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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Debugging the TV

If you've arrived here because you're wondering why BBC World has disappeared from DVB-T in Berlin: see this entry.

When I was little, back in a dim and distant place called the Seventies, television was a comparatively simple affair. On the one my parents had there was a dial which did duty both as the volume control and as an on-off switch, and another dial for selecting the channel, much like you do on a radio - so simple even a child someone over thirty could understand how to work it. The thing with tuning in via a dial might sound a little fiddly, but bear in mind there were just three channels and a fair portion of the programming consisted of something called the "test signal", so "zapping" was not really a thing you'd want or need to do. Oh yes, the broadcasts were in colour but more often than not the TV set was not.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. For several years terrestrial broadcasting in Berlin and the surrounding area has been digital only, under the moniker of DVB-T. That means thirty odd channels delivered at no charge other than the initial outlay for a converter box. This sounded like a great thing when it came out, and was excellent timing because I was getting strange and threatening letters from a company which claimed to be responsible for the delivery of thirty odd TV channels which came out of a socket in the wall, and would I mind paying them? So with no further ado, (apart from a clear and concise letter to said company explaining that I had always believed the socket in question was a listening device installed by the Stasi) I shelled out about a hundred Euros for something called a "Digital 1500" from a company I've never heard of.

Of course it turned new technology was not quite all the glossy brochures claimed it was. For a start the decoder box thingy could only decode one channel at a time, meaning I couldn't record a programme on one channel while watching another. As thirty channels need to be filled with something, the chances are one or other of the programmes will be repeated (usually at about 4am the next morning) so this is actually not too much of a problem. Also, of those thirty channels about a third belong in some way to the ARD network, which means come 8pm you can zap across the dial and have a 1 in 3 chance of getting the Tagesschau, and is great if you're homesick for the latest news from say Nordrhein-Westfalen.

And then there is the logistical problem of connecting the TV not only with the decoder thingy but also to the VCR and the DVD player - a futile task until I discovered the existence of a device known as a SCART switcher box, and even then the setup is so infernally tangled I actually had to make a diagram of how it all fits together should I ever have to move.

So anyway, a week or so ago I was happily watching an exciting documentary on Andalusian sheep farmers on Phoenix, or possibly Germany's Funniest Zoo Animals on RTL2, when the signal went fuzzy and then went completely, and was replaced by a blue screen. Admittedly that was an improvement over much of the available output, but it's Top Gear season on BBC World and while my masculine automobile gene is somewhat deficient, it is by far and away the funniest programme of any of the channels. My first thought was that the transmitter had broken down (it happens occasionally) but a careful scan of the buildings opposite revealed lots of TVs in apparent perfect working order (and also a naked man on his balcony). However I was tired, so after some desultory fiddling with a selection of remote control units I gave up and tuned into Deutschlandfunk on the radio.

A week later, once I'd come out of the coma (if you've no idea what I'm talking about try listening to Deutschlandfunk and do take care to notify friends or relatives beforehand), the blue screen was still being broadcast on all channels. I could tell the TV was not the problem, because it happily played videos and DVDs, which lead me to the logical conclusion that it was the DVB-T box which was defekt. I was on the verge of going out to buy a new one when it occurred to me to try connecting the thing directly to the TV, and voila, it was working perfectly and delivering uncensored, explicit images of Germans dressed in Dirndl and Lederhosen mouthing along to Volksmusik while standing on top of a mountain. Yay. Once again I was connected to the civilised world. Unfortunately that meant I couldn't watch any recorded media without some cable-switching behind the whole damn pile of audio-visual equipment, so I started out on the wearisome task of establishing which bit wasn't talking to which other bit, and also clean out the vast amounts of dust and deceased insects which had accumulated there.

To cut a long and potentially tedious story of interest only to technical freaks short, it turned out the culprit was the video recorder, which had decided to "forget" which channel the input from the DVB-T box was coming from, and once that was solved Jeremy Clarkson was just a flick of the remote control away.

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