EBay's Not Ready for Prime Time

Site Passes on Reality-TV Deal Due to Lack of Brand Control

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Just as ABC TV was talking up to media buyers "Buy It Now," a feel-good reality show revolving around families trying to fulfill their dreams by placing their prized possessions on eBay, the auction site pulled out of the deal.

The program's premise was based on a popular genre that has proved a major showcase for Sears with "Extreme Home Makeover" and was slated for the same network in a prime Monday and Tuesday 9 p.m. slot. Moreover, the series was created by Madison Road Entertainment, one of the partners behind the heavily hyped new NBC series "Treasure Hunters."

So why did eBay bail out of a seemingly golden opportunity for a TV series for the second time since 2004 (two years ago it quashed a Sony Pictures TV syndicated show based on the auction site)? Its reasons for not going forward could serve as a cautionary tale for marketers and producers looking to develop concepts for TV.

EBay's big concern was to protect its brand, which could not be guaranteed because it was not involved in the concept's initial development and didn't own it. "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."

Then there was the Catch-22: While being a title sponsor gave it high visibility, it also meant that the marketer couldn't back out at any time. As opposed to other shows that interchangeably integrate products into programming, "Buy It Now" would have revolved entirely around eBay. In fact, that was the plan, since the original name of the series, "Make It Happen," was changed to better tie in with the auction site.

Despite the heavy focus on eBay, ABC was footing much of the bill, thus controlling the creative and how the site and brand would ultimately appear on-screen with producers at Madison Road. As a result, ABC needed to make sure eBay couldn't leave the project for any reason.

Keeping its options open
But eBay's executives and legal team 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. It also wanted the option to leave the series even if it became an instant hit. After all, eBay isn't an entertainment company and wanted to call it quits if it felt a tie-in with a TV show wouldn't benefit its marketing plans.

"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, however, 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.

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.

"We couldn't reach an agreement" with eBay, said a spokeswoman for ABC on the program, which also would have featured friends and neighbors chipping in to raise funds and sponsor-donated fantasy packages and mystery items up for sale. Money raised would be used to make the family's dreams a reality. The first night would be devoted to the family and its dream, and the second night a live results show.

Producers said "Buy It Now" still could 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 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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