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volume 7
september 2004

Channel surfing: watching little, seeing lots


by Robert Nellis
  Channel-surfing, so many have argued, enables the viewer to escape the incessant pressures of advertising and commercialism. On Thursday, January 23, 2003, Robert Nellis sat down during lunch hour with his channel-changer at hand to surf all the available television channels while taking notes on his laptop. The result is this research note which arrives at the opposite conclusion. The "channel-surfing text," Nellis shows, still remains amenable to the modernist concern of commercialization.
1 Looking at the channel-surfing text. The purpose of this paper is to explore implications of the channel-surfing-generated text. Many television viewers, both adults and children, watch television by surfing and, in fact, view this type of text as an aspect of visual culture. This paper critically reflects upon a channel-surfing session undertaken with a mid-range cable bundle. I surfed and took notes over the lunch hour on Thursday January 23, 2003, a time of the day when many children watch television. Afterward, I used the notes as data for analysis. I find that the commercial nature of the text is nearly inescapable, a point of some concern, and made more interesting by how this arguably postmodern text carries with it such commercial modernist structures. Admittedly, television is simply one aspect of commercialism. This paper does not reduce commercialism in television as the lone repository of the phenomenon. However, commercialism is an important enough aspect of television, including the channel-surfing generated television text, to warrant its identification as a major theme. This paper concludes with a suggestion for a media education response and an invitation for further research.
2 The remote channel-changer. The technology is not new and has been written about for some time. "Inheritance effects" (Walker, 1988; Perse, 1990) refer to the phenomenon of viewers tending to begin a viewing session with the last channel watched, the channel on which the television was turned off. However, this preliminary introspective study is predicated on an old idea of text, namely that the viewer watches an entire program-a newscast, a 30- or 60-minute drama, or a movie and do not start surfing when they turn on the set.
Writers have discussed the capacity of channel-changer use to create not only a new text, but also a new way of thinking about text. The brilliant and controversial intellectual Camille Paglia (1994) talks about channel surfing and how strange it is to see discontinuous images juxtaposed in new, ironic configurations. [1] Paglia believes that surfing connects one with the universe, encouraging one to view it as a river rushing by. The viewer creates a new text, a collage and acquires "the universal mind." The flowing river is an important symbol in both the Eastern and Western traditions. In The Light of Asia, a central Buddhist text, Book Three proclaims (Arnold, 2003):
  And Being's ceaseless tide,

Which, ever-changing, runs, linked like a river
By ripples following ripples, fast or slow —
The same yet not the same — from far-off fountain
To where its waters flow.
  In the Western tradition, Heraclitus observes, in Plato Cratylus, that one cannot step into the same river twice. For him, all things are in flux (Kirk, Raven and Schofield, 1995). The river in these traditions is a religious and philosophical symbol of the nature of the universe and is in quite a different context from that of watching television. However, channel surfing does not connect one with the rushing river of the universe. Rather, this activity fragments one's experience of it.
  Another way of thinking about the discontinuous images of channel surfing is in relation to cinema's use of montage, which in its classic formulations has two main types. Editing in classic Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s involved a paring down, a stripping away characterized as "découpage classique" (Monaco, 1981: 183). An idea of construction informs European montage since German Expressionism and Eisenstein — while acknowledging differences between the two-expressionistic montage is more romantic, formalistic montage more "scientific" (Monaco, 1981: 322). In any case, montage theory implies an intentionality difficult to associate with channel surfing.
That is not to say, however, that channel surfing implies no intentionality. "Zapping" refers to the use of a remote control device to change channels in order to sample television programs or avoid advertisements, while "grazing" refers to the use of a remote control to look briefly at television programs. [2] Surfing, whether zapping or grazing, creates a stripped-away text if done to avoid advertising and a constructed text if used to look briefly at a variety of programming, but unlike montage, it creates nothing for posterity. Indeed, some authors (Appignanesi and Garratt, 1995) describe channel surfing as evidence of a somewhat postmodern zero consciousness and relate it to Marshal McLuhan's notion of the disappearance of the past.
  An interesting film that actually weaves discontinuous images specifically from advertising is The National Film Board of Canada's This is a Recorded Message (Bédard and Moretti, 1973). The film creates a montage that, while it does not convey conventional rhetoric, certainly makes an argument-that advertising and consumer culture can be dangerous and destructive.
3 Surfing. To undertake this study, I sat down with laptop computer upon knee and channel-changer in hand and started surfing at the bottom of the spectrum (Channel 2), and surfed upward, making note of immediate apprehensions. Additionally, I made a note of any further cogitation undertaken upon the apprehension. Certainly, I formed linguistic thoughts when writing the notes. However, some images impelled further thought to form linguistically a response to the apprehension. If I did not cognize in response to the apprehension, then the apprehension registered only visually, and I did not consciously formulate any linguistic thoughts on it at the time. Table 1 shows the results at length:
  Table 1: Channel Surfing: Lunch Hour, Thursday January 23, 2003
Ch. What I immediately apprehended How I cognized it

2. A woman standing on a street talking Apparently a news program
3. A newswire channel showing the insignia "Shaw" One of our local cable companies
4. The Red Green Show  
5. TV schedule listings and accompanying ads  
6. A soap opera with the "CBS" insignia at the bottom of the screen  
7. A cooking show Hosted by an Asian man and white woman
8. A blonde woman standing in front of a church  
9. Dancing bears It is a show about animal abuse  
10. A woman CEO-type with big teeth — also a sidebar with weather and news  
11. A man and woman in Hawaiian shirts-he has his arm around her  
12. A game show A smiling young man  
13. Convection waves going in and out involving a duck or some other such bird in a pot Some sort of an infomercial
14. A cartoon An upset mother is yelling at a dad.
15. A teacher points with a pointer to a blackboard. The word "Cree" is at the bottom of the screen.  
16. A woven fabric Martha Stewart
17. Home Shopping Channel A blonde woman is holding up a ring  
18. The "A&E" insignia, a man sitting in the dark It is a preview channel
19. The nuclear symbol and a blonde woman News Net 24 hour news channel
20. I see a camera and hear rock music A commercial
21. A man talking in front of a pink background A mutual fund ad
22. A woman sitting in a chair doing yoga or something in front of a blue background  
23. A hockey player shooting a puck  
24. A cartoon A bird pulling a worm out of the ground
25. A man and woman talking in a restaurant  
26. A picture of Bob Dylan Some sort of biography
27. "Sundance" at bottom of screen CNN
28. A security camera view of a robber — the headline "No, you stick 'em up" is shown  
29. A woman tying up a scarf says, "So now there's hope."  
30. A woman in a fancy dress is singing CMT (Country Music Television) The woman is Faith Hill
31. A man in a busy office is turning around to look at something.  
32. A man testifying at a hearing — the caption "Discovery Channel"  
33. A woman crying and the caption "A Parent's Betrayal" The "Montel" show
34. A cooking show with man and woman He has no shirt on under an apron. The insignia "W" The Woman's Channel
35. A black man tying up a tie in a fancy wedding  
36. Suzanne Sommers beside Donald Sutherland in bed. She looks scared  
37. A craft show with two older ladies  
38. People talking, a headline reads, "Should corporate lawyers ..."  
39. A football game at night Must be high school or something
40. An apparently sick woman being helped by some other women  
41. Football players dancing the Macarena  
42. A cartoon People and animals talking with big mouths
43. Star Trek Mr. Spock running the transporter
44. A black man in a bow tie talking Fresh Prince
45. Cartoons Man sitting on a floor
46. "Liberty Health Caption," and a woman smiling and talking on a phone  
47. A headlight of a car  
48. A blonde woman reading the news / footage of a man jumping off a cliff in a parachute  
49. A woman talking, gesturing with her hands Some sort of a craft show
50. A First Nations family laughing in a kitchen  
51. Cartoons Dancing mountains and a "Treehouse" insignia
52. A woman in a red suit, talking with another woman Some sort of agricultural news show
54. Some Indian people eating with their hands  
70. Pierre Trudeau waving in black and white / A "Report on Business" strip on the screen  
71. "Due to...viewer discretion advised"  
72. A man and woman talking, camera angle coming up from floor Much Music channel
73. A rich-looking woman talking The View program
74. A man who looks like a businessman talking French language news
75. Politicians talking Jack Layton, Canada's new New Democratic Party leader, giving a press conference on the CPAC channel
76. An Asian man in a chef suit, talking Actually, he is Aboriginal
78. A rich man in a suit He is speaking French
79. A woman in a parka, talking outside She is speaking French
82. A Spanish show shot on film, a woman talking  
83. People playing tennis The green of the court dominates the image
91. Wavelengths Some sort of technical display
116. Just black  
And back again to ...
2. A woman holding a dress in a shop and talking It is "news" related to the recently released movie Chicago

4 Watching little, seeing lots. The surfing took on a distinct method as I noticed the spectrum's highly commercial nature and repetitiveness. I noticed that he actually saw the image before hearing the sound. In other words, it is possible to surf from channel to channel and see only images without accompanying sound or only an incomprehensible, decontextualized sound. Moreover, when I saw an image, it registered visually prior to cognizing. I saw the image and then made a judgment, deciding if he would stop and watch for a while or continue surfing. The activity was somewhat like participating in a quiz, in which I saw, identified, judged and then stayed or moved on.
  In addition, whether "grazing" or "zapping," I still saw commercials. Whether he lingered and watched the commercial was often irrelevant. I realized two things. First, the product was still advertised, in the sense that though I did not engage with the whole rhetoric of the advertisement, he was still made aware of the product. Second, aside from the content of the advertising, I still apprehended its form; He knew he was watching advertising. I realized that he was surfing through highly commercialized seas. As I scanned past all the news channels, he became aware that they tended to cover largely the same stories. The channels' use of headline strips, borders, and news-ticker-style running text reinforced this awareness. Additionally, the news channels often had visual advertisements concurrent with news material, usually off to the side of the screen.
  Certainly, there were other types of shows as well. There were the variety, cooking, nature, and music programs. I could have chosen to focus upon these in my reflections. However, I did not. As I engaged the text, these other programs formed a kind of background to the foreground of the instances of commercialization that I note. It is likely that the reason for this dynamic was due to my researching "hat" I was wearing and which informed the critical gaze I brought to bear. Quite possibly, a different person viewing the same text in different circumstances would have focused on other things if asked to reflect upon the experience. Indeed, I did see the other shows and I would imagine that they impressed themselves upon me on some level of consciousness, which I am simply not delineating out in the present discussion. Similarly, I believe that another viewer who may have focused on these other shows would be similarly influenced by the commercial aspects upon which I comment. My accounting, as verbal text, of my reflections does not necessarily comprise or contain the fullness, if I can even delineate boundaries around such fullness, of the viewing experience.
5 Inescapable commercialism. I found the commercial nature of the viewing was nearly inescapable. Through surfing, I noticed a whole range of visual activity occurring beneath the radar of "normal" viewing. As mentioned above, the news channels often had small advertisements on-screen. Channels often had insignias of their logos, and commercials often had textual material. These visual signs provide "station identification" for the casual viewer, the VHS taper, or the surfer. The viewer may elect to watch the channel in her or his own way, but the channel will still endeavor to communicate its identity.
  Clearly, the invention of the remote channel-changer presents a challenge to the networks, which sell advertising as their core means of revenue generation, and for advertisers, which expect that audiences will watch their advertisements. Obviously, a viewer with a remote channel-changer who wishes not to view advertisements can simply change channels-zap — when a commercial appears. The pre-remote model of the advertiser/viewer relationship assumed that the viewer, unless running to the refrigerator, would watch the commercials, but this relationship has changed. However, all the subtle visual information functions as a responsive refiguring of advertiser strategy to combat the channel-changer.
  As the viewer zaps or grazes through the channel spectrum doing her or his best to avoid advertisements, that effort becomes increasingly futile. In this surfing session, I encountered 10 subtle visual advertisements on channels 3, 5, 6, 18, 27, 32, 34, 46, 51, and 70. These visual cues were "sub-programming" in that they were not in and of themselves the explicit programming content, but were present, rather, as wallpaper. In this sense, the commercial nature of the surfing session was nearly inescapable.
  Some critics would argue, however, that the commercialism of the channel-surfing generated text is hardly what one could quantitatively refer to as "pervasive." Advertising is overt in only 6% to 7.7% and indirect in just 15.4% of the channels — only about every fifth channel — hardly pervasive. That argument is fair given the parameters of its quantitative analysis; however, I would argue that to appreciate the pervasive nature of the commercialism one must consider it differently. What is crucial is not the discrete frequency of the occurrences, but their effective impression. If there were a billboard every fifth foot of a highway, a stroll along that road would certainly register a profoundly pervasive commercial content. The signs stand only every five feet, but they have their effect. A similar claim may be said for the channel-surfing session. Indeed, advertisers presumably hope that their message will be received and contemplated beyond the actual timeframe of viewer exposure. Advertisers hope that the advertisement's impression will bear some impact upon behavior, preferably by viewers walking down to a store and purchasing something. The impact of the advertisement extends beyond the limited time frame of its broadcast. Similarly, the young Buddhist in meditation feels the strike of the instructor's stick upon her or his shoulder long after the momentary impact. The strike becomes pervasive to the medication session. Considered this way, the commercialism of the channel-surfing generated text can fairly be called "pervasive."
6 Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? Given the amount of time that children, youth, and even adults spend using the channel-changer to watch television, this pervasive commercialism is a concern. The old adage "If you don't like what's on, then change the channel" becomes problematic, especially if one is trying to avoid commercial content. The findings challenge the idea that the remote channel-changer necessarily gives one the means to avoid advertising completely. Rather than being a boon to viewer agency in a commercial-free space, the cross-channel spectrum text has adapted to keep its commercial nature intact. It is tempting to believe that the remote channel-changer can help us avoid commercialism and increase choice and agency in a media-saturated world. However, in terms of viewing within a branded space, the more variety I saw, the more he realized he was seeing the same thing — advertising.
  This paper has discussed a brief journey through a (post)modern media landscape, a part of visual culture. This study has helped to resolve the original problem, the need to explore the unique text generated by channel surfing, through an understanding in light of the admittedly modernist concern of commercialism. The postmodern channel-surfing text remains amenable to the modernist concern of commercialization and suggests exploring the confluence between the two perspectives, as the "new boss" of enhanced technological agency seems to have much in common with the "old boss" of commercialism.
  A media education response to television's incessant commercialism involves teaching children to resist commercialism's invocation to desire-production. Although television advertising performs some socially useful functions such as informing consumers about product information, many parents and educators are concerned about the amount of advertising children watch. Certainly, it would be advantageous to teach children to watch less advertising, for example, through the method of zapping. However, even with zapping, television remains a highly commercialized environment. Parents and teachers cannot assume that teaching children to use the channel-changer will solve this problem.
  How should media education respond to this situation? Advertising impels children to produce desire for its products and services. Granted, there exists no 1:1 correspondence between advertising's intention and children actually complying. However, children conform enough that industry continues to pump millions of dollars into purchasing television airtime. Therefore, concerning the inescapably commercial environment of the television spectrum, media education should explore the process of desire production with children. Media educators need to stress to children that advertisements are essentially attempts to manipulate them and that zapping is no guaranteed solution. How to do this is a fruitful area for research.
7 Corresponding commercialism. The study has shown that television's commercial features remain even in the channel-surfing text, a fact of some concern. In addition, the paper has noted the correspondence between this postmodern channel-surfing text and the modernist features of commercialism. A media education response to this problem consists of helping children to learn to resist advertising's imperative to produce desire. In the end, this paper represents, really, a brief research note, one, hopefully, that may serve as an invitation to further, more substantive and sustained study into the nature of the channel surfing-generated text and its mapping to concerns of commercialism, especially as it relates to television viewing by children.
1. Excerpts from transcript of the documentary Feminist fatale by Cerniak and Levine (1992); segmented hosted by Peter Downie; filmed on September 4, 1991; and aired in Canada December 14, 1992 and on public television in the US in early 1993. Reprinted by permission. Return to text
2. These are subject-heading explanations of NEOS Library Consortium Catalogue, used by the University of Alberta. Return to text
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