Five Easy Pieces — Television’s 1993 future is being recreated on the Internet

Content + Commerce

Executive summary

In the 1990s, the vision of the future of television was as a platform for commerce — home shopping. More than two decades later, the same ‘shop what you see’ concept is being applied to digital media and, after an unsuccessful pivot to video, said to be the business model that will save publishers from waning advertising income. One of many current ventures exploring this is NTWRK, a streaming platform backed by LeBron James and Jimmy Iovine that “will give consumers access to live by-appointment drops featuring exclusive, limited-edition product available to purchase immediately within its app.” Will it succeed? By revisiting the 1993 documentary The Future of Television and, how attempts played out in the ’90s, the tension between publishing and commerce becomes clear and lets us figure out how the Content + Commerce strategy will play out this time.

The persistent future of media

The medium is largely irrelevant to the message

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan‘s now famous expression ’“the medium is the message” captures in a few word his view that as the medium a publisher uses changes, so does the meaning of the content. If this were true, it would mean that the business of the publisher changes, too. But looking at the history of massmedia it seems that the opposite is true. There have only ever been three sources of revenue for publishers:

  • Subscriptions

  • Advertising

  • Events

That is to say that the future of publishing is largely the same as its past. 

Why publishers want to become merchants, and vice versa

Retailers crave what publishers have: content that keeps a steady stream of users visiting their properties. By purchasing ads on these properties, retailers can tap into the audiences and turn the property into a channel for sales. Jealously, publishers look at merchants and dream about selling products to their own audience, and receiving hundreds of dollars per sale instead of a few cents per click.

The Future of Television

“Home shopping might seem an unlikely blueprint for the future of the entertainment, information and communication industries, but home shopping has two great advantages over the rest of the media world. Home shopping makes its millions by being interactive. You see products on the screen and then buy them with your credit card. Television tomorrow, the pundits all agree, will be interactive.”

How it played out

In The Future of Television, former Hollywood mogul Barry Diller is interviewed about Q2, the new home shopping channel he was setting up: A TV channel that would take an editorial approach to “provide creative solutions to everyday problems” such as “how to look great without living in a gym, finding the computer that’s meant for you… buying and using a mountain bike, turning your bathtub into a spa…“ and of course, let viewers become consumers by buying what they saw. Q2 would eventually fail to reach it goals and Diller left the company, and the culprit was the poor content the channel turned out, lacking any semblance of story: “a single producer and a group of product coordinators, accompanied by five robotic cameras, with a director and two engineers in the control room above, followed the host — described as an ‘explainer’ as he or she displayed merchandise or interviewed celebrities and designers who marketed products carrying their signatures.” Instead of thousand-dollar designer pieces from Diane von Furstenberg, the channel was only able to sell simulated gems, macrame sweaters and coffee-table knickknacks.

Storyteller or salesman?

While on the surface it looks like there is a synergy between content and commerce, that surface is in fact thick with tension. What publishers offer their audiences is fundamentally stories, whether in the form of news or pure entertainment. In recent years, publishers have made similar attempts and failed. Vogue’s revamp of into an e-commerce play stands out as one of the largest failures, taking years to build, closing down just 8 months after launch and resulting in a loss of $100m. Others that have tried to integrate, like Refinery29, quickly found that running and operating a media content business and e-commerce site are two fundamentally different things. This is to say that the marrying of content with commerce can never fully happen, because what audiences want is stories but merchants only want to talk about products--their content eventually turn into pure advertising which no one will tune in to watch. You cannot be two things at once — you’re either a storyteller, or a salesman.