Watching TV with my son

Our son is home from college. There is music playing on the stereo that I’ve never heard before, and shoes, big ones, lying here and there in a kind of trail leading from the front door to the family room. It’s all good: In our household, our son’s arrival has come to signify the official beginning of summer.

Our son has blessed us in many ways, not the least of which happens to be his penchant for watching TV. This, I admit, he probably inherited from me. I thoroughly enjoy watching TV, even when I know that what I’m watching is a waste of, among other things, time. There’s something perversely luxurious about this. Yes, sometimes taking the time to watch an old sitcom feels like the equivalent of lighting a hand-rolled cigar with a hundred dollar bill.

The problem is that I’m a creature of habit. When it comes to TV I know what I like — a B-movie on TCM, say, or another misspent afternoon watching the Cubs blow a lead in the late innings — and I tend to stick with the tried and true.

My son, on the other hand, likes to graze. When he’s around, my viewing horizon gets a good stretching. I doubt, for example, that I would have experienced the surgically enhanced cavalcade that was this year’s Miss Universe pageant, complete with Miss USA’s unscripted pratfall during the evening gown competition, had it not been for my wisecracking son.

The other night, the two of us were watching something — another riotous episode of Prime Minister’s Question Time on C-SPAN, I think — and my son remarked that our old TV had held up pretty well over the years. This is true: As best we could recollect, we bought the thing when he was in middle school. But, I told him the time was drawing nigh when we would have to junk it. In less than two years, in February 2009, an act of Congress will render our trusty analog set obsolete.

After years of hemming and hawing, Congress finally decided that on Feb. 18, 2009, TV stations will switch entirely to digital programming, or HDTV. People say it will be the biggest change in video technology since the introduction of color TV in the 1950s. While this doesn’t mean that all of us with analog TVs will have to throw our sets away — your analog set can receive digital signals through the use of a converter box — it appears many folks are already using the deadline as an excuse to upgrade their sets, leading to concern that millions and millions of old TVs will wind up in the trash. “There’s going to be an e-waste tsunami that hits America,” John Shegerian, chief executive of Electronic Recyclers in Fresno, Calif., told the Los Angeles Times.

I guess if you’re going to make an omelet you have to break a few cathode ray tubes. The point is that, with very little public discussion or media coverage, the government is about to reach into every one of our homes and mess with what many Americans probably consider the most important appliance they possess: their television. According to the latest U.S. census, the average household has 2.5 of ’em. In all, there are 268 million TVs from sea to shining sea.

Some might consider this a great intrusion on government’s part. Others, though, might see it as an example of America’s can-do spirit. Here was an old technology standing in the way of a new, better technology — I mean think of it, who wants Oprah in 640-by-480 pixels when you can have her in 1,920-by-1,080?

That this conversion is for our own good should be obvious. And for those who worry that some among us might not be able to afford a new HDTV set, don’t. The government has actually set aside several billion dollars to buy converter boxes so that people like me can bring my analog TV up to digital speed for $50 a pop. “We take the position that, if we’re mandating this conversion, we cannot leave people behind,” said Alaska’s magnanimous Sen. Ted Stevens.

It’s amazing what our government can accomplish when it sees a problem and determines to solve it. The resolution may not be popular with everyone and it may cause some headaches along the way, but that’s the price you pay for progress.

My son said it made him wonder. If we can do this with our TVs, why not with our cars — mandate that every vehicle on the road gets 45 mpg — or our health care — guarantee that everyone has coverage, regardless of their ability to pay. And while we’re at it, why can’t we declare that we’ll begin to seriously invest in alternative forms of energy, like wind and solar power?

The Cubs are playing, I said. The game’s just begun.