Zapping is the selective avoidance of television commercials, either by changing the channel with the remote control or by leaving the room during the commercial break. Sometimes the term “zapping” is used as a synonym for changing channels, or switching, but more often it is connected to advertising avoidance. Analog or digital video recorders can be used for “zipping,” fast-forwarding past the commercials (Bellamy & Walker 1996). The opposite of zapping – watching the commercials – is often referred to as “sticking” (Ottler 1998).
Zapping has economic significance as it challenges the value of advertising in television and threatens the basic income of commercial television. This makes empirical research especially sensitive to external interests, even more so as the amount of zapping reported strongly depends on the operationalization. The self-reported zapping rate may be biased by a negative attitude toward advertising if respondents answer according to their attitude rather than their actual behavior. Also, social desirability might lead to increased zapping rates in self-report. Electronic counting devices make up for this shortcoming by measuring actual behavior (Danaher 1995).
Even though the exact amount of zapping is difficult to establish, there is some agreement in research about the characteristics of the zappers: mostly, young and male viewers tend to avoid commercials (Bellamy & Walker 1996).
Television planners employ various strategies to prevent zapping. Increasing the appeal and likeability of commercial spots is one strategy (Woltman Elpers et al. 2003). Commercials between shows are more likely to drive away viewers than commercials that interrupt a show (van Meurs 1998). Thus, a strategy for limiting zapping is to announce the next show while the credits for the previous show are still on, using a split-screen. Eliminating commercials between shows altogether might be another strategy; instead, the commercial break may be inserted before the previous show ends or after the next has started. In a common effort to prevent zapping, channels may schedule their commercial breaks in parallel time slots (“roadblocking”; Ottler 1998). Also, announcing the short duration of the break or the small number of spots until a show starts is a strategy for decreasing zapping behavior. In the digital future, receiving devices may block channel changes 5380 during commercials or, if a show has been recorded, block the fast-forwarding of commercials. Viewers might then be given the option to either watch the commercials or pay for viewing the show. A patent application for such a device by Philips exists; however, there is no intention to actually develop the device (yet; Snyder Bulik 2006).
Zapping represents a widespread reason for changing channel. There are many other reasons for switching (Heeter & Greenberg 1988; Walker & Bellamy 1993; Bellamy & Walker 1996). Channel changes may be motivated by the intent to avoid certain content, like boring shows or certain actors. Changes also may serve to look for certain content, like news or music videos, or, in an unspecific orienting search, to see what programs are on (often described as “scanning” the programs or “flipping” through the channels). Both uses are instrumental in that they enable the viewer to make the optimal viewing decision. In contrast, there is a more playful way of switching: without having a specific goal of finding or avoiding content in mind, viewers take a stroll in the television world and experience pleasure in picking up snippets of different shows and not respecting traditional entities. Changing the channels with the remote control also enables viewers to watch two or more shows at the same time, switching back and forth between the shows (“hopping”). Also, a number of psychological traits, e.g., novelty seeking or locus of control (Bellamy & Walker 1996), and waning involvement (Vorderer 1993) are connected to channel changing.
Apart from these television-related reasons for changing the channel, switching has also a social implication for the viewing group, as the person holding the remote control exerts a certain power over his or her co-viewers (Bellamy & Walker 1996).
As in zapping, there is little agreement between studies concerning the exact amount of switching. Self-report is a common method for measuring channel changes, being relatively cheap compared to electronic counting devices, and convenient for collecting data on other constructs like viewing motivations, personality traits, etc. in the same sample. However, switching is a mundane and repetitive behavior that viewers do not remember easily (Ferguson 1994). Moreover, self-report measures that ask for switching rate per hour might go beyond the respondents’ capacity. Finally, there may be an effect of social desirability when respondents try to embellish their true switching frequency. Comparisons of self-report and electronic counter data show that actual switching frequency is underestimated by viewers (Kaye & Sapolsky 1997). More valid data can be expected from observation, either through observers who sit in during a television session, or by recording channel changes with a video camera or a video recorder. Either way, the effort for the respondents is reduced, and validity is increased, because actual channel changes are recorded. However, the method is reactive, putting the viewers in an experimental situation that may alter their usual behavior. Moreover, preparing observational recordings for data analysis is costly and limits the number of respondents. Finally, electronic counting devices work without the presence of an observer, and offer exact data on each channel change. Such devices are used in commercial ratings measurement. While exact and less obtrusive than observation, this method is quite expensive, and commercial data are not easily available for academic use. Moreover, ratings data represent behavior, but not a viewer’s intentions like searching or avoiding content. Mixed method designs combining self-report and observation or electronic counting devices are useful to get more complete information.
Again as for zapping, the socio-demographic characteristics of heavy switchers are similar across studies (Heeter & Greenberg 1988; Bellamy & Walker 1996): young male viewers change channels to a greater extent. Also, the presence of many channels promotes channel changing. The frequency of switching increases when new shows begin, e.g., on the hour or the half hour.
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- Kaye, B. K., & Sapolsky, B. S. (1997). Electronic monitoring of in-home television RCD usage. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 41, 214–228.
- Ottler, S. (1998). Zapping: Zum selektiven Umgang mit Fernsehwerbung und dessen Bedeutung für die Vermarktung von Fernsehwerbezeit [Zapping: On the selective use of television advertising and its meaning for marketing air time]. Munich: Reinhard Fischer.
- Snyder Bulik, B. (2006). Viewers object to channel lock. TelevisionWeek, 25(17), 41.
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- Vorderer, P. (1993). Audience involvement and program loyalty. Poetics: Journal of Empirical Research on Literature, Media and the Arts, 22, 89–98.
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- Woltman Elpers, J. L. C. M., Wedel, M., & Pieters, R. G. M. (2003). Why do consumers stop viewing television commercials? Two experiments on the influence of moment-to-moment entertainment value and information value. Journal of Marketing Research, 40, 437–453.