Hey, NBC, no one wants “Shoppable TV”

Part of my job is to save you from making the same mistakes I made. In this case, that’s believing that anyone wants to shop by clicking on what they see on their TV set, as NBC is hoping they will.

My interactive TV predictions

I was the Forrester analyst focused on television technology for about ten years. I analyzed technologies like cable and satellite, digital video recorders, video on-demand, and HDTV. And, of course, interactive TV.

Interactive TV is one of those ideas that comes back again and again. In 1977 (!), an interactive cable TV service called Qube debuted. It was a flop. In the 90s, European operators created teletext, where you could punch in a number to interact. Some TV stations included polling with three colored buttons on the remote.

When I was a TV analyst I looked at cable TV-based interactivity from startups like Wink and WebTV. All the other analysts had been scared off by ITV’s past failures, but I was undeterred. I saw that the stars were aligning in 2000 and made a bold prediction: $25 billion in t-commerce — commerce from TV sets — over five years.

For example, I suggested that people watching “Friends” might click to buy Jennifer Aniston’s sweater. “Jennifer Aniston’s sweater” became a trope for describing interactive TV. And I became known around the office as the Jennifer Aniston analyst.

My $25 billion prediction was off by $25 billion.

It is easy to laugh at in retrospect, but it’s more instructive to look at why interactive TV and t-commerce didn’t succeed.

There are three problems.

  1. The technology needs to work effortlessly. There must be a way to use some sort of code in the TV program with a device to indicate what you’d like to interact with or purchase. That technology needs to be smooth and effortless, because any amount of extra effort is too hard to undertake. (I called it — cringing about this now — “lazy interactivity: made for television” and dramatized it by speaking from a slouch in a reclining chair in front of hundreds of people at a Forrester event.)
  2. There has to be a shared business model. There has to be some way for everyone along the way — the show’s producer, the network, the cable operator, the technology supplier, and of course the sweater maker — to get paid equitably for the purchase. (Does Jennifer Aniston get paid if you buy her sweater?)
  3. People need to feel comfortable clicking during a TV show. TV is about entertainment, not commerce (except for home shopping channels). It’s passive, not active. Interactive TV has to get past that psychological barrier somehow.

Startups and networks have continually worked on ways to fix problems 1 and 2. But problem 3 is intractable. Television has gone from broadcast to cable to streaming, but along the way has only gotten more immersive. People never wanted to lean forward and interact with it, and they sure don’t want to do so now.

(Incidentally, after I stopped being the television analyst and started working on social media, another highly talented analyst joined Forrester and started making his own interactive TV predictions. I warned him that it was a seductive trap, but just like me, he thought “Everyone has been scared off, but I can see what they cannot see — that this will work.” He was wrong, just as I was.)

So, why not NBC’s ShoppableTV

Here we are in 2019, more than 40 years after the first failed interactive TV experiments, and NBC is announcing “ShoppableTV”

Here’s a description from Ad Age:

In a capability that mimics scenes out of futuristic movies like “Back to the Future” or “Minority Report,” TV viewers who see a product they like can purchase it on their phones within seconds. Consumers are encouraged to hold their phone up to the TV screen during specific “shoppable” moments that include a QR code, turn on the camera app and click a button. They’re then taken to the retailer’s website and the specific product page of the initial item.

My God, it’s the CueCat all over again. And according to the same article, “Walmart promoted its own shoppable ads that the retailer is testing on its Vudu streaming service. Viewers can use a remote to click on a product in a commercial that they can buy via pop-up window.”

All these years later we now have wireless broadband and smartphones in the hands of a majority of consumers. The technical problems are solvable. But these services are still struggling with problem 1, the technology, and problem 2, the business model.

Even if they get past those problems, they are going to step into the deep hole of problem 3, the immersive TV experience.

With the exception of home shopping networks, no one wants to shop from their TV set. If they’re watching TV, they want to watch TV. They want to pay as little attention to commerce as possible and tune out the commercials as soon as they can.

Shoppable TV is going to flop.

And if you’re an analyst who decides to be contrarian and predict otherwise, please don’t. It’s a trap.

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  1. I read the “Aniston report” when it came out and Josh Bernoff was the number one analyst in the space. I would’ve bet he was right, a la “TVs On Demand Future.” Even the greats don’t bat 1000.