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And just as technology is making it easier to skip ads, media companies are developing ways to make viewers watch ads even while they’re trying to skip them.
Cable giant Comcast Corp. — which is also the parent of NBC and cable channels, including USA, MSNBC and Bravo — is developing a technology that would trigger a commercial to pop up when viewers tried to fast-forward through ads.
The networks are taking a similar approach online. TV shows that are streamed on Hulu and other video sites have fewer commercials than their broadcast versions — but viewers can’t fast-forward through them.
As consumers have found more ways to avoid commercials, the networks have responded by adding more ads. In the 1970s, a typical half-hour sitcom often had only four minutes of commercials and promotional spots. That figure is more than double now. Commercial breaks have also increased, with as many as four in a half-hour sitcom.
Viewers got their first look at commercial skipping hardware in 1955, when Zenith introduced the first wireless remote control. The Flash-Matic, a battery-powered gizmo shaped like a Buck Rogers ray gun, let viewers change channels, mute commercials and turn the TV on and off.
“You can even shut off annoying commercials while the picture remains on the screen,” the Flash-Matic ads boasted. The device cost $100 on top of the $500 set.
The Flash-Matic was usurped a year later by the Space Command, which changed channels using ultrasonic waves.
“The Space Commander changed the way we watched TV,” said technology futurist Paul Saffo, managing director of research firm Foresight. “To me, it’s the beginning of the arms race between the audience and the producers.”
Zenith’s founder, Cmdr. Eugene F. McDonald Jr., wanted to go further. In 1947, Zenith introduced PhoneVision, which enabled delivery of broadcast TV over telephone lines — without commercial interruptions.
“Hollywood killed it,” said John I. Taylor, vice president for LG Electronics, which now owns the Zenith brand. “Hollywood executives were worried that if people could watch movies in their homes, they would no longer pay to see them in theaters. Ultimately, it became impossible to license content for the service.”
Those primitive tools were succeeded in the 1970s by videocassette recorders, which enabled consumers to record shows to watch later. The digital video recorder, which started to appear a decade ago, made recording shows and skipping ads even easier. Nearly 50 percent of the nation’s 114 million TV homes have DVRs.
“We don’t watch any commercial TV live,” said Anthony Zazzu, a 72-year-old Huntington Beach, Calif., retiree. He has turned ad-skipping into a science, knowing that “The CBS Evening News” contains seven commercials during each break. Zazzu zips past them. “It’s becoming a pain in the neck to keep fast-forwarding because there are so many commercials.”
Sensitive to viewers’ allergic reactions to ads, shows such as CBS’ “The Good Wife” sometimes run more than 10 minutes without a commercial, hoping viewers will stay for the commercial breaks that come later. The History Channel miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys” began its run last month with a 39-minute commercial-free opening.
For television producers such as “Modern Family” co-creator Steve Levitan, the modern technology is a double-edged sword.
“On the one hand, I wish people were watching ‘Modern Family’ live,” he said. “On the other hand, there are many who would miss it if not for their DVRs.” If advertisers want their ads to be seen, maybe they should make better commercials, he added.
After all, Levitan said, “People stop to watch Apple ads.”