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