The 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 ).

Although 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.

While 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

The 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.

-Robert Bellamy


Bellamy, Jr., R.V., and J.R. Walker. Grazing on a Vast Wasteland: The Remote Control and Television's Second Generation. New York: Guilford, 1995.

Ferguson, 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.

Walker, J.R., and R.V. Bellamy, Jr., editors. The Remote Control in the New Age of Television. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1993.


See also Zapping