Channel Surfing Began Before Television
Many people assume the habit of channel surfing must have started after TV remote controls became the rage. But they’d be wrong.
I can easily remember a time from my childhood when changing the television channel meant getting up from the couch and actually walking to the television set to turn a dial.
(Remember the old “don’t touch that dial” line from old commercials? Yes, kids, there actually used to be a dial!)
But the habit of channel surfing was around long before the days of television. Thanks to the phenomenon, it helped stoke the paranoia surrounding what came to be the most famous radio broadcast of all time.
I recently watched a documentary called American Experience: War of the Worlds on Netflix about Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater’s live CBS broadcast on October 30, 1938.
On that evening, Welles and company presented a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds. The program was written to emulate radio bulletins of breaking news that always caught and held on to people’s attention at the time. Using the device of special reports that interrupted supposedly live programming, the program told the story of Earth being invaded by Martians.
But the documentary told a portion of the story I’d never heard before.
Welles’ Mercury Theater On the Air program was not the ratings winner back then. That honor went to NBC for ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s comedy-variety show, The Chase and Sanborn Hour.
By all accounts, the majority of American radio sets were tuned to Bergen and company, not Welles and company, at 8:00pm that night. But several minutes into the broadcast, after the first comedy bit ended and a musical number with Nelson Eddy began, many listeners started “dial switching,” the radio equivalent of channel surfing. They started twisting the dial to see what else might be on the air at the same time.
At the same time, historian Susan Douglas said, things were just starting to heat up over on CBS. People who landed on Welles’ broadcast had missed the opening explanation that it was all a play. Having missed that announcement, they arrived just in time to hear music interrupted with the following special bulletin: “Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News.” The mock news reports that followed described an astronomer’s report of gas eruptions spotted on Mars and objects flying toward our planet at high speed, then live reports from a farm in Grovers Mill, New Jersey, where some sort of meteor had landed.
An actor, playing a reporter called Carl Phillips, breathlessly describes a shape rising from a pit followed by jets of fire that begin destroying everything in its path. The reporter’s description is breathless, in the style of real-life reporter Herbert Morrison’s horrifying description of the Hindenburg disaster on May 6, 1937.
From there, those who had switched over just to miss the music interlude found themselves listening to an apparent Martian invasion.
Some, historians say, quickly realized, upon hearing of a “Martian invasion,” immediately realized it was a play. But others weren’t so skeptical and some apparently believed our planet was indeed under attack.
For what happened next, you’ll have to check out the documentary; I highly recommend it.
But what is so fascinating to me is that for many of those panicked listeners, it was that dial twisting — early channel surfing — that caused them to miss the disclaimer that would have prevented the panic.