Jay Leno has replaced Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. He means to put his own stamp on the new “Jay Leno Show.” One idea he came up with, according to the Wall St. Journal, is to have him and his sidekick, Ed Hall, do live commercials. This is something Carson almost never did. But Leno hopes to attract lots of live
advertising. Chalk up another encroachment for raw commercialism. Now viewers will be confronted with Jay Leno, the comedian and Jay Leno the pitchman — selling junk food, deodorants, cars, toothpaste and gargle. These commercials will carry the imprint of Jay Leno — a dash of humor, a flip of the head, a crease of a smile. Since advertisers believe that live commercials by the show’s hosts reduce viewer zapping of the ads, they are delighted with the prospect.
But the reciprocal to Jay Leno carrying the commercial is that the commercial begins carrying Jay Leno. If the advertisement is deemed deceptive by a consumer law enforcement agency, can Leno slip away from the association? If the product or service advertised turns out to be defective or deficient, will Leno be able to rush backstage? What about viewers who write into Leno to complain that their trust was misplaced after they tried out the item? Will he stand behind the product?
Perhaps Leno will require the companies for which he does live commercials on the show to substantiate their claims or provide test data for their products. Leno reportedly did not exact such discipline from other products he pitched for as a celebrity — endorser in recent years. But now he is the host of the Tonight Show and his responsibility not to let his credibility attach to a dubious product merely for the money of it.
In addition to the credibility risk, there is the blurring of the show with the ads. With Carson, the boundaries were clear. The show “went” to commercials. Under Leno, the Show and the live commercials will be blended — which, of course, is just the point of having live commercials featuring the host. As more live commercials pile up, there will be more tabus restraining any potential satire from the host on these products and these companies.
The Carson Show was very sensitive to assuring that the paid ads get a free ride on the program. When I first appeared on the Tonight Show in the Seventies, the staff advised me before the show that I should not use any brand names in my consumer protection exchanges with Johnny. Such self-censorship is likely to be even stronger when the host is associated with the ad.
When Carson was asked by a reporter why he had never had me on the show, he replied he had wanted very much to invite me but that NBC in New York would not have it. We traced the problem to the NBC vice-president in charge of the Carson Show, with the help of the Show’s insider. When a reporter called, the executive denied and such censorship. But within a few dads. I received a formal invitation from Carson to be on his Show.
It wasn’t long before serious book authors and reformers were not invited at all. The Show went completely to light entertainment and shrank to one hour in length instead of 90 minutes. So much for the occasional Carson nod to the “public interest, necessity and convenience” mandate of the 1934 Federal Communications Act. With the onset of Reagan-Bush in 1981 and their “anything goes” policy toward the electronic media, the “public airwaves” became even more the “corporate airwaves.”
Leno intends to dig these mercantile pits even deeper.