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."