Commentary

On The Record: The Last Remote

ON THE RECORD: The Last Remote with Mike BloxhamThe first TV remote control was created in 1950 and was a rather clunky device called the Lazy Bone. Limited to turning the set on and off and to changing channels, it was doomed to fail - largely because people tripped over the inconvenient cable that stretched from the box to the remote.

To a population that had yet to grow accustomed to the then-luxury (now necessity) of not having to leave the couch, this hazard to one's well-being was too much to bear.

When the first wireless TV remote controls found their way into our homes in 1955 and 1956, they may have been a significant improvement on the Lazy Bone, but no one at the time could possibly have imagined how they would grow to become our umbilical cord to the world of news, sports and entertainment. Remotes have grown so multifunctional that we have become totally dependent on them for navigating and finding content on-screen, not to mention controlling the ever-increasing array of functions available to us through the TV and its secondary devices. To many, life without a remote is simply unthinkable.

But does this mean we've gone as far as we can with the remote as a tool and as a piece of design? After all, even if you don't use most of the buttons, the device is fundamentally simple to use for all its core purposes, it's virtually indestructible, cheap to produce and doesn't cause subscribers to make calls to service centers at considerable expense to MSOs.

However, as the TV environment and our viewing behavior continues to evolve, the utility of the remote as a device for simply finding and selecting content (or just programming the DVR) becomes inadequate to the needs of both the viewer and the broadcaster or MSO. Additionally, the context in which we assess the device is changing. When consciously or subconsciously considering our remote, our nearest reference points are probably our smartphones, which, with their touchscreens and QWERTY keyboards, are light, handy and easy to use for a multitude of things.

As we continue to view more of our content off-schedule, the challenge of promoting programming becomes ever greater. Part of the solution will very likely be found in the future of the remote control.

Imagine a device with a screen about the size of my iPhone (perhaps even a small ereader) that will allow viewers to not only change channels and navigate, but also to browse the program guide on its own screen - without impeding the viewing experience of others in the room - and to watch program trailers, special features and even enter competitions. It will also be possible to program the DVR or have the TV prompt me with an alert when a show is about to come on live. None of this will impact what's happening on the big screen at the same time (except the alert).

With either a conventional or touchscreen or a QWERTY keyboard on the device, viewers will be able to respond to the interactive calls to action that will be increasingly a feature of our TV lives that leverage the return path, be they related to programming, advertising or stand-alone features. The nature of response-based communications through our TVs finally becomes user-friendly and subsequently a viable possibility.

Of course much of this sounds like a cell phone that talks to the TV. And that's probably what they will be. After all, a new generation of remotes will be expensive for the MSOs to manufacture, more prone to breaking and prompting calls to the service center. Viewers are already increasingly used to the functionality that would work in such remotes and if they were able to simply extend these behaviors to controlling their TVs, many would adopt very easily.

Most likely we'll see collaboration between the MSOs and the handset manufacturers with a basic conventional remote remaining as a basic choice for those viewers not wanting to play ball. In this scenario, one has to assume that Verizon and AT&T are in the best position to move forward in this way as they are in both markets. And of course you have to ask where Apple might be in this mix (if only because it's fun to speculate).

So hold onto your remote - you may not have many more that are this quaintly primitive.

3 comments about "On The Record: The Last Remote".
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  1. Don Seaman from Ruby Red Advertising, January 6, 2010 at 9:45 a.m.

    I still remember our first remote: it was a reasonably large, teathered box from our cable company with a row of horizontal buttons and a three-way switch which was only used to change the channels. And I felt like a TV god because of it - that 24-channel TV universe was now putty in my hands, from a maximum of 6 feet away...

    I'm surprised that we haven't come to the point where you just download an app to your smartphone that mimics the remote that you need for your cable box/TV/etc. It really is a natural extention of where we're headed with smartphones - like a Star Trek tricorder, it's an everything device (an iCorder, if you will) - so why not as a TV remote?

    Just think - as you're watching the series finale of "Lost", your cell phone rings. As you answer it, the DVR automatically pauses while you monitor your blood pressure as you explain to the telemarketer that now is really not a good time to discuss changing calling plans.

  2. Leo Kivijarv from PQ Media, January 14, 2010 at 10:22 a.m.

    It's interesting to note that even in this era of remote control, as well as online and mobile video options, the old standby theory of "tuning inertia" still comes into play with programming decisions. People continue to be lazy and watch one channel regardless of the technology as witnessed by the falling viewership of NBC affialities late night news due to the Jay Leno show at 10:00 PM EST.

  3. Mike Bloxham from Magid, January 15, 2010 at 2:10 p.m.

    @Don - Interesting to see that some of what is alluded to in my piece and your response was starting to appear at CES this year. Maybe it will be with us sooner than we think.

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