fun to watch things out of sequence. I was fascinated that I could watch the Tonight Show (known more commonly as Johnny Carson)  in the morning or I could watch the Today Show at night. This real impact wasn't time shifting though it was the ability to skip commercials. I had little time to watch TV with all the books I had to read for school and TV was after all my favorite hobby.

Today we think of Fast Forward as the ability to move forward very fast while watching the picture on the screen go by. One can very easily see where commercials begin and end. Technically this is "scan" rather than Fast Forward. DVRs have an even cooler function called the 30 second skip and a 10 second backward skip. With these two additions it is a piece of cake to skip commercials. One just skips forward until the program is seen again, then skip backwards until the commercial. At most one would see 10 seconds of commercial. That is a perfect day for me.

However the first VCR had none of this ease. What I had to do when a commercial came on was to get up (the remote was wired and limited to the button "pause") go over to the VCR and press the stop button. The tape would unwind from around the reading head (maybe 5 seconds). Then I would press the Fast Forward button. Nothing would appear on the screen and I would count in my head "1...2...3" then press stop to stop the Fast Forwarding. Then I would press Play and the VCR would wind the tape around the VCR head ( longer than the 5 seconds it took to disengage) and it would play. Then I would deal with the result of my guess. Perhaps I would get lucky and only have to watch another minute of commercials. Or I could have overshot and fell upon the show missing some of it.

I got better as time went on. Keep in mind that the VCR had cost me $700 or over $2000 dollars in today's money. I had to play with this machinery constantly to skip commercials. Videocassette tapes were also about $22 a piece or $77 today's money. When a tape broke. I carefully took the cassette apart and spliced it back together. If it broke at the beginning or end, I would throw away the smallest amount of tape so that I could directly splice it to the spindle. The reason, the splice if passed over the head could hurt my expensive machine.

Similarly sometimes the machine broke. I had no money to buy a new one but in those days when something broke it was usually very physical and easier to fix. Often the problem was in replacing the belts that turned things.

To get the commercial skipping just right I would time commercials of everything I watched live. Patterns would emerge which could be calculated into how many seconds I held down the Fast Forward button. I used a stopwatch that I had had since childhood. I really wish I had that old stopwatch. Electronic ones are way to complicated. I had charts of commercials for prime time, charts for late night, charts for variations in types of shows. Of course the more time I spent watching live TV the more commercials I had to watch to find out the timing. Since only one event could be set to record at a time, I would often have to watch live programing while the event recorded, though. I made good use of the time wasted with my stopwatch and charts.

The problem with commercials are that they are the basis upon which we accept lying in our society as a natural and legitimate course of action. In my childhood, my mother forced me to accept the fact that hot wheels toy cars would not flip and do the tricks they were portrayed as doing on television. At McDonald's, the trash can would not talk to me. Nothing was wrong with the commercials, no one said that. Mattel, McDonald's and pretty much every other advertiser can lie on television without losing respect. Lying is accepted in the most public forum I knew of at the time.

Salesman, corporations, politicians and pretty much anyone was allowed to lie. President Richard Nixon was pardoned for lies and illegal activities we knew about and whatever we might not know about in the future. The most powerful man in the world could lie, get caught, and suffer no consequences.

So, since I have led a rather commercial free life, have I missed the moments when I could have spoken out? Have I unwittingly sided with the executioners by just not paying attention? By the time I actually started to pay attention lawyers were advertising for clients by reminding them that they might make money by feigning injury. Drug companies and medical equipment manufacturers were encourage people to basically invent diseases that needed their drugs. Infomercials encourage people to invest in all kinds of shady deals.

Lying is part and parcel of our system. It is it's heartbeat. It is the job of thinking people not to just be smarter than the commercial but to skip them, make them non-productive, and support laws that limit them in moralistic ways. Above all, don't decide who to vote for based on their evil.