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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. 68)

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 (p.142-3).

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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