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



Beavis and Butthead fight over the control of the remote, 1993 to 1997

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1980s: An Advertising Industry in Panic


The remote control though, didn't gain any real ground until the 1980s, as previously channel-hopping was limited to just a few networks. By the mid-1980s, however, the vast cable industry and the video recorder had made the remote control a necessity. Being used to targeting their television audiences, the advertising industry became alarmed by the zap-behaviour of TV viewers who were inaugurating a radically different pattern of television usage. Viewers, traditionally sold by the media industry as only statistics for ad revenues, were now suddenly taking control by flipping away from commercials.25

At this point the habit of zapping away from commercials was at epidemic levels, practised by 80 per cent of television viewers. The threat of commercial devastation alarmed the advertising industry.26 The trade press claimed that "advertising as a profession is very much in crisis".27 In panic, the industry called for "zap-proof" commercials to dampen the power of the serial clickers in avoiding their product.28 Ad agencies clamoured for new research angles to give them a quick handle on the ad-avoiding epidemic.29 Stay-tuned strategies emerged to eliminate channel flipping and hook viewers to the TV set in order to carry them through a commercial break. Ad spots were reduced from 30 seconds to 15 seconds. Time crunching led to "hot switching" to reduce programme breaks, which were moved from programme end to mid-programme. Opening themes were reduced or simply eliminated. Superstars like Michael Jackson and Madonna were recruited for cross-over appearances in ads. Spots masqueraded as regular programming, and product placement was integrated into actual programmes.

No need to zap any more; the network did it for us.30 Dense editing à la MTV, with strong lead-ins and closing cliff-hangers, made sure eyeballs were kept glued to the screen. Comedy Central's Short Attention Span Theater tacitly encouraged viewers to flip over to other channels, knowing they could rejoin the programme without losing the thread of the show.31 MTV tailored the new viewing habits into an animated series featuring two slackers who were addicted to their zapper: Beavis and Butt-head. Obsessively on the hunt for videos that didn't suck, they satirized the very act of flipping channels. Critics claimed it was "Sesame Street for psychopaths", but the programme did succeed in making MTV less prone to zapping by keeping viewers glued to the "idiot box", as it came to be called.32 Ever savvy about influencing our perception of reality, the political arena followed suit. Case in point was the US invasion of Panama in December 1989: it was carefully planned to occur during The Super Bowl, a "low-zapping event", assuring that the war would be consumed without much public outcry.

Incongruously, reality itself was about to turn into a zapping zone. Viewers' zapping behaviour also forced the TV industry to refashion newscasts into accelerated MTV-style info-bits. News broadcasts got structured along the lines of the home shopping channel, with one video programmed after another in a constant rotating flow. CNN adopted similar strategies by repeating newsworthy morsels of infotainment 24/7, so viewers wouldn't miss anything on their channel-hopping tour. The "drop-in" style allowed zappers to grab a beer from the fridge any time for a double dose of instant gratification.33 Moreover, television turned public space inside out: network executives began to substitute dramas for reality shows, reality for entertainment, and ultimately the viewer for the protagonist, beer still in hand. Reality was literally zapped...