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Battle of the Remotes Widens With Device That Zaps Off Any TV

October 21, 2004|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

For someone who just wanted a little peace and quiet, Mitch Altman is causing quite a ruckus.

The San Francisco entrepreneur, perennially irritated by televisions blaring in restaurants and other gathering spots, revealed this week that he had come up with a solution: a cheap remote that shuts down almost every model of TV.

After the story of Altman's invention zapped around the Internet, so many people visited TVBGone.com that the website crashed. Even so, Altman had taken 2,000 orders by early Wednesday, accounting for the entire first production run.

Through mobile phones, pocket TVs and other devices, gadget makers have spent two decades devising ways to keep people constantly "on." The buzz over Altman's device shows that some people are eager to turn off.

"I can see it turning into a sort of punky instrument of disruption," Columbia University sociologist Todd Gitlin said of the $15 devices, "a sort of new-style culture jam that's within a lot of people's means."

Gitlin warned that with TV such a big part of daily life -- Americans watch an average of more than four hours a day -- incautious use of TV-B-Gone could be unwise. Picture, for example, a sports bar during Wednesday night's decisive match-up between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.

Altman started mulling over what became TV-B-Gone after he and some friends found themselves watching a soundless TV in a restaurant, abandoning what had been an entertaining conversation.

Altman, an engineer, tinkered in his studio apartment and then ordered as many of the keychain devices as his one-employee company could afford: 20,000.

The gadget works by emitting every known set manufacturer's signal to shut down.

In his daily experiments in stores and elsewhere, Altman said, few people have objected.

"TVs are so ubiquitous that they don't even think about it," Altman said. They see TV-B-Gone as giving them "some way of controlling their lives."

Amherst College sociologist Ron Lembo described Americans as ambivalent about TV. They want to turn it off, he said, but can't stop watching.

TV-B-Gone "plays into deeper resentment," Lembo said. But even if Altman's gadget catches on, "you can't turn off where television is and how important it is in the culture."

Along with customer orders, Altman said, he has been deluged with suggestions for follow-up products, including Car-Alarm-B-Gone, Booming-Bass-Speakers-B-Gone, and the clear favorite, Cellphone-B-Gone.

Altman has put some thought into that last one. "There are many possible ways to do it," he said, "but I don't think any of them are legal."

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