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The Impact of America's Prized Possession...  The TV Remote - 2004-04-26

More than 50 years ago, the Zenith Electronics Corporation invented the television remote control. As VOA's Andrew Baroch reports, the device that Zenith called "Lazy Bones" has had a profound impact on TV viewers.

Baroch: "How often do you hold a remote control?"
Sonya: "Every day. I sleep with it, too."
Baroch: So it's really a companion?"
Sonya: "Yup, you could say that. [I] can't live without it."

Americans have always loved labor-saving devices, and a device that lets you adjust the television or choose a CD from the comfort of the sofa is something few Americans would be without. In fact, studies show that there's at least one TV remote in nearly every American home. There are also remotes for DVD players, stereos, radios, and household products like garage doors, light switches, and alarms. Some consumers have a "universal remote," which is programmed to control nearly every household electronic device. Some remotes are available on wristwatches. Some are voice-activated. The price ranges from about $20 to $200. Jennings Bryant, the author of the book, "Television and the American Family," has studied how and why the television remote control, especially, has come to seem so essential to American's lives.

Mr. Bryant said that remote technology first emerged in World War One. German scientists developed remote-controlled bombs. In the late 1940's, non-military uses included the garage door opener, and then, in 1950, the TV remote was invented and advertised as a consumer convenience.

"This whole trend began following World War Two," he said. "The search for labor-saving devices was a major impetus in our society - the washing machine, moving from the icebox to the refrigerator or any number of other conveniences. In terms of actual changes, in terms of hourly, daily living, it's one of the tiny little devices that brought about immense changes in the household."

The TV remote's push-button controls allow viewers to turn the set on, to change channels or adjust the volume from across the room.

"To a certain extent, the remote control device allowed the American consumer, and then the worldwide consumers, to be the programmers of their own television, which was a major change in society," he added.

However, Jennings Bryant said that the TV remote control has had some unintended negative consequences.

"Well, I think certainly it has had its bad and its good," he explained. "Its bad if you take a look at the increased obesity of the American public, you have to realize that every time you don't get up and change channels, that's another set of calories you have not burned."

Other researchers say the TV remote has the potential to adversely affect relationships. Michael Kearl is a professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. He said that the remote control is used so often it's tempting to wish we could aim it at human beings: for instance, a friend we disagree with, or find boring.

Kearl: "There are times when maybe you would like to push that button to accelerate a story line being given or shared by a family member."
Baroch: "You wish you had a remote to get through a discussion faster?"
Kearl: "Yes, speed through it more."

Experts say the remote control also exacerbates or initiates power struggles between husbands and wives, parents and children and siblings. In effect, the remote control is like a royal scepter because the operator has the power to decide TV programming. I asked some people on the streets of Washington, D.C., who wields the remote in their house. This woman said that it's not her husband.

TV Watcher: "Men don't know how to use it."
Baroch: "Now why is that?"
TV Watcher: "Because when you all use the remote, you flip, flip, flip. When we use the remote, we flip to the channel we want to look at.
Baroch: "At home, are there fights over the remote?"
TV Watcher: "Sometimes."

Remember Sonya, the woman who sleeps with her remote? She said that her mom has a Scottish terrier, who does not like competing with the remote for her mom's attention. So Scotty stole the remote.

"He hid it somewhere," she said. "And my mom just panicked. She couldn't find the remote."

A relatively new technological innovation allows Sonya's mom to find her hidden remote. When she presses a special button on her TV, the concealed remote lets out a loud beeping noise. Sonya said "Good boy, Scotty" because now her mom gets some exercise, walking to the TV and retrieving the remote.