Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 27, 2009

The Trouble is Not in Your Set

Prelude, 2017: Please note this post was written in 2009. Much has changed about the video landscape in the ensuing years, and the observations here now reflect a much different viewing world.

I’ve known since I started this blog that this day would come and merit comment of some kind: the return of television to Rancho Retro. The past four months of the remodeling project have meant no kitchen, no living room and no TV. Fortunately, the bathrooms have remained in service.

As it has turned out, four months without TV doesn’t, in fact, amount to much, but does give an opportunity to reflect on whatever happened to the good ol’ TV world of the past.

Because we’ve never subscribed to cable, what we describe as “TV” here at The Rancho is not what most of you think of as television programming. Here’s a test: Think of your top three or 5 or 10 shows. Are most of them on cable? Probably. Now, name whatever are your top broadcast — commercial or PBS — programs; we probably don’t watch those, either. Cop shows, doctor shows, sitcoms, awards shows, reality shows (except for “Dancing With the Stars,” which we did have to skip): Not on our list. Sports? Sure, I like to flip on the football game or baseball game or, back when Tiger Woods used to play (whatever happened to that guy?) even, god help us, golf. But I’d wander in and out and do other stuff and eventually turn it off, mostly unwatched, when we left the house to do something real. If you asked The Counselor what sports are on TV, she’d be guessing.

What, really, is left of poor old broadcast television? I learned the answer when the U.S. finally made the switch to HD broadcasting. I hooked up my little $15 converter box and hit the “auto-program” button. 64 channels: oboy! Oboy, that is, if you speak any of the Asian languages, from Tehran to Tokyo, Armenian, Korean, and, here in LA, lots and lots of Spanish. They have your channel.

Religious programming? Choose your religion, or, mostly, your version of a certain subset of Protestantism. And paid programming which, since all of us have seen more of it than any human should have to witness, I won’t go into details about. Say, shouldn’t that stuff just be on in the middle of the night with Bob Shreve and the Cool Ghoul? What made it all show up all the livelong day? Probably the answer is that cable drove all the good programming out of broadcast TV.

What also makes broadcast television redundant or peripheral are two other things. One is the World Wide Web, which, as it happens, has your attention now, and the other is the flat-out ubiquity of television outside our living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, garages — wherever you have the 2nd, 3rd or 4th receivers installed. It’s everywhere. I’ve been doing some traveling during this time, and there was TV in every airport, hotel room, restaurant and, god help us, canned versions on the plane. At one extremely nice resort, there was a fabulous pool with a big tiki hut bar that was practically festooned with television screens. Why? There are video screens in the back seats and, increasingly, the front seats of cars, in the company lunch room (why, why, why must we have Wolf Blitzer and the “Situation Room” when we’re trying to eat?) and, yes, someone you know watches it on their cell phone.

The new TV arrived right after Christmas and is operational in the nearly finished living room. So far, it’s getting its signal from the good ol’ analog converter box, though we are ready to bend to the winds of change and shell out to have the cable programming piped in. What’s most welcome is that we can watch movies from DVD in high def, and we celebrated by renting “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” I couldn’t resist popping in “The Return of the King” and viewing a few select scenes (Riders of Rohan descend on Pellennor Field). (BTW, a plug for your local library: they probably have a big selection of movies and other programming that you can get for pocket change. That’s where we got “Crouching Tiger.”)

But wait, there’s more. This evolved scion of the TVs of the past has not only analog, USB and HDMI connectors in back, but an ethernet network connection. Yes, one can hook the TV into the Internet and, using the remote and the unit’s own menus, download movies, view Web content, e-mail, and all that other world that is increasingly claiming the eyes. In short, the world of TV has capitulated, acknowledging that the computer will rule us and be the platform that eventually dominates, if that day is in fact not yet here.

I started my video career at the very dawn of the personal computer era and, then, the worlds of computer and video were utterly separate. The fact that they both used CRT screens as displays made it seem as if they should work together, but it has been a long, long several decades of incremental steps to make that truly so. (When I have time, perhaps I’ll describe how incredibly tedious it was to insert simple things like superimposed text into the video signal; the video manufacturers and the PC software manufacturers may as well have been in different galaxies.) Now, in my own house (and yours) are all the components: PC, TV, advanced cell phone, wired and wireless connections that are getting THAT close to all blending together. I hope George Jetson stops in for lunch. He’ll laugh when he finds out how doinky this stuff all still is compared to how it SHOULD work (Mr. Gates, please take note).

I mostly regret that this probably means I’m also THAT close to replacing my 30 year-old solid-state Sansui audio receiver. Ah, I’ll miss all those buttons and dials!

Note: For readers younger than a certain age, the phrase, “The trouble is not in your set” may have no meaning. In the old days of television, when local broadcast stations relied upon unreliable new technology and lots of live, hands-on manual activity to send a signal to the transmitter, any glitch along the line could result in no programming being fed into the broadcast. The station was still on the air, but no one was receiving picture and/or sound. The station would post an on-screen message, inserted at the transmitter by an engineer, informing us to “Stay tuned. The trouble is not in your set” (as in “TV set,” another outdated bit of terminology for a television). The reliability of broadcast, cable and satellite transmission has improved vastly since those days, obviously.

© Brad Nixon 2009, 2017


  1. buttons and dials, NOW we’re talking! my amplifier is from 1973, as is the tuner, which i commonly refer to as “the radio”. g’s turntable is from 84, 12 years more current than mine which is back in it’s box. the dual cassette deck is really modern, being probably 98 or so, the recording CD player ga got me in 05, and the CD/DVD/MP3 player (which won’t shuffle, no matter what i do) is probably 2 years old.
    none of this is hooked up to the tv, or indeed in the same room as the tv. the gleaming flatscreen HD tv with starter level cable which is usually on network or watching DVDs or blu rays.
    for good or ill, i’ve never seen any of the so called reality shows, surviving or dancing or bill o’liely or really any faux news. we also have a couple spanish channels, 6-8 seeming ly christian channels, and another 3-4 shopping channels. i think it would be cool to watch some of those non-english channels thought, i used to be able to see the news in italian or french, but who know where those went, or what they were saying. it’s the way they say it, ya know? real husky, like the lead dog in a snow job.


    • “Lead husky in a snow job” is very, very good. Thank you. Perhaps Bill will weigh in on foreign cable programming, which he views with great regularity, and actually knows what’s happening in France.


  2. full disclosure: that’s from phil austin (1/4 of the firesign theatre)’s LP “Roller Maidens from Outer Space.”


  3. Perhaps (and most likely) my memory is faulty, but your title “The trouble is not in your set” reminded me of the intro from a very retro show of the ’60’s, The Outer Limits, where the TV screen was first intentionally scrambled and then followed by that notorious line.


    • Your memory is correct: “We will control the vertical. We control the horizontal.” (these are also outdated concepts unless you’re a video engineer!)


  4. I must say I really enjoy your blog. You must tell me sometime how you manage to get an interesting piece on eacht time. Which I think is truly impressive. I can still vaugly remeber the stay tuned message or (een ongenblik geduld a.u.b. as it is in Dutch message when reception went bad) And to my surpise found out that You like J.R.R.Tolkien, as he is one of my favorite writers. Keep Blogging , I think its great.


  5. I must echo the response by Niels above. You know far too much about way too many things. This can be hazardous to us other mere mortals who, rightly or wrongly, are saddled with something called an ego.


    • Shucks, all I know is what I read in Grit each week. Thanks for the nice comments. The secret is, I get to pick the topics. No snap quizzes here!


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