Amazon's Content Play Helps Drive Sales

Web-based Talk Show Attracts Writers, Musicians Looking to Plug Products

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The deal: In a first for a retailer, launches a weekly talk show on its website to promote its wares.

The result: Only weeks after the show's debut, "Fishbowl," hosted by comedian Bill Maher, is already starting to help sell the books, music and movies showcased during interviews.

Bill Maher, host of 'Fishbowl,' has helped Amazon spur sales. A spokesman for the online retailer says 'response from customers has exceeded our expectations.'

On Bill Maher's newest talk show, the usually irreverent host of HBO's "Real Time" doesn't curse or even argue with his guests. In fact, he's almost Mr. Nice Guy.

Then again, this isn't HBO; this is

On June 1, the online retailing giant launched "Fishbowl," a weekly talk show on which Mr. Maher interviews authors, musicians, TV personalities and filmmakers to discuss their latest projects.

Guests so far have included authors Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Chuck Klosterman, Thomas Friedman and Christopher Noxon; music acts Rob Thomas, Taking Back Sunday and the Dixie Chicks; and filmmakers Jon Favreau and Sydney Pollack.

A first for any retailer

The TV-like gabfest is a first for Amazon -- actually a first for any retailer -- and has quickly become a clever branded-entertainment vehicle to promote products available for purchase on the dot-com.

Each half hour features Mr. Maher opening with a monologue, which then proceeds into three interviews and a musical performance.

But with "Fishbowl" being a form of branded entertainment, marketers such as Cingular and UPS are also integrated into the programming.

Episodes include the "UPS Special Delivery" segment, in which a celebrity unexpectedly shows up at an Amazon customer's home with an item they ordered. Paul Reiser, the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, and Jim Cramer, host of CNBC's "Mad Money," have surprised customers.

Amazon hasn't completely neutered Mr. Maher of his snarky humor. Episodes of "Fishbowl" still find him making "Brangelina" baby jokes and mocking Michael Jackson.

"If Michael Jackson came out with an album as good as 'Thriller,' he could sleep with as many little boys as he wanted," Mr. Maher said while interviewing the Dixie Chicks.

Getting in front of 50 million consumers

Amazon declined to disclose financial details, but as is the case for most brand-backed projects, "Fishbowl's" sponsors likely offset much of the production costs in an effort to put themselves in front of consumers -- in this case, the nearly 50 million consumers who visit each month, according to comScore Media Metrix.

Amazon has produced five episodes of "Fishbowl" to date, including a pilot that was shot at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January. The rest of the episodes are taped in front of an audience in Hollywood. Twelve are expected to air altogether, with new installments appearing Thursday nights through Aug. 17.

But Amazon isn't forcing viewers to watch each half hour in full. Individual interviews also appear on pages for products created by guests on the show.

"Fishbowl" is executive produced by Billy Martin, who also produces "Real Time" for Mr. Maher. United Talent Agency, which reps Amazon's entertainment efforts in Hollywood, helped package the project and also helps book the show's guests.

Amazon declined to disclose the number of viewers the show is attracting, but Andrew Herdener, a spokesman for said "response from customers has exceeded our expectations." That's without much promotion at all. The show is only promoted to audiences on Amazon.

"The most important thing we're measuring is feedback from customers, and so far it's been overwhelmingly positive," Mr. Herdener said.

Sales jump from exposure

That feedback naturally also includes sales, which for most items featured on the show have soared immediately from exposure. The site earns nearly three-quarters of its total revenue from sales of books, music and movies.

For example, Mr. Noxon's novel "Rejuvenile" was ranked No. 410,722 in sales on Amazon on June 8. The day after the author appeared on the show, the book moved up to No. 16,153.

Similarly, Janet Evanovich's novel "Twelve Sharp," ranked No. 2 on the site, wound up in the No.1 spot the day after it appeared on the June 22 broadcast. And Josh Ritter's album "Animal Years" bumped up from No. 283 to No. 228 on the music charts hours after he performed on the show.

Mr. Koontz's "The Husband" moved up from No. 34 to No. 29 in a day. The novel has hovered around the 31st spot since the author's interview June 1. Seventy-three percent of consumers who had viewed the page for "The Husband" as of June 22 ended up buying it.

Whether the show helped sell more tickets for the films that have been promoted on the show is hard to prove, although the Adam Sandler film "Click" opened to a better-than-expected $40 million this past weekend after director Frank Coraci appeared in an interview.

Consumers may be tuning in to "Fishbowl," but not everyone's a fan. Entertainment Weekly magazine called the show a "weekly cyberbore" and "far too plug-happy" in a review.

All about pushing product

But pushing product is the point. Guests are on the show to promote their latest projects, after all -- something that's become routine for guests appearing on the traditional televised talk-show circuit.

"Fishbowl" isn't Amazon's first foray into entertainment. The company, like many marketers these days, is continuously turning to Hollywood for new ways to hold onto its customers and their wallets.

Last year, the company launched Amazon Theater, a showcase of brand- and celebrity-filled short films. Before that, it held the Amazon Short Film Festival. It has offered exclusive music videos from Pearl Jam, the Dixie Chicks and Bruce Springsteen. And for its 10th anniversary last summer, Amazon produced "A Show of Thanks," a webcast of interviews with filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan and business guru Jim Collins and performances by Bob Dylan and Nora Jones. That event also was hosted by Mr. Maher.

"We continue to do this on a regular basis, and our customers have come to expect interesting new content from us," Mr. Herdener said. "A logical extension of this work on behalf of customers was to start producing our own content."

"A Show of Thanks" evolved into "Fishbowl" after Amazon "received overwhelmingly positive feedback," Mr. Herdener said. Amazon has yet to say whether it will bring "Fishbowl" back for a second run. It declined to discuss the future of the show, as well as that of Amazon Theater or other entertainment ventures it's been involved in.

"We're focused on making this first season as successful as possible for everyone involved," Mr. Herdener said. "We are always looking for new and innovative ways to help our customers find, discover and buy anything online."
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