EBay, Classmates try TV crossover

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Despite the seeming synergy between popular Web sites and TV, efforts so far to create syndicated content branded with well-known online destinations have failed to really catch fire.

EBay and Sony Pictures Television have been working for nearly three years to launch "eBay-TV," a daily strip based on the popular online auction site. The show most recently had been pegged for a fall 2004 launch, after being postponed for a year, and Sony had even been advertising the show's impending debut. But now that launch date is looking shaky.

An eBay spokesman says the contract with Sony has expired, "but we are continuing to explore ways we can work together." Sony, meanwhile, had little to say about "eBay-TV" at January's National Association of Television Programming Executives conference, choosing instead to promote other syndicated fare such as "Pat Croce: Moving In."

Another online property, Classmates.com, launched "Classmates" on Fox owned-and-operated stations in 25 markets last July. But syndicator Twentieth Television hasn't yet decided whether the show, which reunites long-lost loves and old friends, has the legs to go national.

At first blush, translating popular Web sites to TV would seem easy. EBay boasts nearly 95 million registered members who conducted 971 million auctions last year. Classmates.com counts 38 million members and is one of the most widely recognized brands on the Internet.

So what's going on? In eBay's case, the delay is apparently related to the complexity of the program. Sony has hyped "eBay-TV" as a "whole new genre of television programming," and TV stations that bought the show would have gotten an e-commerce engine enabling them to conduct their own auctions. But problems with the software have contributed to the delay, industry observers say.

Additionally, Sony and eBay can't agree on the show's format, industry observers say. After shooting a pilot with Molly Pesce (formerly of "The Daily Show") , Sony brought in sports announcer (and "Celebrity Mole: Yucatan" host) Ahmad Rashad last year as co-host and reshot some material. The show's pitch: a mix of news features and personality stories, with some auction how-to thrown in.

COMPATIBILITY DILEMMA

There's also the question of whether eBay, with its fast-paced, real-time auction environment, even fits with syndication, where shows are often produced in advance and air at different times in each TV market.

The show must have an interactive component to work, says Ralph Toddre, president-chief operating officer of Sunbelt Communications, owner of KRNV in Reno, Nev., where eBay and Sony earlier tested some concepts. Viewers could visit the station's Web site and bid on items.

"It was incredibly successful," Mr. Toddre says. "I was impressed with the whole concept-if they pull it off correctly."

The more "eBay-TV" gets delayed, the less interesting it is to some media buyers. "The question that lingers in the back of my head is `Is [the] eBay [Web site] past its prime from a buzz perspective?' " says Terri McKinzie, assistant media director with Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA, Chicago.

Neither eBay nor Sony would comment on the show's difficulties. "We're still working with them to find a program and a concept that we both feel will work," the eBay spokesman says. At Sony, a spokeswoman states: "We are continuing to work with eBay to develop a show."

If eBay's challenge is to create a new genre of syndicated show, the problem with "Classmates" may be that it's not original enough. The show's format is a common theme on TV talk shows-maybe too much so to sustain a five-day-a-week program.

"The reunion idea is not new," says David Campanelli, senior buyer with Horizon Media, New York. "To have that be the theme every single day of the week 52 weeks a year seems redundant to me."

"These kinds of stories are human interest stories and resonate well with all of us," counters Derek Streat, VP-partner sales at Classmates.com. "We're in a very good position to consolidate those stories both online and offline." One sign that he may be right: Classmates.com has received more than 30,000 submissions from people hoping for a reunion with someone on the TV show.

News Corp.'s Twentieth Television declined to comment on its plans for the show, which has been airing on Fox stations as part of Twentieth's regional rollout strategy for syndicated programming. So far, ratings for "Classmates" haven't been stellar. For the measurement period of November 2003, "Classmates" had an average household rating of 1.4, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Even if the concepts haven't been perfected, there's still a lot of interest in the marketing opportunities that could arise from TV shows based on Web sites. It's easy for ad executives to imagine a one-two punch combining the reach of TV and the targeting accuracy of the Internet.

MEMORABILIA LINK

"If you've got a great property online, there's a great boiling pot of ideas that could potentially be launched into television products," says Ms. McKinzie. "EBay-TV" could feature classic Kellogg Co. or Coca-Cola Co. memorabilia, she says, with a link to a live auction on the eBay Web site.

"Classmates" has already mined that territory. Hotel chain Best Western International sponsored its initial episodes, and Best Western properties were used as filming locations. Best Western also advertised on the Classmates.com Web site.

"As personal video recorders take over, there's going to be an increasing amount of pressure on traditional advertising," says Bill Jacoby, Best Western's director-consumer marketing. "If you can get your product as an integral part of the show, that helps."

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