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KAI RYSSDAL: Jay Leno's going to take his audiences back to the future next week. Tonight Show viewers will see something that hasn't been on TV in years: A live commercial. Almost one in five households now has some kind of ad-skipping device like a TiVo. Which means networks have been struggling to keep viewersa€¦and advertisers from switching off. Marketplace's Amy Scott reports the answer may lie in the past.
AMY SCOTT: Next Tuesday night on NBC's Tonight Show, announcer John Melendez will appear in a lab coat with the Garmin logo on it. He'll be describing a malady that Garmin can help with. The company makes GPS navigation devices. Ted Gartner is a spokesman.
TED GARTNER It's called direction disorder. And basically it's the fact that guys won't ask for directions.
The skit is a throwback to the dawn of television, when network sponsors were part of the entertainment. A comedian pitched Texaco oil on the Milton Berle show. Industry consultant Bill Harvey:
Bill Harvey: This is known as viewer reward advertising. It's always nice when you take something from somebody to give them something.
You take people's time, but give, in theory, entertainment. But live spots went out of style. Robert Thompson teaches TV and popular culture at Syracuse University. He says, for one thing, it's harder to do things like drive a car through the tundra live. And then there's the opportunity for mishaps.
Robert Thompson: Everybody remembers if they were around back then the famous Westinghouse refrigerator commercial. . . . Where the model comes out and talks about the automatic opening door and how easy it is to open the door and then she starts yanking on the door and it doesn't open.
Recent attempts to surreptitiously blend products with plot — like all the Cisco logos on Fox's "24," have met with some scorn. But Thompson says if done up-front, NBC might be onto something. He says, some of Jack Benny's funniest moments were actually product pitches.
In New York, I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.