You use it all the time. Odds are, you have more than one, since there now are more of them than there are of us.
To most of us, it is simply "the remote" -- as in, "Where's the remote?" That's the thing about it: The only time we give the remote control device any thought is when we're trying to find it. Otherwise, it's just this little plastic box with buttons that we wave in the general direction of whatever it is we want to change.
Forty years after its invention, the remote control has changed programming, advertising and even you. It has added firepower to the war between the sexes. It was the fuse on the explosion of a three-network world into a myriad-channels universe. The remote is one of those wheel-like inventions that has transformed the world we live in and the way we live in it. It created channel-surfing.
To see the effects the remote control has had on television, all you have to do is hit the on button.
"Our philosophy, which we arrived at through audience research, is that given an opportunity to switch channels, viewers will," says Vince Manze, NBC's senior vice president of advertising and promotion.
The remote control has transformed us into an audience of channel surfers, and the awareness of that transformation shapes much of the programming you see.
Not only that, it has preyed upon some of the differences between men and women. Men tend to channel surf, and channel surfing drives women crazy.
"You can think of a credit card as a magic wand -- wave it and take off for Florida," says Jude Dougherty, dean of philosophy at Catholic University of America. "The remote control is even more immediate: Push another button and change the world inside that box you are watching."
There's power in that, he says, and with power comes a struggle for it.
"I don't think it comes as a great surprise that research has shown the remote control is typically controlled by the oldest male in a household," says Julia Dobrow, a professor in Tufts University's child study department who examines the effects of media on family and gender roles.
"Who gets control of the remote control can be a source of tension within the family, erupting in battles that can be divided along age and gender lines. You know, it's one of those cases where the studies confirm the stereotype. Men, even little boys, tend to flip around, while women, even little girls, tend to stay put and get involved with the show they are watching.
"It probably has something to do with the way men and women deal with stories. Girls become interested in plot and character and depth, while boys are action-oriented. Really, the remote control is an example of technology where our reactions to it shed light on larger issues."
If people have been affected, so have programs. Back when there was only a handful of networks and you had to cross the room to change the channel, programs were like trains pulling in and out of a station -- predictability was the point.
One show would end with its closing credits, then a block of commercials, the next show's opening montage and theme song, then another block of commercials, and back for the beginning of this week's episode.
Channel-surfing changed all that. Over time, the old, predictable order became an invitation for viewers to start flipping around, so networks like NBC devised strategies to keep their audience from reaching for the remote.
The end of a show, for example, no longer means the end of the action. Now, when "Frasier" closes, the screen splits. While the credits roll on one side, barely legible at half-size, the show continues on the other, some closing vignette with a few more laughs designed to carry you through to the next show.
"Frasier's" opening is a quick doodle of Seattle's skyline and a snippet of jazzy melody -- no time for flipping around. What's more, NBC has started stringing its shows together, without a block of commercials between, in an effort to create a seamless flow with no cracks for remote controls to flip through.
"It's all a definite response to channel-surfing," Manze says. "The remote control is the reason we created NBC 2000," the department that designs the network's remote-resistant strategies. "We're responding to the power people have now.
"Our goal is to retain as much of the audience as possible, and we do that by providing more content. But we also invented what we call 'promo-tainment.' They are promotions, all of it deals with our programming, but they can't be hard promotions. The audience will just tune out; the remote makes it so easy.
"So we make them fun, silly, crazy, something so you never quite know what's what -- Jim Lange from 'The Dating Game' talking about Frasier and Roz, someone from '3rd Rock From the Sun' lip-synching to a Tom Jones song. We'll do whatever we think will keep people from reaching for the remote."
Channel-surfing has also driven the development of a new kind of network -- the special-purpose channel. From CNN Headline News to the Weather Channel, television is brimming with channels that are oases of constancy, channels where you always know what's on.
"Many see the growth of these special-purpose channels as a response to channel-surfing," says Rick Dillman, an associate professor of communications at Western Maryland College. "The Shopping Channel, the Weather Channel, they are things you can hook into as you are flipping around. They are islands in the flow."
These island-channels center their programming on the presumption that viewers are flipping in and out all the time. A network such as Nick at Nite, with a lineup of vintage reruns, or Classic Sports Network and its schedule of bygone sporting events, provides a steady, familiar ground for viewers to step over to as they please.
"That's the beauty of the remote," says Brian Bedol, CSN's president. "You sit there with the clicker in your hand, and you can watch six things at once. We just want to be one of those six places you click on."
It is easy to understand why the remote control has changed television advertising; after all, it was invented as a tool to help viewers avoid commercials.
"This was a time, 1956, when Zenith's founder, Cmdr. Eugene F. McDonald Jr., was still running the company, and his word was law," says Robert Adler, who invented the remote control 40 years ago last month while working in the research division of Zenith Electronics. "He thought nobody was going to be willing to sit through commercials, and he wanted to give people a way of avoiding them. And it was up to us to come up with something."
In this way, commercials became the prompts for viewers to start flipping, and television's dynamic was reversed: Instead of programs delivering viewers to advertisers, viewers began surfing away.
With viewers able to scamper off at the first sign of tedium, advertisers either have to keep the viewer from flipping or stop him as he's flipping through. And then the advertiser must get the viewer to watch the very thing he is trying to avoid.
"You have to do something captivating, something so noteworthy that if people pick up the first three or four seconds, you own them for the next 27 seconds," says Stan Richards, head of the Stan Richards Group, a Dallas-based advertising agency.
The desire for remote control is summed up in a scene from "Married With Children." As his wife, Peg, nags him yet again, Al picks up the remote control and points it at her, furiously clicking away. Nothing. The nagging continues. Al stares at the remote for a moment, and sighs.
Pub Date: 7/27/96