Maybe the Sky is Really Green, and We’re Just Colourblind:
On Zapping, Close Encounters and the Commercial Break



The War of the Worlds, Mercury Theatre on the Air, 1938

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Remote Control


On Halloween 1938, channel zapping was partially responsible for inducing mass hysteria throughout the United States. Millions of Americans who had been listening to NBC's Chase and Sanborn Hour with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, scanned channels at the commercial break and unwittingly tuned into Orson Welles's CBS radiocast The War of the Worlds.2 In doing so, they missed the crucial disclaimer introducing the programme as a fake. The zappers were caught up in a public hysteria as Martians were reported to be landing.3 At its climax, the broadcast described a 9/11esque New York being taken down by extraterrestrials: "poison smoke drifting over the city, people running and diving into the East River like rats, others falling like flies". The New York Times headline the next morning ran: "RADIO LISTENERS IN PANIC TAKING WAR DRAMA AS FACT!"4

Switching channels to avoid the ads was not solely responsible for the hysteria. The War of the Worlds also deliberately ran without commercial interruptions. This led credence to the show and compelled listeners to stay tuned. In their study of the remote control device, Robert Bellamy and James Walker identify zapping as a way to avoid advertising and other undesirable content, therefore better gratifying the viewer.5 In 1953 a precursor of the present-day television remote, appropriately called the Blab-Off, was marketed as a way of shutting up commercials. "This hand-held device featured a 20-foot cord that was attached to a television loudspeaker. One click of the switch turned the sound off but left the picture on. Its inventor, an advertising executive, noted that the $2.98 Blab-Off allowed 'the TV fan to get away from the commercials he dislikes.'"6

In 1955, after research into push-button technology, the Zenith company introduced Lazy Bones, the very first TV remote designed to eliminate commercials. It was still attached to the TV by a cable that stretched across the living room, leading to consumers' complaints of frequent tripping.7 In response, Zenith created the Flash-matic: the world's first "wireless remote", it activated photocells on the TV. However, this worked all too well on sunny days, causing the sunlight to flip channels. The next model used radio waves, but never made it onto the market as it inadvertently changed the neighbours' channels as well. Zenith continued its research and in June 1956 introduced Space Command Television. This time using high-frequency sound, the successful remote was advertised with the slogan: "Just a touch of the button to shut off the sound of long annoying commercials."8