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Clicking into the future

CBS Chief Marketing Officer George Schweitzer discusses remote control technology, with a link to video and images of the tech through the years.

My first TV remote control was my brother. It was voice-activated. "Peter, turn it up." "Peter, change it to channel five." Little did I know back then that the human channel changer would turn out to be one of the easiest devices of its kind to operate.

Every step in the television navigation process is a barrier between consumers and our shows. Marketers depend on ease of navigation and "share of thumb" on the remote control. As the tool viewers use at the absolute "point of purchase," what happens on the remote control determines our fate.

Yet, a tech expert at a major cable company tells me that the No. 1 customer support call is due to problems with the remote. Despite decades of innovation that have transformed televisions from large clunky boxes into flat sleek screens, TV's sidekick--the remote control--has become an unwieldy gadget with too many buttons.

Adding insult to injury, the average consumer has not one but three remote controls to contend with: the television remote control, the cable remote control, and the DVD remote control, each one calling up a separate interface and set of options. When you add on top of it the interfaces that come with many new interactive television platforms--TV widgets, video aggregators, and social sharing--it's a veritable clash of the overlays.

The six stages of the man cave Illustration by Jim Shefcik, CBS.

For years we've been watching and collecting each new remote that appeared on the scene, hoping it would be the magical clicker that evolved the home entertainment experience from brute-force channel changing to intelligently choreographed content consumption. (Be sure to browse some of our collection in The CBS Attic).

Up to now, the various stakeholders in the TV ecosystem--television programmers and marketers, cable companies, software designers, and consumer electronics manufacturers--have been unable to transcend their corners of the universe to deliver a solution for consumers. Consequently, the folks watching at home have had little choice but to continue slogging along with their 60-plus-buttoned remotes.

But recently, there have been some signs of progress. Countless remote control smartphone apps have appeared, promising easier television discovery and navigation, while interactive television features, like widgets, and mobile applications, like CBS News' iPad app, feature better user interface design. By at least one account, the high-tech "brotherless" voice-and-gesture recognition remote may not be all that far off. While these innovations are used by a relatively small segment of the population, they signal what tools may soon be available to mainstream viewers.

Whatever technology people embrace for finding and selecting content, program marketers will adapt to it. And in the meantime, we continue on our endless quest to make our shows easy to find and hard to miss. So put down that remote, and stay tuned!