Zapping is the use of a remote control device (RCD) to avoid commercials by switching to another channel. The process is often paired with "zipping," fast-forwarding through the commercials in recorded programs. Although zapping and zipping have received much attention recently, viewers have always avoided commercials by changing channels, leaving the viewing area or simply shifting their attention away from the set. But as the penetration of RCDs increased to about 90% and videocassette recorders (VCRs) to over 77% of U.S. households by 1993, advertiser concern over zapping and zipping has accelerated. RCDs and VCRs, combined with a multitude of viewing options on cable and home satellite systems, have led to the zapping or zipping of 10 to 20% of all commercials, according to some industry studies. Cable networks specializing in short form programming (music videos, news stories, comedy shorts) are well suited to filling commercial breaks. Thus, the once "captive" audience of television is exercising its option to zap or zip boring or annoying commercials. Indeed, several studies of RCD gratifications have consistently identified commercial avoidance as a major motivation to use remote control devices.

In the 1980s, RCDs and VCRs proliferated, while the advertising and television industries debated the relative impact of zapping and zipping. Advertisers argued that program ratings did not reflect decreasing audience attention to commercials, while broadcasters cited studies that minimized the increase in channel changing during commercials. Several studies showed that the content of a commercial greatly affected the degree of zapping, encouraging many advertisers to restructure their television commercials by focusing on more entertaining content, fast-paced editing, or high quality special effects. When research showed that commercials placed during sports programming were particularly susceptible to zapping, some advertisers responded with commercials that combined both program and advertising elements. For example, IBM's "you make the call" commercials inserted an advertising message between question and answer segments of a sports quiz. Advertisers also tried to thwart the RCDs' impact through more careful audience targeting and by reducing the length of some commercials. As the decade wore on, advertisers increased their use of place-based advertising and integrated marketing to replace the ad exposures lost to zapping and zipping.


Although some observers see RCD enhanced zapping as a modest intensification of the television audience's long standing urge to avoid bad commercials, others have argued that zapping will lead to gradual structural changes in the commercial television industry. Refinements in RCDs and VCRs may make zapping and zipping even easier. Thus, as these two sources of commercial avoidance decrease the value of commercially sponsored programming, advertisers may continue to shift resources to other advertising media and marketing approaches, or begin to offer compensation to viewers for simply watching commercials. Program providers may need to seek other revenue streams such as pay-per-view and subscriber fees to replace the lost revenue from advertisers. The result of these structural changes may be fewer viewing options for those unable or unwilling to pay these new charges and a wider gap between the information and entertainment haves and have not's.

-James R. Walker


Ainslie, Peter. "Commercial Zapping: TV Tapers Strike Back; VCR Owners Are Skipping Station Breaks, and Advertisers Are Getting Worried." Rolling Stone (New York), 28 February 1985.

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.

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


See also Remote Control Device