The obvious route from that old television set to our current world of video entertainment and news runs through cable. Cable, the story goes, gave consumers more choices. It broke the hegemony of the big three networks with the help of satellite television, VCRs, and Fox. Meanwhile, the Internet was built, creating a vast, peer-to-peer distribution network.
But that narrative — like this version found at the Museum of Broadcast Communications — leaves out a lowly but important change agent: the remote control. The remote control diffused more rapidly than television itself and more widely than cable or even the VCR or its descendants. While we say “everyone has an iPhone,” the truth was that everyone really did have a remote control. This was an immensely useful technology.
We look back at the remote control’s role in changing the nature of television today because a co-creator of the wireless remote, Eugene Polley, died Sunday at the age of 96. His work at Zenith, in part, laid the groundwork for a new kind of television and maybe for new ways of thinking about what home entertainment should be.