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Let’s Put Technology to Work!

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It’s been an amazing couple of decades. I can still recall bringing my first VCR in the door shortly after I was married. The Betamax took a prominent place on our econo bookcase, and cost as much as a good quality used car. I promised my wife we would only need two tapes… one to record on and the other to watch.

What that Betamax did is no secret. We and the millions of others who made similar purchases were willing to part with great sums of money for one simple purpose: We finally had control of the television.

No longer were we bound to program schedules. I could record PBS documentaries to my heart’s content (okay… maybe we need ten tapes), and if nothing else was on, we were part of the elite group who could watch a movie whenever they felt like it.

Not only did this control allow us to pick and choose what we wanted to see, but it also gave us the power to scan through material we felt were objectionable. Back then, movies usually had one token sex scene. It was an easy fix with the remote control. Commercials were also at our mercy, and soon half-hour programs fit into twenty minutes.

The years have rolled past, and electronics manufacturers have continued to give us new ways to spend dollars. Hi-fi sound, still frame, slow motion, extended recording times, better picture quality, and even circuits that detect the commercials for us, were put into the VCR. And amazingly, as the options increased the prices fell.

Ironically, the VCR and other consumer electronic equipment in our homes today have more capabilities than the computers of the Apollo era, yet our apathy toward these conveniences have landed us in the “flashing 12:00” zone.

How many people do you know who haven’t even set the clock on their VCR? At first, TV stations were worried the ability to skip commercials would bring an end to their prime source of revenue. Instead, consumers have given up on doing their own recordings and fallen back into the habit of just watching the program “live” -- then they even buy the complete season on VHS or DVD (the latest techno wave).

The advent of those shiny disks was supposed to usher in another era of control. Previous to the new format’s release, electronics manufacturers were touting the machines’ abilities to playback a PG version of an R-rated movie. (Too bad they never asked the studios if they were keen on that idea and protecting artistic integrity kyboshed those plans.)

However, nearly every DVD player does come with a ratings lockout feature that allows parents to set a threshold level compatible with their family’s standards. I suspect few DVD owners even know this option exists… and even less have activated it.

How about that V-chip inside your TV? Do you have limits set for sex, violence, and language? Like the DVD player, you can program your preferences and then protect them with a password or numerical combination that will make it difficult for others to tamper with.

The advent of DVD decks able to record television shows like a VCR is just dawning. Until these new units are commonly found in homes, the machine that eats those black tapes which occupy shelves and shelves (yes… I probably have a thousand or so packed into my basement now) is still the only way we can watch a 2 AM movie at high noon. It’s also a very simple method of having more control over what your children see on TV.

So don’t overlook the obvious. Dust off the owner’s manual, and after you’ve figured out how to set the clock, brush up on the recording process too. With a little planning ahead, your family will be able to create its own programming schedule. Even better, parents can preview or hit stop if content issues are questionable. Scanning ahead (try out the double-time button) will enable you to decide if a brief fast forward will allow your children to watch the end of the show, or if eject is your better choice.

Technology has provided television pictures and sound quality in our homes that surpasses what broadcast stations and recording studios could achieve just a few short years ago. While we applaud these improvements, we must continue demanding better content quality too. In the meantime tools like the VCR, V-chip and DVD ratings—although not perfect—should at least be used to our best advantage. And don’t forget the ultimate power button: OFF.

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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