Remote Control Device (RCD), available in over 90% of U.S. households,
has become a central technological phenomenon of popular culture.
Though many cartoons, anecdotal accounts, and even television commercials
trivialize the RCD, they also reflect its ubiquity and importance
in everyday life. For better or for worse, the RCD has permanently
altered television viewing habits by allowing the user to exercise
some of the functions once the exclusive province of program and
advertising executives. The RCD has altered viewing styles by increasing
activities such as "zapping" (changing channels during commercials
and other program breaks), "zipping" (fast forwarding through pre-recorded
programming and advertising) and "grazing" (the combining of disparate
program elements into an individualized programming mix ).
wired RCDs existed in the "Golden Age" of radio, their history is
more directly tied to the television receiver manufacturing industry
and, more recently, to the diffusion of videocassette recorders
(VCRs) and cable television. Zenith Radio Corporation engineer Robert
Adler developed the "Space Command," the first practical wireless
RCD in 1956. Although other manufacturers would offer both wired
and wireless RCDs from the mid-1950s on, the combination of high
cost (RCDs typically were available only on more expensive "high
end" receivers), technological limitations, and, most critically,
the limited number of channels available to most viewers made the
RCD more a novelty than a near standard feature of television receivers
until the 1980s.
The rapid increase in the number of video distribution outlets in
the 1980s was instrumental in the parallel mass diffusion of RCDs.
The RCD, in essence, was the necessary tool for the use of cable,
VCRs, and more complex television receivers. Without the RCD, the
popularity and impact of these programming conduits would have been
much less. In the 1990s, a converging television/telecommunications
industry redefined the RCD as a navigational tool whose design is
essential to the success of interactive consumer services.
some industry figures see the RCD as a key to the success of future
services, the same elements that allow viewers to find and use specific
material from the many channels and services available also enables
them to avoid content that they find undesirable. Of particular
concern are two gratifications of RCD use that have emerged from
both academic and industry studies: advertising avoidance and "getting
more out of television." These gratifications are symptomatic of
a generation of "restless viewers" who challenge many of the conventional
practices of the television industry.
Zenith print ad for remote control television (c. 1957)
Courtesy of Zenith Electronics Corporation
industry has coped with the RCD "empowered" viewer by implementing
changes in programming and advertising . Examples include "seamless"
and "hot switch" scheduling where one program immediately segues
into the following program, the reduction or elimination of opening
themes, shorter and more visually striking commercials, and an increase
in advertising/program integration. Although not solely a result
of RCD diffusion, the ongoing economic consolidation of the world
television/telecommunications industry; the continuing shift of
costs to the television viewer/user through cable, pay-per-view,
and emerging interactive services; and the increased emphasis on
integrated marketing plans that treat traditional advertising spots
as only one element of the selling process can all be regarded in
part as reactions to restless and RCD-wielding television viewers.
Bellamy, Jr., R.V., and J.R. Walker. Grazing on a Vast Wasteland:
The Remote Control and Television's Second Generation. New York:
Douglas A. "Channel Repertoire in the Presence of Remote Control
Devices, VCRs, and Cable Television." Journal of Broadcasting
& Electronic Media: (Washington, D.C.), Winter 1992.
J.R., and R.V. Bellamy, Jr., editors. The Remote Control in the
New Age of Television. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1993.