Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Responding to Change on TV: How Viewer-Controlled Changes in Content Differ from Programmed Changes in Content

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Responding to Change on TV: How Viewer-Controlled Changes in Content Differ from Programmed Changes in Content

Article excerpt

It seems safe to say that the remote control has fundamentally changed television viewing. Nearly every television sold in the United States today comes equipped with a remote control (Frisby, 1999; Zenith). People fight over who wields it (McBride, 1995). Producers have altered the way they make programs in order to combat its use (Eastman & Neal-Lunsford, 1993). Yet research on media effects is usually conducted in a forced-exposure environment where people don't have the ability to change the channels as they do at home. Consequently, there is little research examining the cognitive processing that takes place when people are changing channels with a remote control.

Such research is useful for a few reasons. People change channels often, sometimes more than a hundred times an hour (Ferguson, 1994; Kaye & Sapolsky, 1997). This means that the viewing of any content often starts with a channel change. The implication for researchers is that if one wants to really understand how people process television programming, the starting point is the channel change. Previous research has demonstrated the act of "getting there" or acquiring media content has implications for the processing that takes place when "being there" or during the time of exposure to particular content. As far as television viewing is concerned, the main way of "getting there" is through the channel change. Thus, in practice, the voluntary channel change is the starting line for the cognitive processing of television and an important topic of study.

Changing channels with a remote control is an important way in which viewers can exert control over the media environment. This element of control introduces several questions. What happens when people exert control over televised content? When people change channels, do they pay more or less attention to the ensuing content? How does this compare to similar changes that occur outside of the person's control? When a person is watching television and there is a scene change, what has occurred audiovisually is nearly identical to what takes place when a person changes a channel. The primary difference is in where the change originated, with the viewer or with the producer. Does cognitive processing before and after these similar changes vary as a function of who initiated the change (viewer or producer?). This question is addressed here by integrating several strands of research and reporting the results of two studies comparing message processing at points of voluntary and involuntary content changes.

The Remote Control and Channel Changing

To this point, the vast majority of research on channel changing describes who changes channels and why they do it (see Lang, Shin, Bradley, Wang, Lee & Potter, 2005, for a review of this literature). Only recently have people looked at the effects of channel changing on cognitive processing. Lang and colleagues (2005) studied the effects of channel changes on cognitive effort, physiological arousal, and recognition. They found that cognitive effort, arousal, and encoding all decreased in the seconds leading up to the channel change and increased in the seconds following the channel change. The current study compares these effects of channel changing with the effects of similar (in audiovisual terms) changes that are not initiated by the viewer.

The Channel Change as a Structural Feature

In many ways what people see and hear when they change the channel is very similar to a producer-controlled cut from one type of content to another. In both cases there is a complete change in visual scene and audio content. Generally, in both cases, this change in content is expected (either because the viewer initiated the change or because one type of content suggests it is ending and one expects a new type of content to start). They may, of course, differ in terms of where, within the narrative, the change occurs. The producer-controlled cut from one content type to another will generally be from an ending point to a beginning point, such as the transition from the end of a commercial to the beginning of a program. …

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