During a recent episode of NBC's "Songland" -- a prime-time show featuring aspiring songwriters who compete to create hit songs -- viewers were treated to a new form of high-tech advertising.
Midway through the episode, Ryan Tedder, a Grammy Award-winning singer and producer featured as a judge on the show, tinkered with an eye-catching, illuminated keyboard called Lumi. As Tedder played the instrument, a QR code casually appeared at the bottom of the screen with instructions that read more like commands than suggestions: "Open Camera, Scan Code, Shop Now."
In the minutes after the code appeared, NBCUniversal executives say, thousands of viewers did exactly that, using their smartphones to link directly to a website where Lumi was available for purchase. To get there, they didn't have to download an app, call a shopping network in a limited time frame or embark on an online hunt. And that, executives say, was precisely the point.
"The Holy Grail has always been you seeing a person on TV talking about a product or wearing a product and being able to buy that product right now," said Josh Feldman, NBCUniversal's executive vice president in charge of marketing and advertising creative partnerships. "In the past there's been friction. You have to leave your screen and go to the Internet and search for that product."
"Nobody has ever done this before in television," Feldman added. "It's real time results and we can do this across the entire NBC portfolio."
The name for this new fusion of entertainment and mobile commerce is readily comprehensible, and purposefully so: "ShoppableTV." It's the latest attempt, among many, to add interactivity to what is essentially a passive medium, and it arrives as traditional television scrambles to adapt to new pressures.
Not only are audiences inundated by various streams of content, they've grown increasingly accustomed to navigating an entertainment landscape using their smartphones and without commercial interruption thanks to on-demand services like Netflix and HBO. In response, NBC executives are attempting to camouflage advertising inside televised content, pairing advertisers and audiences in a way that feels organic and doesn't prompt people to change the channel.
ShoppableTV's QR codes don't demand attention for long stretches. They appear on screen for about 30 seconds, enough time, executives believe, for viewers to unlock their smartphones and point a camera at the screen.
Though ShoppableTV is in its infancy, NBC says its already been rolled out on several occasions beyond Songland. During the French Open this summer, a code allowed television viewers to purchase clothing from Lacoste's Novak Djokovic Collection during matches featuring the Serbian tennis star -- an event that the network labeled a "first ever live shoppable event."
"You can purchase what Novak is wearing on the court," an announcer said during the sports broadcast, barely concealing his own surprise. "Show up at your grocery store with that exact same outfit."
On NBC's "Today," a QR code linked viewers to Walmart and during the Tour de France viewers were able to purchase Zwift, a virtual training program for running and cycling. The "Today" segment, which included encouragement from host Savannah Guthrie and contributor Jill Martin, resulted in about 50,000 QR code scans in five minutes, NBCUniversal said.
In addition to tracking the number of code scans, NBCUniversal can track their viewer's particular purchases, providing the network with a portion of sales revenue generated by the ads. NBCUniversal said it doesn't retain any other customer data, such as which shows individual customers watch and shop on. The company declined to provide specific sales figures from previous ShoppableTV moments, but said the conversion rate -- the number of website visitors who make a purchase -- was 30 percent higher than the e-commerce average.
Merging content with shopping is already commonplace online. Instagram and Facebook both allow users to place shopping tags on posts and stories that direct their audience to a product description page and then directly to a website.
Interactive television -- also known as "two-way TV" -- is hardly a novel concept either. Even older, experts say, is the idea that what viewers see on their television screens can be purchased in the real world.
"As early as 1944, Macy's brought this concept to television, scheduling Tele-Shopping with Martha Manning (later renamed Macy's Teleshopping) on DuMont's WABD New York," Lee McGuigan, a PHD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania writes in his 2018 paper, "Selling Jennifer Aniston's Sweater: The Persistence of Shoppability in Framing Television's Future."
"Over the next two years, Gimbels in Philadelphia and Kaufmann's in Pittsburgh commissioned short television productions, for in-store exhibition, to showcase merchandise such as women's apparel," McGuigan adds.
Veterans of the 1970s television may remember what was at the time a daring experiment known as Qube. Launched in Columbus, Ohio, the cable television network allowed subscribers to interact with programs via multiple choice questions and polls that were administered via oversized remote controls of such heft they resembled a book several hundred pages thick.
In his 1995 book, "The Road Ahead," Microsoft founder Bill Gates, predicted that interactive television would be one entry-point, among several, into the world of commerce, according to a blistering New York Times review at the time.
A few years later, an awkward, hand-held bar code named CueCat emerged. Like a complicated QR code before its time, the device allowed users to open webpages by scanning bar codes placed in ads that had been published in magazines and newspapers. The company that created the product, Digital Convergence Corporation, went belly up a year later.
Josh Bernoff, a media analyst who has studied efforts to turn television into a storefront, has written that ShoppableTV is CueCat "all over again." He estimates that ShoppableTV is among the fifth wave of attempts to create interactive television. Among the industry, he said, the aspirational idea has for decades been accompanied by it's own figurative phrase: "Buying Jennifer Anniston's sweater," an achievement that, if attained, would represent the pinnacle of merging commerce and popular televised content. For that reason, he said, the goal has long enthralled television execs.
But selling Anniston's sweater to audiences as it appears on screen has proved an elusive goal. And like all efforts that have come before, he said, the latest wave is also doomed to failure.
"It's a bad idea that continues to come around again and again," Bernoff said.
Despite new advances in technology and complex digital marketing strategies, the reason, Bernoff said, is so glaringly obvious it's easily missed.
"If you look at the history of television and how people interact with it, there's been huge advances in the level of quality and huge advances in convenience -- things like streaming video on demand. But getting people to interact with what's on their television has always been difficult."
"People are just generally not in the mood for shopping while they're watching TV," he added.
But NBC executives would appear to disagree and say they are "doubling down" on investments in new technology to bring mobile, commerce and TV together. Unlike the past, they say consumers have an "all screen mentality," a nod to the idea that people increasingly expect their devices to be synchronized.
"Everybody that you know is watching TV with their mobile device in their hand or directly next to them," Feldman said. "When we talk about a product on 'The Today Show' we know people will immediately do searches and buy that product. We hear that from marketers all the time."
Research shows that audiences overwhelmingly prefer innovative ads over traditional ads and are 85 percent more likely to remember the brand, he added.
For now, he noted, the network is not including ShoppableTV in scripted shows and is concentrating instead on live events and unscripted cable programming. Among the network's unscripted lineup are shows like "Top Chef," "Project Runway" and "The Voice."
NBC is also confident it can tailor advertising to niche demographics. Between two broadcast networks and 10 cable networks, Feldman said NBCUniversal reaches 90 percent of the U.S. audience each month.
"Our legacy television business has been built off hundreds of the same advertisers," Feldman said. "This now allows non-national television advertising brands to come and partner with us, integrate into shows and sell directly to audiences."