The Power of the Remote:
Not So Powerful After All
Television and the Remote Control: Grazing on a Vast Wasteland
Robert V. Bellamy, Jr. & James R. Walker.
The Guilford Press
1996, xxxpp, ISBN 1-57230-085-X
The ubiquitous nature of the remote control has hidden some of the
intense effects it has had on media consumption. In Television
and the Remote Control, Robert Bellamy and James Walker explore
the effects that RCD (Remote Control Device) technology has had
on how we consume, television. Of course, the RCD has also profoundly
altered the production of television itself.
During the mid-1980s, advertisers experienced wide-spread panic
over the effects of "zapping." Facilitated by RCDs for
both TVs and VCRs, viewers were imagined to be experiencing an untold
power over the viewing experience, able to avoid commercials by
"zapping" over them. In response, advertisers began to
implement new strategies as "zapping vaccines". Among
them were narrative advertising spots, styled as mini-movies, some
with cliffhanger plot twists, such as the highly successful Taster's
Choice ads of a few years ago. The pointed satire of the Energizer
Bunny ads also sought to combat zapping with its self-conscious,
ironic play on the entire medium of advertising. As the decade came
to a close however, Bellamy and Walker report that predictions for
a new, viewer-controlled universe were no longer considered plausible:
"The idea that the audience will have more power than the program
suppliers in the new age is 'fashionable faux futurism'" (p.
The onslaught of "embedded" advertising in response to
the RCD age has rendered commercial messages virtually unavoidable.
By embedding their logo in programming through product placement,
advertisers have broken down the barrier between commercial and
entertainment. The flip side of this is the increased popularity
of infommercials, where the advertising becomes the program and
zapping is impossible.
Bellamy and Walker move on to discuss programmer response to the
phenomenon of RCD use. Shocked into action by an audience displaying
an increasingly fragmentary viewing method, facilitated by the advent
of widely available cable programming, television makers dumped
starting and ending credits in favour of running text over action.
Seinfeld's stand-up opening is a classic example.
After looking at current program provider response to RCD technology,
the final chapters of Television and the Remote Control are concerned
with an investigation of the demographics of remote control use.
Although young males are definitely more prone to "surfing"
(as any number of jokes would indicate) no study has conclusive
commentary on the race and economic politics of remote control use.
Gender differences are almost universally found by studies. In most
families, control of the RCD is held by the father. Exceptions to
this rule are families which scored high on questions indicating
good levels of intra-family communication and problem-solving ability.
Rather than feeding popular stereotypes of men as "natural
surfers", analogous to "naturally polygamous," Bellamy
and Walker's review of the literature indicates that gender differences
may have more to do with the relative equality of men and women
within a household, as well as access to the technology altogether
In their concluding chapter, Bellamy and Walker look towards the
future of RCD use and the medium of television. Contrary to many
predictions, a completely interactive television experience does
not appear to be around the corner. Although technology can be expected
to alter the RCD itself, reframing it as a more flexible, mouse-like
tool, interactivity on a grand scale appears unlikely. A Sony executive,
for example, argued that television viewers don't want to interact
with anything but the refrigerator. (p.156)
Television and the Remote Control is not a book of sweeping
statements, either for or against the onslaught of tomorrow's technology.
Robert Bellamy and James Walker have produced a thoughtful, considered
look at our relationship with a tool of the modern age so common
many of us hardly even notice its existence. Television and the
Remote Control's systematic overview of study after study does
not make for heart-stopping action. However the pervasive effect
of a tiny "clicker" on the way we all live is certainly
enough to give one pause.
Published in Sources,
Number 43, Winter 1999.
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