What makes simply taping a show so hard is first de-programming VCR salespeople

April 10, 1997|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

RECENTLY, I'VE BEEN going through one of the more hellish experiences of modern life: shopping for a new VCR.

In a lot of ways, buying a new VCR is like buying a new car, in that the sales field seems dominated by a lot of slick-talking guys with thinning hair, loud blazers and the remains of what appears to be a tuna sandwich caked at the corners of their mouths.

The only difference is that when you're buying a new VCR, you don't consummate the deal in a cramped gray cubicle decorated with bowling trophies, cheap Automotive Salesman of the Year plaques and the Happy Hour listings of every bar in a 10-mile radius.

Anyway, in shopping for a new VCR, the only thing I really care about is this: It has to be easy to program.

Let's face it, there are only about 14 people in the entire country who know how to program their VCR.

And these are mostly pasty-faced computer geeks, shut-ins, convicts on home-detention programs, ex-Jonestown cultists and the like. In other words, people with not a whole lot going on in their lives.

For me, trying to record a TV program on a VCR is like trying to set the navigational system on a Trident submarine.

Look, I couldn't even set the clock on my old VCR.

You walked into my family room, the first thing you saw was a red "5: 23 p.m." blinking on and off like a vacancy sign outside a cheap motel.

And the thing is, if you can't even set the clock, you have absolutely no shot at taping Letterman. Compared to setting the clock, taping Letterman is quantum physics.

Of course, when you're shopping for a VCR, no matter what model you're interested in, the salesman always says: "Oh, this one is easy to program!"

This must be the first thing they teach in VCR salesman school, right after they hand out the loud blazers.

Right after he tells you how easy it is to program, the salesman will pick up the remote for that particular unit and say: "Look, all you do is hit this button, OK? You get your on-screen programming, right? Then you hit this, enter day, date, time, channel, hit this, then hit this, depress this button, right? And you're in business!"

Right. Meanwhile, you're standing there vacant-eyed and slack-jawed, your head cocked to one side like a golden retriever who has just watched a squirrel somersault across the roof of his doghouse.

The last salesman who waited on me had a huge forehead that fairly radiated knowledge about all things VCR-related.

You could tell he was the kind of guy who had at least five VCR's at home, each one of them programmed to record 15 different TV shows, including four or five broadcasts by the BBC in London and Iraqi TV in Baghdad.

According to the white tag above the breast pocket of his blazer, his name was Lloyd.

For openers, Lloyd started in with a long, mind-numbing soliloquy on 2-head vs. 4-head VCR's, the benefits of freeze-frame and slo-mo capabilities, front A/V jacks, universal remote with jog/shuttle, index search, auto tape speed adjust, auto daylight savings adjust, VCR Plus, etc.

The whole time, I kept staring at his forehead, marveling at that enormous power train humming just centimeters below the skin surface.

You could envision the cerebral cortex groaning from all that work, 50 billion neurons firing violently but in perfect unison, summoning vast acres of info on the latest units from Sony, Hitachi, Panasonic, JVC, Samsung and the rest.

God, it was a beautiful thing to see!

I had no idea what the hell Lloyd was talking about, but I drank in the words hungrily, watching tiny waves of heat shimmering from his scalp as the cerebrum kicked into overdrive.

Lloyd was a pro, all right, with the conscience of a personal-injury lawyer.

When I asked him about a $179 VCR from Zenith, he smoothly turned the conversation to a snappy $349 unit from ProScan.

When I pointed to a no-frills $129 model from RCA, he wrinkled his nose as if he'd just come upon a decomposing corpse, then began eagerly talking up a $285 unit from Magnavox.

It was, in some ways, like being in the presence of a Mozart or a Minnesota Fats at the very peak of their careers. I felt as if I were seeing a unique, compelling form of genius that surfaces maybe once or twice in a lifetime.

I decided not to buy a VCR that day. As I left the store, Lloyd pressed his card into my hand and rattled off the days and times he would be working that week, should I need further assistance, adding in a discreet voice: "We work on commission here, you know."

It was a nice touch.

The great ones make it look so easy.

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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