Revenge of the Couch Potato

As if George Bush doesn't have enough to worry about. Candidates for the Presidential election may find themselves increasingly running up against an electronic wall. Using remote controls to "channel graze," Americans are zapping out costly campaign messages.

Avoiding politicians and political ads is one of the main reasons channel grazers love to flick. While campaign man" agers and advertising executives squirm in their Barcaloungers, zapping has its positive power K transforms TV viewers, making them active participants in a traditionally passive pursuit.

"It's exciting because you are able to effectively create your own viewing environment," insists Robert W. Bellamy, Ph.D., professor of communications at Duquesne University. There's nothing remote about that kind of control in the nation's 70 million zapper households.

The ability to compose personalized television menus with the tweak of a thumb gives viewers another kind of power "It confirms their world view and supports their ideas about how things are," says James R. Walker, Ph.D., of Memphis State University, who, with Bellamy, studied the viewing habits of 455 college students.

The danger is, today's flickers may be tomorrow's political illiterate. Grazing, "disinterested, undecided voters" could be putting themselves out of reach.

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Why do flickers flick at all? Two of the top reasons are obvious, the researchers report in Journalism Quarter, (Vol. 68, No. 3). Viewers want to find out what's on TV, and they want to avoid commercials.

What came as a surprise was the large number who said they hit the remote control to avoid watching specific individual or certain parts of a program. "A lot of people like watching the news, for example, but will flip the channel when Dan Rather comes on," Bellamy explains. Others flick through the channels to get more out of watching TV, to access different types of programs, from MTV to CNN. "When the war broke out in the Persian Gulf, you could sample a large variety of news shows and gather a large amount of information," notes Walker.

But, for a few, the world view is strictly confined from the start--they zap simply to annoy other viewers.

People of all ages like to flick. Still, Walker sees flicking as "the viewing style of the new generation of viewers who were raised on cable with the remote control in hand."

And they give people like Peter Kim a severe headache. As an executive vice president at giant J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York, Kim fights the flickers with "roadblock ads"--identical commercial appearing simultaneously on all channels.

But Kim, whose agency represents such brands as Nuprin, Kodak, and Lubriderm, may have trouble convincing viewers to "Nupe it" in the future. Says Bellamy: "We're moving to models of television viewing where people will have massive film libraries available through a combination of cable and fiber optics."

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