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Peterson: Outsmarted by the TV remote control ... again

I appreciate a good TV remote as much as the next guy.

It used to be that you had to get up out of your chair to turn a channel, or increase the volume, or set the vertical hold, or adjust the contrast. And you just did it, not paying attention at all to having to get up and down, and up and down.

But you didn’t have nearly as many channels to choose from, which meant you were treading water in the low end rather than channel surfing. There was no wave to catch. The cable tide had not come in.

Somewhere along the line decades ago, scientists, or engineers, or spooks at the CIA developed remote-control devices that would change the channels for you, and do all the other things you had to do after you walked from the couch to the TV to fiddle with knobs. They had come up with some sort of ray that allowed the remote to communicate with the TV.

And I was more than fine with that. I didn’t expend a lot of energy turning channels or adjusting the volume, but this saved me a few precious steps. And over the decades, the remote became a matter of principle rather than a matter of necessity.

If they were going to make TVs, VCR and DVD players operate by remote control, then, by golly, they had better work because we could no longer bother with buttons and knobs and having to get out of our chairs. The worst thing that could happen is for the remote to disappear.

It couldn’t have gone farther than the living room because the remote served no useful purpose away from the TV. It couldn’t open the garage door, or the car door, for that matter, and why it couldn’t, I do not know. We have remote controls for garage doors – one of the greatest innovations ever if you happen to arrive home in a cold fall-like downpour – and it would seem that the so-called universal remote would be able to operate everything.

So the remote would be tucked under a couch or chair cushion or under furniture, and sometimes, it would be missing for days on end, when the couch would simply belch it up, unable to digest it. And everyone would be relieved. We won’t let that happen again; lesson learned!

But remotes are pretty much essential to watching TV because the cable companies offer us so many channels and options that you would spend most of your night in front of the TV selecting the channels to bop back and forth between, and adjusting the volume during commercials, and making Netflix or the DVD player work. 

Watching TV has become complicated with all of the offerings that are available. And that’s a good thing. I think. 

It takes us on minimum usually two remotes to watch TV. The main remote is this monster that is the size of a nice bass, about 9 inches long, and it has more buttons on it than I can begin to count. It’s the universal remote that sets the stage for network TV, Netflix or the DVD player, and it you use the latter two, you have to switch to secondary remotes. So much for universal.

I can’t begin to tell you what all the buttons on the remote do, but you have to hit a strange, completely counterintuitive mix of buttons to make the TV accept auxiliary devices. I don’t try to understand it; I’ve been trained, and that’s good enough. It gets the job done.

I know how to adjust the volume and change channels, use the mute and previous-channel button. I can’t begin to find the button that displays the menu for what’s playing on different channels, so we generally don’t watch different channels.

But for about a week – and this was only on Netflix – we had tapped a combination of buttons that activated the captions for the dialogue. Which is annoying if the program is in English and you speak English. These aren’t the tiny captions that you often find on foreign films, but great big yellow captions that even I could read from across the room, and it’s been three years since I’ve been to the eye doctor.

We fought it for a while, but couldn’t stop the captions, so after a few days, we got used to them, and you kind of learned to look through them and avoided the temptation to read them.

And that’s what I don’t like about remotes, as convenient and essential as they are. Remotes are smarter than I am, and that’s just not right.

After a week or so, the captions disappeared. I’m not sure what happened, but suddenly they were gone, and we could more fully enjoy TV without reading through the captions. Suddenly, all was right with the world. I once again was almost as smart as the remote.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental health advocate. He is a freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at

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