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<Press the blue button to buy Katie Couric’s Blazer>
By Daniel Will-Harris
Last night, a revolution took place that will change your life—and yet few people noticed, and even fewer will write about it (probably because there’s so much more “titillating” stuff going on, and no, the release of the Starr report on the web was not revolutionary, just political).

What was this revolution and how will it change your life? Fittingly, it took place during the 50th annual Emmy awards, the awards that honor achievement (or at least popularity) in television.

No more than 30 seconds (of a show that ran well over three hours) was devoted to this monumental news. Of course, the show was so badly produced that they didn’t even show people arriving so you could comment on their clothes, but that’s another story.

What happened was the first simultaneous TV and WebTV transmission. You could watch the awards on TV, but if you had WebTV, you could get additional information about the presenters and categories and awards, right there, on your TV screen, on top of the action. This kind of information will probably be more appreciated by sports fans during events and was the least of what was going on.

The blurb also mentioned, in passing, that you could also buy things related to the broadcast. Bingo.

What was really happening was a major change in the economics of television, and your life.

In the very near future, content and commerce will be more closely tied than ever before—often indistinguishable. Think I’m exaggerating? Let me explain.

>The economics of TV

TV has always been about money, not entertainment. People forget that the programs they enjoy are really just there to fill in the space between the commercials (and get you to watch the commercials). That’s the bottom line. I’ve  worked at two of the three major networks and believe me, this is how they view television. Show business is, first and foremost, a business.

In the past, TV networks made money by selling ads. Lately, though, they’ve made money on shows themselves, either by producing the shows, or insisting that the producers of the show give them part ownership. (This is because popular shows can make hundreds of millions when they go into syndication for reruns—that’s how Jerry Seinfeld and his partner Larry David each earned over $200 million dollars last year).

Now as their market share slips because of cable and the internet, they’re looking for new ways to cash in on their viewers. On the web, the popular trend is to try to sell stuff to your site visitors. As long as they’re on your site anyway, why not make them pay for something, something perhaps related to their area of interest that brought them to the site.

But web sites tend to be “vertical,” meaning they’re specific to special interests. While there are many cable channels designed for vertical interests (such as cooking, music, sports, travel...), network TV has always been general, meaning it tries to appeal to as many people as possible. At the same time, TV is based on demographics—the networks work hard not only to figure out how many people are watching, but what kind of people are watching. This is why networks like CBS worry, even if they have a lot of viewers, if those viewers aren’t young enough or rich enough.

>New economics

Interestingly, the economics of “content” is changing on the web. It used to be that writers got most of their work from publications whose job it was to produce magazines or books. Magazines, like TV, traditionally make more money from advertising than subscriptions.

But lately, writers (myself included) have been hired directly by the companies with products, to write content for their sites, basically bypassing the middle-man publisher. They’re providing useful content to their customers and potential customers in order to get to them directly, which means they sell without a middleman, which means the potential for making more money.

TV is worried, because companies can do the same thing on cable (not to mention the web). So TV is willing to alienate some advertisers, as well as work with others, in order to sell to you, directly.

>Home shopping of the near future

So here’s how it will work. Let’s say you’re watching Friends, and you like that interesting lamp in the back left corner of Monica and Rachael’s apartment (you know, right near the bathroom). You aim your remote at it, and click a blue, diamond-shaped “info” button, and a box appears around the lamp. Then information about the lamp, its manufacturer, its features and price appear on the right of the screen, on top of the action (you don’t really care about Ross anymore anyway). You can zoom in on the lamp to get a closer look, see it from different angles, view the different colors and styles available. Then you can press the “buy” button, and the lamp is charged to your credit card and shipped to your address (both of which were provided by your cable company).

But it won’t stop with entertainment television.

  • Want Jennifer Aniston’s haircut? See a list of local hairstylists and make an appointment.
  • Like what Katie Couric is wearing? Aim and press the info button.
  • Interested in that big brooch Barbara Walters has on? Aim and press.
  • How about the Bobby Batista earring collection for CNN?
  • Did the Mona Lisa look nice on your web tour of the Louvre--chose between five grades of reproductions, from color Xerox to forgery-grade.
  • Want to go to the resort that Doug and Carol from ER are honeymooning at?
  • Like Scarlett’s green barbecue dress--it’s yours.
  • How about the Batmobile? Toy or life-sized, your choice.

Nothing will not be for sale, except perhaps the actors themselves (and even they will start to promote their own lines of clothing and accessories). I predicted this eight years ago, and while it’s taken longer than I expected to come to fruition, the movement officially started last night.

Think this is far fetched? Did you ever imagine that people would buy expensive jewelry over their TV? They do, by the hundreds of thousands on QVC and HSN. People can and do buy virtually every kind of item via mail order (and now web-based) catalogs. Going to stores has gotten more time consuming and more annoying, so remote shopping is getting increasingly popular.

And nothing generates interest more than TV.

What else is in store? How about Nordstrom’s Network or Macy’s Media. Retailers will have to fight back with lifestyle and entertainment programming carefully crafted to meet their customers’ demographics.

>What’s in it for you

Unless you’re a major company who can work out co-marketing deals with the network, or a product placement person who can place items from smaller companies, or a company that creates items so unique they can compete with the big companies, this could mean nothing to you—except a new way to buy things.

But it’s the lesson that’s valuable. The lesson that you should start to think about selling items that relate to your content. Or, if you have items to sell, content that relates to your items.

Time Warner´s popular PathFinder site is taking this route, using content as a draw to bring in shoppers.

>Today show

Want a hint of what’s going on? Visit NBC’s “enhanced TV” web site www.nbc.com/etv/. They aren’t promoting sales as a major feature (yet), right now they’re blathering on with stuff like this:

Saturday Night Live: Be a part of the 'studio audience' when you watch Saturday Night Live on WebTV for Windows. While the sketches unfold, viewers can chat with other fans, put in their two cents in special SNL polls, play games based on popular recurring characters, and more.

Each week, viewers receive content about the guest host and musical guest and the SNL cast, special behind the scenes information, a SNL trivia quiz, factoids and other fun applications relating to the show.

Tonight show: Interactive "Tonight Show" programming includes such special features as guest biographies and facts, band information, interactive trivia quizzes, fan information and other interactive enhancements.

This stuff is fine, but like the programs between the commercials, it’s not what’s going to drive this. Think: It’s the sales, stupid.

 

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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the web’s only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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