All Power to the Couch Potatoes: The Remote Control Turns 50

By Beato, Greg | Reason, November 2006 | Go to article overview

All Power to the Couch Potatoes: The Remote Control Turns 50


Beato, Greg, Reason


Fifty years ago, there weren't 500 television stations in the entire United States, much less 500 channels on a single TV set. One network, CBS, aired nine of the 10 top-rated shows. Most markets had fewer than four stations. And yet some 38 million American households--roughly three out of four--had at least one TV.

And then, in the fall of 1956, the Zenith Space Command 400 made its debut. Weighing eight ounces, the tiny, rectangular device hardly seemed to warrant the Atomic Age bombast of its name. It didn't control rocket ships; it simply gave lazy viewers a chance to change channels without leaving their lounge chairs.

It was Zenith's third attempt at a remote control. The first, dubbed the Lazy Bones, was a small, grenade-shaped unit with a cable that literally tethered it to the TV. It was good for changing channels and tripping pets and old people. Zenith's second remote used "a magic beam of light" to change channels and adjust volume. The couch potatoes

"Flash-matic" looked like a prop from a low-budget sci-fi movie and worked slightly better, especially in cloudy climates. In sunnier regions, however, light streaming in from an open window could duplicate the Flash-matic's actions. Just when you were about to find out if Meta Bauer really had murdered her ex-husband on The Guiding Light, all might go silent. Zenith founder E.F. McDonald felt a better solution was needed.

The Space Command had quirks of its own. The ultrasonic tones it emitted, undetectable to the human ear, often caused dogs to flinch and howl. Jangling key chains and ringing telephones could inadvertently change the channel. But the Space Command worked well enough to satisfy McDonald, and it stayed in production long enough to normalize the idea that TV could be a more interactive, two-way medium.

Has any other device so revolutionary seemed so allied with the status quo? We associate the remote with passive compliance, the extreme inertia of the couch potato held in thrall for hours on end to programmers, advertisers, and their brain-numbing come-ons. One contemporary model, the Invoca, uses voice commands so users don't even have to bother with the exhausting thumb calisthenics that traditional remotes demand.

But McDonald wanted viewer empowerment, not viewer subservience. He despised the ad-based business model that commercial TV had adopted; he believed the future of the business lay in subscription-based programming. …

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