Express has been trying to make those visions come to life.
Late last year, the financial-services company partnered with cable
networks owned by NBC Universal as well as News Corp.'s Fox broadcast outlet to
dabble in a nascent world in which TV viewers make a decision to
buy certain items in scripted shows on the screen in front of
At NBC Universal, American Express took part in a plan that let
viewers purchase products "inspired by" NBC Universal programs
directly from a mobile device while the programs are airing. The
company's DailyCandy website selected the products that might
appeal to viewers of shows such as Bravo's "Life After Top Chef,"
E!'s "Fashion Police" and Style's "Tia & Tamera." American
Express card members could receive $35 back when they use an
eligible American Express Card, synced with their Facebook or
Twitter accounts, to purchase one of the products.
At the center of the concept was Zeebox, the social-TV app in
which NBC Universal and its parent Comcast Corp. took a
stake earlier in 2012. The app, which works on certain tablets and
smartphones, lets users converse in real time with friends who are
watching the same show, or follow related Twitter and Facebook
feeds. It also offers information about how to purchase
show-related items such as couture and kitchenware.
Over at Fox, American Express sponsored an effort that allowed
viewers using the new Fox Now iPad app to shop in real time while
watching "New Girl." Each week, "New Girl" featured at least one
item -- which could be a piece of jewelry or a household item like
salt-and-pepper shakers -- made available for purchase.
Will buyers of salt shakers today move on to move expensive
items tomorrow? The hope is that couch potatoes -- or whatever the
equivalent of a hardcore TV fan is in 2013 -- will start out with
small doodads -- more a novelty than anything else -- and grow more
comfortable shopping in this fashion, said Lou Paskalis, VP-global
media content development and mobile marketing at American Express.
"Our mission is to connect different buyers and sellers together,"
What American Express is actually doing, however, is making a
bet on the future of TV (or whatever set of devices and behaviors
ultimately replace it). Is television to remain a one-way funnel of
content that gets piped in to the living room from Big Hollywood,
or is TV's content something that can prompt chatter and response
-- and purchases -- as new technology eliminates many of the
differences between the TV screen and the tablet window or computer
These are riddles advertisers will need to solve as the
demographic they most like to woo -- consumers between 18 and 49 --
undergoes a radical shift. With the baby boomer generation heading
into its 50s and 60s, the population swatches known as "Generation
X" -- ages 33 to 46 -- and "Generation Y" -- ages 24 to 32 -- are
According to market-research consultant Forrester, more than a
third of so-called "GenXers" have a household income of more than
$100,000, and have the highest spending levels online. Forrester
reported Gen Xers spent an average of $561 online in the three
months ended January 15, compared with an average of $449 for all
U.S. online shoppers. Meantime, "GenYers" are most savvy about
using mobile devices to get things done. The group has the highest
adoption rates, according to Forrester: 25% of online consumers in
the age group own a tablet and 72% own a smartphone.
But what neither group wants is a group of ads getting in the
way of their TV programming or how they use their new gizmos.
That's why American Express sees partnering with content producers
to be of benefit, said Mr. Paskalis -- TV viewers would rather
converse about what drew them to their screens in the first place
-- the programming -- more than nearly anything else.
"Put the consumer first. Give them the choice. Let them decide.
Don't talk at them. Reason with them, he said. "This is meant to do
Fox, NBC and their rivals are experts in the business of selling
their programming, but they may want to dip their toes into the
business of e-commerce as well. To be sure, many networks are
involved in licensing rights to various parties for the creation of
merchandise around their top pieces of content, but helping
sponsors sell actual goods from the screen is a different type of
"As viewer habits change and technology continues to evolve, and
scale gets more elusive, context and impact mean everything," said
Linda Yaccarino, president of NBC Universal ad sales during a
November interview, noting that more sponsors were seeking ways to
play off the content their advertising supports instead of just
running commercials that have little to do with the programs.
Fox also expects more advertisers to seek out similar ideas.
Advertisers "are looking for more interaction" when they do deals
that tie them to specific programs, said Jean Rossi, president of
News Corp.'s Fox One cross-media sales unit and exec VP-sales for
Fox Broadcasting Co., in a November interview.