I Want My eBay-TV!

Two molecules float in the vast universe. What are the odds they can connect to forge a harmonious bond benefiting both?

Slim to none.

Many Web successes became so because they facilitate processes just as unlikely. Online dating. Reuniting old friends. Finding an individual in Wichita willing to pay big bucks for an ashtray that wouldn’t fetch a nickel at your garage sale. Connecting you with vnyljunky, who’s generous with MP3s of coveted bootleg recordings.

One to one. Peer to peer. Intimacy. Interactivity. On a level unthinkable before the Web connected us.

Then, there’s TV: Passive. Mass. Linear.

TV and the Web. They’re both media, appearing on a screen near you. In many ways, they’re polar opposites. It was expected television would migrate online. Many brands, such as CNN and MTV, did so with great success.

Switcheroo

Now, two of the most wildly successful Web brands are migrating to TV. Print, too. It’s about marketing, of course. Will it work? How do you define success in uncharted terrain, anyway?

eBay, a sponsor of “Antiques Roadshow,” is at work with Columbia TriStar Television Distribution and another partner on “eBay-TV.” The syndicated reality/magazine program will showcase collectors and the human drama behind the quest for the perfect tchotchke. Classmates’s branded reality show just went into development. The first issue of its branded magazine arrives in members’ snail-mail boxes this month.

“They’re definitely leveraging the brand. They’ll reach more people for less dollars than they could with advertising when a TV producer pays for their intellectual property,” observes Kay Koplovitz. The founder and long-time CEO of USA Networks knows a thing or two about pioneering television. She now receives accolades for new media ventures. “Are they enhancing what they do best so more people access the product and use it on a one-to-one basis? eBay has a big footprint. But it probably doesn’t cover as many people as you’d think. They’re not all hardcore eBay addicts,” Kay says of the ballyhooed near-50 million figure of registered eBayers.

Classmates can boast the largest subscriber base on the Web for paid content. Consistently top-ranked for traffic, it claims 50,000 new members daily.

Big Web numbers are small potatoes in TV Land.

“Thirty-one million members is a solid start,” insists Michael Schutzler, Classmates’s CEO. “Our content is human drama. People reconnect after 20 years, find birth parents, get jobs through a college buddy they rediscovered who is in the same business. Cool things and great stories. Media love it. They say we’re made for magazines and TV.”

In a Classmates survey, 43 percent of its members said they would watch a TV broadcast featuring their own high school reunion. Cosmic molecules again. What’re the odds they’ll broadcast my high school reunion? Or yours? “It’s an irrelevant statistic,” says Schutzler, “We’ll tell a story: What were you thinking? What was it like when you opened that email from a long-lost friend? Internet content is ephemeral. It’s hard to tell these stories in the context of our site. The physical touch point of the magazine [or program] is important.”

Advertisers in the magazine are of the same caliber as Classmates’s online sponsors, including Johnson & Johnson, Volkswagen, and Renaissance Cruises. “A couple years ago, the X10 camera and online casinos weren’t the kind of advertisers likely to advertise in print,” says Schutzler.

The mag will be sent, free of charge, to Classmates’s subscribers. Stories will drive readers to the site for deeper background (and vice versa). Schutzler used NBC’s “Dateline” as a comparison: “For more on this story, visit our Web site.” He doesn’t point out a critical difference: Dateline’s site requests no personal data or paid membership in exchange for access to that extra info. He hopes for brand resonance of a Web-print-TV triumvirate like that achieved by Oprah. Or Martha. He promises the same content won’t be repurposed for different media but will complement each specific medium while echoing the core brand.

Although Classmates and eBay may be industrial-strength Web brands, can they become more than the sum of their logos? I can imagine having lunch with Martha Stewart (though I’d rather not dwell on that image). Attempts to conjure the personality of eBay or Classmates are nebulous, at best. And I’ve never even watched Martha (really), but I am on eBay more than I care to admit.

Kay Koplovitz reminded me media transplants are notoriously ill-fated. National Geographic aside, virtually every magazine that tried to spawn a TV series fell flat, some more than once. Media analyst Janet Stilson recalls Web ventures such as Inside.com that went thud in print.

eBay and Classmates seem aware of this and are treading with caution. “eBay-TV,” announced a year ago and slated to launch this season, is still finding its form. We probably won’t see it before 2003. No one I spoke with at either eBay or Columbia TriStar could say for certain whether the format would be hour or half-hour or what the programming balance would be, other than that it would be nonfiction. There were vague hints of possible celebrity involvement. eBay spokesperson Chris Donlay echoes Classmates when he says the show will be “connection and great stories. And we hope it will drive more people to eBay. This is about awareness and spotlighting.”

Programming With a Back End

Trade teaser ads for “eBay-TV” promise “a way to tap into the classified advertising market and attract local print dollars… we can create exclusive local promotions that no one else in the market can touch.”

Aha! eBay’s not just selling a show and showcasing its brand in the hope of driving people to the site. Stations that air the series can license eBay’s API, a customizable e-commerce platform. Would Classmates’s program also have a tech license somewhere in the background? “Content and functionality? Sure,” says Schutzler.

Schutzler went on to say his company is in talks with potential partners in Italy, the U.K., Spain, Hong Kong, and Canada about localized versions of Classmates. “Maybe TV or print is the best way in and not a site,” he mused.

Do eBay’s and Classmates’s offline media ventures have to succeed to succeed? Kay says, “Unless it’s TV, it’s not TV.”

I’m not so sure this is supposed to be TV. eBay and Classmates are leveraging their brands, mostly at others’ expense. They’re selling content they possess (stories and background) but cannot leverage online. They’ll license their software and functionality to local broadcasters with limited resources for Web development. They’ll increase awareness without upping ad spending. Increased Web visits, if they happen, will enrich their already vast data stores. They’ll sell higher-margin print and broadcast ads. If the media ventures grease the skids into foreign partnerships, that’s gravy.

What if the shows bomb? The producers take the biggest hit. eBay and Classmates will get a wee nip of negative ink, then the little foray into Old Media will quickly become archived content.

They’ll go back to doing what they do best, do successfully, and do profitably.

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