The Digital Signage Insider

New Media Vandalism: Don't Be a Victim of the TV-B-Gone

Published on: 2006-05-19

Is turning off digital signs a form of vandalism?  For most people, the immediate and obvious answer to that question would be "no".  After all, if the TV has simply been turned off, you can easily turn it back on by pressing a button on a remote control or the screen itself.  But what happens when the screen isn't yours, and it's not being used for home/private entertainment purposes?  What happens when you're depending on that screen as a revenue generator, or when you're not physically on site to turn the screen back on?  These are things that digital signage owners and operators, as well as anybody out there selling TVs, should be thinking of -- and perhaps become increasingly concerned about.

About 18 months ago I briefly blogged about the TV-B-Gone, a keychain-sized device that can turn off practically any TV by cycling through hundreds of ON/OFF codes in a few seconds.  The inventor, who felt the need to reduce the amount of visual clutter he encountered while going about his daily business, has sold thousands of these things over the Internet for the sole purpose of turning off other people's screens.  While flipping a switch seems innocuous -- and it is when compared to more serious acts of vandalism -- it can still translate into customer frustrations, contractual troubles and lost sales under many circumstances.  Consider the following:
  • At a crowded sports bar during a frenzied March Madness tournament, Superbowl or World Series game, people gather not only for camaraderie (or to have a few beers), but also to watch the games.  How many people would get up and leave if a rogue TV-B-Goner turned off every set as a key play was being made?
  • At any major consumer electronics retailer, the LCDs, plasmas and other TV screens are set up to sell themselves by showing bright, dynamic content designed to maximize their attractiveness and point out subtle differences between displays.  How many people would get discouraged if somebody kept turning them on and off over and over again (as they do in this little video expos)?
  • Many digital media network owners rely on ad sales to make their screens profitable, and need to provide proof-of-playback data in order to get paid by their advertisers.  How much money would they stand to lose if a vandal went through one of their department stores, malls or retail outlets and systematically turned off every screen?
In each of these cases, a simple flick of the switch may cause real economic damage (with site or screen owners suffering real losses), and make it difficult or impossible for viewers to get the information (or programming) that they frequent the venue for.  An individual thinking that they're doing a service to themselves and others may actually be harming the business that they're patronizing, as well as their fellow consumers (or sports fans).  What's worse, I can't think of very many legitimate uses for something like a TV-B-Gone, so it almost seems like the device is made expressly for those people who have no authority to be changing the screens in the first place, but are likely to want to do so anyway.

In the case of a sports bar or home electronics store, it's going to be hard to stop something like a TV-B-Gone.  In these venues, staff often use remote controls to modify settings, change channels, etc., so disabling the remote control port on the screens may do more harm than good.  Digital signage, however, is usually another story.  Any good, modern screen being sold -- especially those branded as "industrial" or made for public use -- will have a settings locking mechanism along with remote command codes that can be sent via a serial link to the screens.  Attached to a media player running WireSpring's FireCast OS (or a similar software package with remote screen control capabilities), you can remotely control each screen without ever having to resort to a remote control.  This means the infrared port and buttons can safely be disabled and covered up.  For those who still need manual access to the buttons on the display, a piece of black electrical tape over the infrared (IR) port will block light-based remote signals like those from the TV-B-Gone. (Actually, it's a good idea to do that even if you are using the panel locking mechanism, just to be sure.) The tried-and-true black tape method even allows you to forego the more specialized serial link, and simply use generic on/off commands to control your screens.  This feature is also built-in to FireCast and other leading software packages, and comes in very handy if you're using video-over-CAT5 or other long-range distribution technologies that don't carry serial commands.

Or, you could go one better and cover the entire screen bezel with something that blocks the remote control signal and improves the aesthetics of your installations.  Ideally, the bezel surrounding each screen should be treated as a valuable piece of real estate.  The squared off edges on a typical flat-panel display will make a great mounting surface for a bezel cover that reflects your host location's branding, perhaps talks up the name of your signage network, and helps your screens to stand out as more than just a TV on a pole, especially when they're dropped from the ceiling or hung from a wall.  You might even sell sponsorship rights to the bezels on a quarterly basis, customize them by store department, etc.  Think about the way that semi-permanent POP displays are handled in your host locations, and emulate that model if it makes sense for your bezel space as well.  Bezel covers can be made to fit any screen size and budget range, from inexpensively printed corrugated displays that can be changed frequently, to intricate mini-cabinets built from polished wood or brushed metal.
So there you have it: a problem, a solution, and a new opportunity for network branding.  As digital signage and hybrid content/signage systems become more commonplace in public spaces, things like TV-B-Gone will continue to gain popularity, so we need to be prepared to effectively deal with them.  There will always be some group of people dissatisfied with at-retail media, but I'm hoping that instead of resorting to sneaky tricks, they will instead choose to vote with their voices and their wallets.  Don't like digital signage?  Don't patronize sites that use it, or write a letter to the owner stating your opinion.  But even being optimistic I know that we'll need to be prepared for a bit of technological warfare against our industry.  Luckily, with some planning, a bit of technology, and a healthy dose of common sense, we can dodge this first bullet and keep focusing on more important challenges, like content creation, effective messaging, and ROI analysis.

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