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The last time I was in an aiport, I was held hostage by the ubiquitous CNN Airport Network monitors that wouldn’t shut up. I ranted about the experience, and then I heard from a former CNN guy, William Jeakle, who explained that these TVs made too much money for CNN to shut them off.

But thanks to one commenter named Bug, I found out that I could take matters into my own hands with a little device called TV-B-Gone that can turn off almost any television set.

The tiny $15 device acts as a Universal Remote that has just one button — the off switch (or on switch) for nearly every TV. It is programmed in such a way that it sends power signals to any TV within range. Most public TVs in restaurants, bars or airports wouldn’t stand a chance against this device that could double as your key chain. Of course there is the question of how people might react when the TV they’re watching goes dark.

After checking out the website for TV-B-Gone, I found out that its inventor Mitch Altman lives in San Francisco, not far from where I work and live.

I thought we might meet up at Best Buy on April Fool’s Day and shut off TVs as a prank. I settled for a meeting at my office at KQED, where Altman told me more about his invention, his motivation for shutting off public TVs, and the satisfaction his customers have had using TV-B-Gone. (It turns out he already pulled off the Best Buy prank with a Wired News reporter awhile back.)

Altman is the CEO of the homespun Cornfield Electronics, but he’s not your typical CEO. He’s humble and geeky, balding with hair dyed blue and red, and easily gets excited when we talk about his invention, TV-B-Gone. Altman previously worked for the pioneering virtual reality firm VPL Research with Jaron Lanier, and helped start a disk drive controller company. The proceeds from that startup’s sale helped finance his dream to enable people to shut off public TVs that were bothering them.

The timing seems right to talk to a pioneer in shutting off TVs, right as TV Turnoff Week approaches, April 24 – 30. The following is a transcript of the salient parts of our 40-minute conversation.

Why did you decide to invent TV-B-Gone?

Mitch Altman: TVs in airports were one of my prime motivators, because I travel a lot. I didn’t know they were owned by CNN, I just didn’t like the programming. But I didn’t care what the programming was, it was just a TV that was on, and no one asked for it to be on.

The prime thing was TVs in public in general. I like being out and about hanging out with friends or reading a book or having conversations in public places, in restaurants, in cafes and laundromats. TVs have been popping up more and more, not just at airports, and no one really likes them that I know of. No one really watches them. Quite often, you can’t ask anyone to turn them off because there’s no one there. I used to find people to ask them to turn it off. But they never asked me if they could turn it on, so why should I ask them if I can turn it off?

I was at a restaurant and it was the last straw. I was with some friends I hadn’t seen in five years, and we kept looking at a TV in a corner. The sound wasn’t even on, but I’m powerless to do anything else when a TV is on in the room. So we just started talking about the TV, and I said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could turn off TVs wherever I went?”

Tell me how it works.

Altman: Conceptually [TV-B-Gone] is very simple. There’s a little computer chip in there with a database of all the TV remote power codes. And it just transmits all the TV power codes, and eventually the TV in front of me will turn off. I put the more popular codes first, so most TVs will turn off within a few seconds.

What have the sales been like?

Altman: Evidently a lot of people like turning off TVs. Even though people love TV they don’t necessarily love TVs in public spaces. I think I hit a nerve. People didn’t know how frustrated they were and how powerless they were until this came along and made it conscious for them. There are a lot of curmudgeons out there of any age, and this pushes that button. I’ve sold 85,000 so far [since its launch in October 2004]. It’s all been self-funded.

We all did it without pay and didn’t imagine we’d get paid for it. After we started selling them, I could finally pay people for their work.

Have you heard about people getting into trouble for using TV-B-Gones?

Altman: Never. When I was thinking about it for years [before I invented it], I thought that when I would turn off the TV I would look around and worry about who would be upset. But you know, people don’t notice. I don’t go to places where people are watching TVs like a sports bar, but even people there don’t think someone would turn a TV off. People think of TVs like they think of the weather, it’s just around them all the time. So when a TV goes off, they don’t think to look for who turned it off. It’s amazing that people don’t notice. It’s like background noise so we tune it out.

I do notice many times that when I turn the TV off, people are a little more relaxed. People who don’t know each other at a bar or restaurant or cafe start talking to each other spontaneously. Or people who were once distracted, leave and have the few minutes of their life back from what they would have done without the TV.

One of the things I like about TV-B-Gone that sets it apart from other remote controls is the sense of empowerment and community it gives to people. We have so precious little sense of community in our modern world. We all like to think that we are part of something worthwhile that is bigger than ourselves. I get emails from fans who express their feeling of community in many ways. For many people TV-B-Gone made frustration over TV conscious for the first time…TV-B-Gone showed them that they are not alone, that they are part of a large community of people of like mind.

What about people who run these public TV networks. Do you know what they think about it?

Altman: The only feedback I heard was indirectly from CNN. The guy [Steve Bodzin] who wrote the piece for Wired News told me that when he called CNN about TV-B-Gone, he could hear the person’s voice dry up as he said, “You mean the general public can turn off our televisions?”

Later, he found out that CNN was trying to [fix the TVs so they could] determine if the signal was coming from TV-B-Gone or one of their remote controls. What they ended up doing was taking every TV in airport lounges — they are working on it and haven’t done it in every one yet — they’re putting the TVs in wooden boxes. If it’s in those boxes you can’t turn them off.

But there are still a lot of airports were you can turn them off. And there are many other TVs in airports, not the CNN ones, that you can turn off. Airports are stressful enough without having the news coming at us. News doesn’t exactly make us feel good. When I want the news I can read the newspaper or read an in-depth book on the subject. Do people really need that? There are obviously enough people who are annoyed that CNN would go to the trouble of putting them in boxes. I have come across people who do like it, who say they get tired of reading, but that’s the exception.

Now there are more ways to get TV than ever — with downloads, on computers or iPods or cell phones, DVDs, etc. Does that mean it’s harder to turn TVs off?

Altman: I don’t want to tell people what to do and not do. I want people to make a conscious choice…TV-B-Gone was a fun way to get the message out that turning a TV on is a choice. And the media printed that message, broadcast it, published it. In that sense, it was a great accomplishment beyond my wildest imagination. If people are choosing and going out of their way to watch a DVD set, that’s way different than people just turning on the TV to see what’s on.

The TV industry wants people to watch as much as possible, so they can get more advertising money. I really believe that the less TV one watches, the better off they’ll be. But how each individual chooses to use their time, that’s up to the individual.

What’s your past experience been with TVs?

Altman: I was really unhappy as a kid, and I was a TV addict, and I don’t see those two things as being totally unrelated. The main thing was that TV didn’t cause me to be unhappy, but that I wasn’t choosing what to do with my time. It was by default that I spent the majority of my time in front of the TV set. I couldn’t help but compare my unhappy life with the lives of the children on TV, with warm loving parents. I was beaten up all the time for being a geek, and the kids who were beat up on TV were always happy by the end of the episode. That just reinforced for my little mind that I somehow deserved this unhappy life.

Do you have a TV set?

Altman: No. I watched until I was 16, and then I watched less. I still watched a lot of TV until 1980. There was no crystallizing event, but I was watching “Gilligan’s Island,” the same show that I watched when I was a kid. There was always one laugh per show that could get me to come back for more.

But I just said I’ve had enough of this, and got rid of my 50 televisions, because I was a geek and collected them. And my outlook on the world is so much less negative, and more positive. I’m so glad that I don’t have a TV. I couldn’t have done TV-B-Gone if I spent time in front of a TV.

Are you working on any new inventions? Are there other annoying things you’d like to help eliminate?

Altman: Well, Cell-Phone-B-Gone could be done, but it’s illegal. One way to do it is to create a very low power fake cell transmitter, and the phone call would be gone. But disrupting a cell phone service is illegal in and of itself.

I did think of an idea, but it’s not stealth like TV-B-Gone. I figured cell phone talkers were obnoxious, so what if I had a little amplifier that you could point at people, and it had a recording that went “BLAH BLAH BLAH!” and they would hang up. But I’m not the type of person who’s that confrontational. I think it would sell well, but I don’t know if I want to be the person to do that.

*****

What do you think about TV-B-Gone? Should people be able to turn off TVs in public spaces? Do you find these public TVs to be entertaining or a nuisance? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.