All Power to the Couch Potatoes

The remote control turns 50


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 "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. In 1951 Zenith tested a system called PhoneVision in Chicago. Three hundred households there were equipped with a dedicated phone line and a set-top converter that allowed viewers to watch recent Hollywood movies that Zenith aired, in scrambled format, via a local Chicago station. If you chose to watch a movie, you were billed $1. Households watched an average of 1.73 movies per week during the three-month test. McDonald considered this a great success, but Theater Owners of America, a Hollywood-based trade group, declared the experiment "a monumental flop."

A frustrated McDonald decided that if he couldn't eliminate advertising-supported TV, he could at least cripple it. "Just touch a button to shut off the sound of long, annoying commercials," a 1957 print ad for the Space Command exclaimed, and if you listened closely in those moments of silence, you could detect the faint howls of advertisers and programming executives all across the land. The Space Command gave viewers instant, incessant power over their screens. It was a power that would eventually demand more complex and flexible media in which to exert itself—first video games, then personal computers, then the Internet.

Today, of course, it's more popular than ever to talk about our relationship to the content we consume in oppositional terms. There's us, the audience, virtuous and beleaguered. And there's them, "the media," abstract and disconnected, a powerful cabal of mega-corps that cynically manufacture swill and distribute it so relentlessly that we can't help but consume it.

But that's nonsense. The media aren't entities that exist apart from us, around us. The media are connected to us, shaped by our attention, governed by our input.

The Space Command simply amplified this relationship and made it impossible to ignore. It turned the feedback loop into a noose that could snuff out sitcoms in a single episode. Once viewers started conducting their own Nielsen ratings every few seconds, TV had to grow more responsive, more competitive. Good night and good luck, Edward R. Murrow and Playhouse 90. We wanted Jethro and Ellie Mae on The Beverly Hillbillies, people devouring pig rectums on Fear Factor, cops tasering protesters on YouTube. Thanks to the Space Command, we got exactly the media we desired, and deserved.