Fifty years ago, the television viewing experience was forever altered by the introduction of the wireless television remote. This week, Bob and Brooke celebrate the all-powerful magic wand-- by fighting over it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Once upon a time, there was the television and the audience, separated by the distance from the sofa to the set. To change the channel or the volume, someone needed to physically traverse the living room. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] But then, 50 years ago, that all changed. [VIDEO CLIP]
MAN: And here it is -- the greatest advance in television since color television itself -- the ultimate in performance and convenience -- seven-function remote control color television, so beautiful it enhances any decor. [END VIDEO CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Wait a second. Is this about the remote control?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. I'm doing this.
BOB GARFIELD: No, I got it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bob, would you just let me do this?
BOB GARFIELD: Would, would you just [SLAPPING NOISE] -- give -
BOB GARFIELD: But then, 50 years ago, that all changed. In 1956, a Zenith researcher named Dr. Robert Adler created the Space Command, an ultrasonic device that enabled a nation of couch potatoes to switch from Arthur Godfrey and Friends to Father Knows Best without so much as standing up. At the time, it was a novelty. Now it is indispensable, an entertainment master control room in your palm, transmitting via infrared to the television, the cable box, the TiVo, the DVD player -- and I'm not sure what all, because I myself can only work like four of the buttons. But without it, you are rudderless and adrift in a 500-channel universe. [VIDEO CLIPS]
MAN: So you lose fat -- fat. [STATIC SOUNDS] WO
MAN: We addressed his anti-Semitic remarks. WO
MAN: I use - [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MAN: - views on our retirement, our - WO
MAN: It's a poetry club, and I'm actually reading one of my poems, and -
MAN: - anything you want without ever having to touch it. WO
MAN: Yeah. [END VIDEO CLIPS]
BOB GARFIELD: No, on its 50th anniversary, the remote is no mere appliance. It is the bridge of the starship, the scepter, the trident, the magic wand conferring power on he -- or she -- but let's face it, usually he -- who possesses it. Also, without its primacy in the household, what would standup comics have to talk about after their hilarious material about getting through airport security is all used up? [VIDEO CLIP]
MIKE McDONALD: Because of remote control, I now have not watched a complete episode of anything. [LAUGHTER] They give you 50 choices. I have to know what's on every channel. [LAUGHTER] You know, somebody could be having a better time somewhere, and I've got to find it. Where is it? Where is it? [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE [END VIDEO CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: The comic stylings of Mike McDonald. So ubiquitous is the remote and so understood is its place in our lives that it has become a metaphor of control, with one artist after another imagining if its powers were transferable to life beyond the living room. The film Pleasantville and the Adam Sandler comedy classic, Click, both explored the infrared supernatural. [VIDEO CLIP]
ADAM SANDLER: I'm looking for a universal remote control, make my life a little easier, less complicated.
MAN: Come in the back with me. [MUSIC]
MAN: I'm about to rock your world - [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MAN: With the push of a button. [END VIDEO CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: The same trope has been employed again and again and again in hundreds of TV commercials from all over the world. Lots of irony there, because the remote is devastating the TV industry as viewers everywhere zap commercials into oblivion -- the commercials, that is, that sponsor all those 500 channels. Dr. Adler, in that sense, is something like Dr. Frankenstein. His creation has returned 50 years later to destroy its master. [VIDEO CLIP]
DR. FRANKENSTEIN: It's alive! It's alive! It's alive! It's alive! [END VIDEO CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and edited -- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Alicia Rebensdorf and Michael McLaughlin. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.