The Incredible Survival Story of the TV Advertisement

Technology increasingly allows viewers to skip advertisements all together. Yet networks are pushing back, and filing lawsuits, to maintain their revenue model. Which will win out?  

zenith.jpgTodd Ehlers/Flickr

Eugene Polley, inventor of the first wireless television remote control, died last month at 96. Polley, an engineer at Zenith, named his device Flash-Matic. It was introduced in 1955. In his New York Times obituary, the purpose of the gadget was described in an advertisement this way: "Without budging from your easy chair you can turn your new Zenith Flash-Matic set on, off, or change channels. You can even shut off annoying commercials while the picture remains on the screen." More than a half-century later, engineers in cahoots with viewers are still working out ways to minimize the intrusion of commercials.

The latest innovation comes from the DISH Network, which has about fourteen million subscribers. It is called the Hopper and goes well beyond Polley's principle by skipping commercials altogether. Almost immediately, three networks -- Fox, CBS, and NBCUniversal -- filed lawsuits to block Hopper on the grounds that voiding the commercials violates contracts that integrate advertising into the pay-per-view service. Whatever the outcome of the litigation, there isn't any doubt that the long-term contest over how to override commercials will continue.

After a short run of about a year, Polley's device was replaced by another Zenith remote control that proved to be more efficient. But the company's president, Eugene F. McDonald, held firm to his initial belief that viewers would object to commercials and that suppressing them remained a primary goal of these wireless channel changers. McDonald may have been right about consumer preferences, but television programming was destined to be advertising-supported-- a vastly lucrative source of income for the networks and scores of other stations as they were gradually added to the mix. A spirited history of what is widely known as "the clicker" was the subject of a New York Times takeout called "Pushing All Our Buttons," but it barely mentioned the role of managing commercials that was so important to the inventors of the gadget.

Over the decades, as personal recording techniques were refined, viewers caught on to the fast-forward function. To take a current example, if the multiple commercials on Mad Men undermine your enjoyment of this television classic, you can DVR the series and, after waiting no more than ten minutes from its Sunday evening 10:00 p.m. EDT start time, the commercials will zip by if you press down on today's sleek descendant of Polley's Flash-Matic. Advertising is still the mainstay of television's economics, but viewers are increasingly adapting to the impact of what amounts to a new age of video entertainment: the use of tablets, smartphones, Internet-connected television, and even game consoles to take charge of when, where, and how to watch programming -- and how to pay for it.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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