In his valedictory speech after 23 years in the UK House of Commons, the Labour MP Chris Mullin pithily assessed the current era of consumerism, globalization and technological advance with the laconic observation that ‘I continue to doubt that there is a long term future for an economy based on shopping’. Indeed, it often appears that the end function of much-lauded technological innovation is merely to grease the wheels of consumer expenditure: recent years have elicited much comment on how Internet shopping transcends the stressful physicality of the high street, facilitating the sedentary nirvana of click-click-click-buy. Easy, you might think; but there are those whose business plans and entire future strategy depends on making it even easier. And much of this current thinking rests on one universal unchallengeable truth: there is nothing easier than sitting on the sofa and watching an episode of Friends.
Sure, we’ve all been there: the ritual sacrifice of productivity offered up every weekday in the form of the perennial afternoon double-bill (I’m looking at you, E4), the easy humour of Chandler and Joey lending a welcome sense of structure to the empty days of the young and the unemployed. But where is this going, you may well ask – why Friends? The answer being that that is where the concept of TV commerce, or ‘T-commerce’, was first mooted when the celebrated NBC sitcom was at its zenith in 1990s America. The sheer popularity of the programme led technologists to promote the notion of viewers clicking a ‘buy’ button on their remote controls as they watched, purchasing anything from quirky salt-and-pepper shakers to Jennifer Aniston’s sweatwear. It is only now, however, that such technology is ready to be formally introduced, in the form of a full suite of TV apps from Fox Broadcasting Company branded FOX NOW.
Fox has teamed up with American Express to deliver a new ‘T-commerce’ platform that allows consumers to shop in real time while watching, initially at least, the show New Girls. ‘Every episode of some shows will have some merchandise associated with it, and the app will make it available for purchase,’ said Hardie Tankersley, Fox's vice president of platforms and innovation. In commercializing entertainment, therefore, old notions of ‘product placement’ are taken to their logical nth degree, as the small screen morphs into a kind of Grand Bazaar; a limitless shopping mall where momentary impulses and passing whims may be instantly gratified. Interactive Argos catalogues masquerading as situation comedies: pity the parents of small children around the festive season.
Fox has made it plain that these new technologies go hand in hand with greater audience participation and interaction in its television output. ‘Fox has, by far, the most socially engaged audience of any broadcast network’, said David Wertheimer, President of Digital for Fox Broadcasting Company, ‘so we’ve built these FOX NOW apps with the goal of extending that experience’. Such is, of course, the perfect opportunity to connect buyers and sellers at the precise moment demand is created. ‘T-commerce’ is thus a venture full of dichotomy and paradox: featuring products both randomly situated and inherently structured, the whole enterprise fuses simultaneously the glamour of TV celebrity and the arbitrariness of a jumble sale – television as the last word in bric-a-brac. Such a development, however, leaves no doubt that TV remains an enormous source of potential revenue; since a majority of consumers still make purchasing decisions based on advertisements they see on television, introducing a way to buy the advertised products effortlessly could be a huge opportunity.