EBay Inc., the online auctioneer, wants to see if its popularity can translate to a bigger medium than the Internet: television.
Sony Pictures Television last week taped a pilot for an EBay television show — with sports personality Ahmad Rashad and former “Daily Show” contributor Molly Pesce — that, if all goes well, could hit the airwaves in fall 2004.
The show probably would not involve the actual sale of goods, but instead would package feature stories on items for sale on EBay with referrals to the Web site.
EBay views the show as a way to extend its brand and drive traffic to its Web sites, rather than make money directly from the show. “We’re more concerned about building EBay,” EBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove said.
“We’re looking at television . . . . to attract more users who may know about EBay but, for one reason or another, have not made an effort to use the site,” Pursglove said. “It’s also another vehicle for us to connect with our current users or people who have an account but haven’t bothered to go to EBay. ”
While the show could become a profit center someday, in the short term, EBay wants to inspire viewers to leave the living room, get online and start clicking, bidding and buying.
A pack of unopened baseball cards? An Arnold Schwarzenegger poster? A house in Montana? Tickets to see Bruce Springsteen? It could all be fodder for EBay-
Selling such a show to television stations could be a tremendous challenge, according to Matt McAllister, an associate professor of communications at Virginia Tech.
First of all, McAllister said, the show does not fit a typical television genre. “It’s not an off-network comedy, it’s not a reality show, it’s not a talk show and it’s not a game show,” he said.
The late afternoon-early evening time slots that EBay and Sony are considering are already crowded with the likes of Oprah Winfrey and her talk compatriots, local television news, and game shows like “Jeopardy.”
“Those are big giants they’ll have to take down,” McAllister said.
“They’ll have to convince (stations) it will catch on and that they’ll have enough material for an hour show five nights a week — I’m still flabbergasted by that,” he said.
To EBay’s advantage, however, is its status as “one of the megabrands of the Internet,” McAllister said. “It has brand recognition. It’s a real Internet success story. All of that the TV people like.”
EBay also boasts a worldwide membership of 75 million people. Even one- tenth — or one-fiftieth — of that total would be a significant audience in television. (One-fiftieth would be 1.5 million people; not too shabby in today’s fragmented television world.)
Still, McAllister questions how many of those users are rabidly loyal and how many, like him, use EBay for “a real surgical strike.”
And once they tune in, will they stay?
EBay has been working on the show for the past two years, not quite hitting a saleable concept. The San Jose firm, which in its last reported quarter had record profit of $109.7 million (33 cents per share) on revenue of $509.3 million, has tried other brand extensions. It had a magazine in 1999 that folded in 2000 (although it may try again, Pursglove said). It runs EBay Radio online, hosted by Jim Griffith, the “dean” of EBay University — another brand extension.
But EBay has learned it needs to stick with what it knows best, Pursglove said, citing the example of buying offline auctioneers — such as San Francisco’s Butterfield and Butterfield — and then selling them when the acquisitions didn’t work out. That’s why EBay is teaming with Sony, producer of more than 30 shows on the air now, including the “King of Queens,” “The Guardian,” “The Shield,” “The Rikki Lake Show” and “Days of Our Lives.” That muscle could help sell EBay-TV.
In a world in which Oprah Winfrey can turn her brand into a successful magazine and Martha Stewart is almost ubiquitous in print and on the air, nearly every successful brand seems to feel a need to jump into a new medium.
But Ed Robertson, a Vallejo author who has written about television and popular culture, cites the miserable failure of a USA Today television show as a cautionary tale for EBay.
“There’s a certain amount of people who are loyal, who are rabid and who will buy anything related to the brand,” he said. “But on a large-scale level, with only a few exceptions, that doesn’t always translate to success.”