The art of the Flip To

Originally Published: November 18, 2010
By David Fleming | Page 2

Flem File ArtKurt Snibbe for ESPN.comThe skill it takes to flip channels during a dead ball is crucial to survival.

I tucked the TV remote into my waistband like a six shooter and then, with beverage in hand and a stack of microwaved mini burgers balanced in the other, I nodded to the dog and down we went into the basement for "Monday Night Football." Donovan McNabb. DeSean Jackson. Shanny. Danny. Andy. I couldn't wait. But, then, before I had even settled into my giant cushy chair the TV flashed to life and I realized the game was practically over thanks to my bud Mike Vick who in less than 10 minutes already had the Eagles up by three TDs.

Rather than drown my disappointment in a second-helping of triglycerides I decided to use the opportunity to test my proficiency in what has become an essential skill for any remote-control wielding TV sports junkie: The Art of the Flip To.

Flem File

In January a study by the Wall Street Journal revealed that in a nearly four-hour-long broadcast of an NFL game the total amount of actual live action -- you know, when the ball is actually in play and people are hitting each other -- is 10 minutes and 43 seconds. Ten minutes. Forty three seconds. That's it. Honest.

By contrast, the WSJ says that as many as 75 minutes of the broadcast consists of players basically milling around doing nothing.

Or, as Albert Haynesworth calls it: third down.

Luckily, savvy sports viewers know there's a simple yet beautiful solution to fight this kind of incessant mind-numbing broadcast boredom: It's the tiny, wonderful, revolutionary little gray button on the remote, hidden just below the little channel up/down thingie, that reads "LAST" -- or " AST" if, like me, over time your thumb has worn off the labeling.

With the state of TV sports what it is today (basically, 643 seconds of action spread over four hours or so and crammed in between 892 beer commercials. That guy ordered a beer wearing a Speedo -- Ahhh-hahahaha -- he's stupid, that is classic!), the Flip To button has to be considered one of modern man's greatest inventions, ranking somewhere between the printing press and flip flops.

I'm telling you, this miraculous little dimple has special metaphysical powers.

After all it's the actual, electronic manifestation of the Grass is Always Greener philosophy. Using one button to instantly go back to the 'last' channel viewed (and then back, again) is like becoming a time traveler, living in two places at once. It's also a little naughty in the way it allows you to cheat on your main TV feature with an endless series of trashy, shallow, titillating and quick side programs without ever having to worry about getting caught or, ya know, being judged. And because the Flip To allows us to constantly hunt for better and better viewing options we never allow ourselves enough time to stop and think about, um, exercising or reading or doing yard work.

Face it, the channel 'up' button is for grandparents. The pre-programmed 'favorite' channel button is more for kids and amateurs. But, if wielded correctly, the beauty of the Flip To is the way it allows viewers to, instantly, swap, say, an eight-minute replay challenge or an announcer trying to convince you how complicated the Cover 2 defense is, for the glorious, breath-taking, roll off the couch scene in "Slap Shot" when Reggie Dunlop finally relents and lets the Hanson boys out on the ice.

I still get chills.

As soon as that red flag hits the turf (blip) I'm over to "Slap Shot" where the Hansons clip the ref, smack the entire bench and decapitate the goalie. Now, instead of being bored and frustrated I'm laughing, on the edge of my seat and (bloop) I'm back over to see the ref pass Bill Belichick and trot back onto the field to announce an incomplete pass and (blip) now I'm back watching the Hansons kill that guy in the corner and (bloop) back to Tom Brady breaking the huddle and (blip) back to Reggie's jaw-dropping look from the bench knowing my time is running out and (bloop) back just before the next snap.

Ah. No harm. Nothing missed. No damage.

Flipped to perfection.

I worry, a little, that using "Slap Shot" was irresponsible since that movie is the Flip To version of the Loch Ness Monster -- elusive, beautiful, deadly. A flip like that can be so difficult to pull off, in fact, that if a rookie were to try it, by halftime he'd be in last place in his fantasy football league, curled up in the fetal position sucking his thumb while watching "Wheel of Fortune" reruns.

There's an art to the Flip To that, very much like a black belt in karate, requires discipline, imagination and cat-like reflexes (but only in your right thumb.)

Which means, if you're new to the Flip To, please, start with something easy and slow, like baseball or, better yet, soccer. During the World Cup, I literally managed to flip my way through half of Will Ferrell's "Land of the Lost" (not bad, but no "Semi-Pro") without missing any significant action on either planet. Although, most of that has to do with soccer. You could flip an entire session of Congress and not miss a goal. I mean if there are 11 minutes of useful action in a football game, what does soccer contain: 11 seconds ... a season?

To maximize your flipping it's important to know the sport you're watching. In football, think of the Flip To like a field goal kicker: once the ball gets inside the 35-yard line you need to start paying attention. Because the rule in my house is if you miss a score or a big play during your flip you have to hand over the remote. It's harsh but people have to learn: You don't flip late in close games or inside the red zone or during a special-teams play or with Vick under center; and like a good quarterback, or free-water diver, a good flipper has a clock in his head that starts running the minute he hits that 'LAST' button. You don't flash-bulb back and forth. You have to develop a sense and a feel about when it's time to return to the game.

Luckily, the NFL provides an almost infinite list of Flip To opportunities including timeouts, challenges, the 2:00 warning, injuries and first down measurements. The odds are in your favor because if a game takes 3½ hours and there's only 10 minutes of actual action, by my calculations the chances of missing something important are like 50-to-1. In the first quarter, with the game still 0-0 and the ball at midfield, as soon as the runner is tackled on third down you've got between 40 seconds and 4:00 minutes (of actual game clock time) before there's even a chance of something important or cool happening.

So get flipping.

I use this time early in games to study my Flip To options by quickly hunting through the channel guide. It's search and destroy time and I scroll through that thing like a hyper-caffeinated bride during one of those once-a-year 75 percent off wedding gown sales. My first option is always another sporting event. I guess because it feels less like I'm cheating on the NFL. But this can be tricky, especially if they are the same sport. You'll end up just flipping back and forth between Bud Light commercials, dead air and shots of Brad Childress (7 percent of the broadcasts focus on the head coach, says the WSJ.)

So I prefer to find an NHL game to flip to during a football game.

A few things about hockey and flipping:

• As a flipper you'll find that everything about a hockey game is exciting and critical (the same goes for college hoops, I think) so with hockey you'll always see something worthwhile like a monster slapper, a big check or a scrum in front of the net.

• If you're a hockey junkie, like me, be careful of the flip-flop lock, where the flip becomes the main feature. It's bad form and I think it can cause a space wormhole to form in your basement but it's not against the law or anything.

• Finally, hockey is a great flip-to but you really have to be an expert to use it as a flip-from. I suggest mastering the opportunities, timing and rhythm of the sport before flipping away from an NHL game or you'll be missing huge chunks of important live action while carelessly listening to H.I. McDunnough say "Ed's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase" in "Raising Arizona."

If there are no decent sporting options, I shoot for classic comedies with tons of great quotable lines. I know, how original. This way, though, you don't waste a flip by landing on a commercial, you maximize your time away with at least one memorable moment or quip you can take back with you and, if it's halftime or intermission, you can linger without the worry of the dreaded, ruinous, embarrassing premature flip back.

None of this stuff is set in stone. Really, it's up to you what you put in your Class A Flip To category. Me? "Slap Shot" is No. 1, followed by "Old School" and then probably "Tommy Boy" and then "Fletch". If those aren't available I jump to any of Ferrell's movies starting with his sports stuff -- "Blades of Glory," "Talladega Nights," "Semi-Pro," the tone, humor and action dovetails nicely with actual sports, I think -- and work my way down through his other hits like "Anchorman" and "Wedding Crashers".

My Class B Flip To's have a distinctly different feel to them and are mostly TV shows and sitcoms. Seinfeld. Family Guy. HBO series. Californication. Louie. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. You get the idea. These are safe, solid options. The payoff is less but I generally know what to expect. And, hey, let's remember, it beats watching the Panthers' offense. Another good Class B option are live music channels. It's pretty sweet to flip away from the Chargers' special teams (after they give up a touchdown, I mean) and land in the middle of Elvis Costello's set from the Isle of Wight Music Fest.

Class C is reserved for old movies, mostly from the '80s, that have morphed into being awesome in a bad way and therefore easy to mock in 20 seconds or less. I'm talking "Red Dawn," "St. Elmo's Fire" or "Purple Rain". I flipped "Top Gun" during Week 3 of the NFL season and it was a gold mine. 1) Why is Mav wearing a giant, heavy winter coat in San Diego? 2) Why do 80 percent of the scenes take place in the locker room with the actors in tightie whities? And 3) According to the famous volleyball scene the regulation height of a volleyball net is actually 5½ feet.

Finally, Class D Flips are kind of what you'd expect -- a mystery hodgepodge that's probably best used only in desperation or extreme blowouts, like Monday night. Let's just say late on a Monday night your Flip To options aren't the greatest. I still have a lot to learn. I'm slightly addicted to home improvement porn so I spent a lot of time on the DIY and HGTV networks. In between the Eagles' big plays and shots of Shanny and his rain-resistant hair, there may have also been some dabbling in How It's Made, Tracy Morgan, Avatar and Tosh.O.

All of which helped me realize two final things about the Art of the Flip To:

The Redskins' third down offense is so bad even the grand, beautiful, metaphysical power of the Flip To is useless in trying to avoid it.

And, holy crap, I watch too much TV.

Editor's note: Looking for Flem's top five, his music riffs and weekly reader e-mail WHYLO (who helped you log on?) awards? Check 'em out on Facebook and Twitter at @daveflemingespn.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for While covering the NFL for the past 16 years at Sports Illustrated and ESPN, he has written more than 30 cover stories and two books ("Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys"), and his work has been anthologized in "The Best American Sports Writing."

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