A Cautionary Tale for Marketers Eyeing Content Creation

In Trying to Build a Show Around eBay, Being the Star Was Not Enough

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The deal: EBay would have been the focus of a feel-good reality show this summer on ABC called "Buy It Now," produced by Madison Road Entertainment ("Treasure Hunters").

The result: The plug on the project gets pulled when an agreement with eBay can't be reached.

Just when ABC began promoting the project to media buyers before the broadcast upfront sale period, eBay decided against participating in the show. And without eBay there couldn't be a show.

EBay may offer customers the chance to "buy it now," but when it comes to producing a TV show, the company is saying "we'll try it later."

Last month, the online auction giant decided to pull out of a feel-good reality show, called "Buy It Now," that was set to air on ABC this summer.

The show, produced by Madison Road Entertainment (one of the companies behind NBC's "Treasure Hunters"), would have revolved around families looking to fulfill their dreams by placing their prized possessions up for sale on eBay, with friends and neighbors also chipping in to raise funds. In addition, there would have been sponsor-donated fantasy packages and mystery items up for sale. Money raised would be used to make the family's dreams a reality.

The show would have aired twice a week, on Mondays and Tuesdays at 9 p.m., starting July 31, with the first night devoted to the family and its dream, and the second night airing a live results show.

No eBay, no show

But just as the network began promoting the project to media buyers before the broadcast upfront sale period, eBay decided against participating in the show. And without eBay there couldn't be a show.

"Buy It Now" marks the second time eBay has opted not to go forward with a TV series centered around the auction powerhouse. In 2004, Sony Pictures TV started shopping a syndicated show it had spent several years developing with eBay.

The reasons for the recent move could serve as a cautionary tale for marketers and producers looking to develop concepts for TV.

For one, as opposed to other shows that interchangeably integrate products into programming, "Buy It Now" would have revolved entirely around eBay -- the original name of the series, "Make It Happen," was changed to better tie-in with the auction site.

But eBay wasn't closely involved with the concept's initial development. Madison Road developed the concept, landed the interest of ABC, and the two pitched eBay executives with the idea in January at a meeting during which they made eBay an offer to be part of the project.

'Never had an active role'

"We weren't driving the actual development of the show," said Sravanthi Agrawal, a spokeswoman for eBay. "We never had an active role in the process."

Despite the heavy focus on eBay, the company would not have owned the show. ABC was footing much of the bill for the series, thus controlling the creative and how the site and brand would ultimately appear on-screen with producers at Madison Road.

As a result, ABC was looking to secure eBay's involvement in the show as part of a talent-holding deal for a set period of time. It needed to make sure eBay couldn't leave the project for any reason.

But eBay's executives and legal team were hesitant to sign on the dotted line.

They wanted the flexibility to ditch the project should it prove a failure in the ratings, something that could hurt the company's stock price, given that it's publicly traded.

Free to call it quits

At the same time, they wanted the option to leave the series at any time even if it became an instant hit. After all, eBay isn't an entertainment company; it's not used to producing programming, and it wanted to be able to call it quits if it felt a tie-in with a TV show wasn't something it wanted as part of its marketing plans. The company just didn't want to be locked down to a deal that called for it to be involved with a show for several years.

Under terms of the Sony deal in 2004, eBay could have walked away from the project, which it ultimately did. It wasn't interested in owning a show. It still isn't. The company doesn't even have an internal executive devoted to branded entertainment.

"You can lock an actor to a show for several years. It's different when you're dealing with a company," said a producer close to the project. "They have different objectives. It didn't want to get dragged to the altar forever."

ABC couldn't agree to the flexibility eBay wanted. If the show proved successful, it didn't want a rival network to swoop in and create a rival series with eBay or pay off the company to drop out of the show entirely.

"The question was raised, Can anybody afford to give them an out?" the producer said. "ABC wanted to say that eBay couldn't go anywhere. EBay wanted to address it later on down the road."

Free exposure vs. on-air presence

EBay doesn't have a problem with producers showing the company's websites or logo on screen. In fact, it encourages it, without any additional costs; it's seen as free exposure for the company.

But ABC also wanted more than just eBay's on-air presence.

It was hoping to turn eBay into a major marketing platform to promote the show to the site's more than 200 million members around the world and the more than 70 million people in the U.S. who visit the site each month, according to ComScore Media Metrix, essentially guaranteeing the series an instant audience.

"If we couldn't use the eBay platform, we couldn't make the show," the producer said.

Ultimately, a deal could not be worked out in time for the show's planned airdate. Casting had already begun. And Flody Suarez (ABC's "8 Simple Rules") and Jay Blumenfield and Tony Marsh (CBS' "Tuesday Night Book Club") were brought on as show runners and executive producers.

"We couldn't reach an agreement" with eBay on the show, a spokeswoman for ABC said. The network had no further comment.

Technically, eBay pulled out of a project it never officially was on board to make. Talks between eBay, Madison Road and ABC may have taken place, but no contracts were ever signed.

"It wasn't that we weren't interested," Ms. Agrawal said. "It wasn't that we decided not to do it. Things never really went anywhere."

Deadline was fast approaching

Producers said "Buy It Now" could still have made it on the air had everyone had more time to negotiate, even just another two weeks to work out the deal points. But the show had to start running July 31. Starting any later would have moved episodes into the fall.

An eBay show could still make it to the air sometime soon. Madison Road is still working with ABC to develop "Buy It Now" into a show for mid-season or next summer. And eBay is still interested in the concept, as well as other potential TV projects.

"We're always open to working with other mediums," Ms. Agrawal said. "There are always interesting projects out there. If the right one comes along, we'll consider it."
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