Channel-surfing once was an exercise in mobility


Eugene Polley, the inventor of the first wireless remote control for television, died on May 12, 2012, at the age of 96. His wife found him in the family room between the couch cushions.

High on just about everyone’s list of “What Makes Life Worth Living” is Polley’s little device.

Beforehand - some of you will remember - viewers had to get up, walk to the television, and turn knobs to change the channel, increase or decrease the volume, or turn the set off.

That inconvenience meant changing channels wasn’t done very often.

Additionally, there were no means to pause, fast-forward, or reverse anything that was being watched or to record a program to be watched in the future.

If “Ozzie and Harriet” was broadcast on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., that was it. You watched it or you missed it.

Something else is different now. Commercials in the 1950s and 1960s were one minute in length and devoted to one product. That increased to 90 seconds and more than one.

Commercial interruptions now last up to five minutes — or longer — and may feature as many as a dozen products.

The very first remote control, called “Lazy Bones,” was introduced by Zenith in 1950. It was connected to a television by a wire.

Polley’s wireless invention, called the “Flash-Matic,” had limited capabilities: receiver on or off, channel up or down, and volume up or down.

There’s more to this than just the development of a handheld device.

The remote control has changed how we do a lot of things.

We are a very impatient, spoiled population, and that handheld device is partly responsible.

Does anyone watch a film the way it was meant to be watched? Nonstop without breaks for phone calls, snacks, walking the dog, or making out?

It’s unlikely.

I should know better. I was a film history minor in college. But I am guilty of watching 10 or 15 minutes of a film, pausing it, and looking around to see what else is on.

It’s unconscionable. Forgive me, D.W. Griffith.

I know it’s hard to imagine, but in the 1950s viewers would sit in front of a television for an hour and a half, not budge, and watch the entirety of a film or three television programs.

Popular programs would be sequenced accordingly, so an audience watching a situation comedy on NBC wouldn’t touch the dial and would continue watching NBC until the local nightly news came on.

Of course, most of us were limited to a handful of channels.

Now? I have a hundred. Ironically, much of the time I only watch a handful.

Has our reliance on a remote control contributed to an overall short attention span?

Such as the ability to attend a baseball game and simply watch what is happening on the field without texting, phoning or taking the requisite selfies?

Many of us communicate in spurts and with what? Handheld devices.

I receive three or four handwritten letters a year now. All from the same reader. She lives in Franktown without — if you can believe it — a computer.

Don’t ask me how a remote control works. It says somewhere that they are “infrared gizmos that send digitally coded pulses of radiation.”

When Harry was teething, he teethed the remote control.

It was 1955 again until I replaced it. I survived.

Craig Marshall Smith is an artist, educator and Highlands Ranch resident. He can be reached at craigmarshallsmith@comcast.net.


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