It’s not hard to understand why the folks at eBay think they’ve got the makings of a television show on their hands, as was announced last week. Reality is in, after all, as the “Survivor” craze attests to. People have a fascination about other people, how they act under the glare of the cameras.
And then there’s the “Antiques Roadshow” phenomenon, the undying belief fueled by the wildly popular PBS program that the piece of junk collecting dust in your attic is really an 18th century oar used by George Washington to cross the Delaware, and worth a cool couple million.
But neither of these factors is enough to turn any aspect of eBay into a television show worth watching for five minutes. Though cooler heads are unlikely to prevail — there’s money to be made after all, so forward-march — the idea should die in the development stage.
If it does, e-commerce could escape unscathed. If it doesn’t, prepare to be embarrassed.
Of course, eBay knows that its future, like the future of many e-commerce companies, probably lies somewhere in the ether between the Web and television. So why not go forth and embrace convergence before it has fully arrived?
Two big reasons. For one thing, the type of straightforward commerce that eBay claims to be interested in is anything but dramatic. It’s occasionally exciting — especially when done in volume or when you’re the one pocketing the proceeds, sure — but not exactly riveting.
Second, the natural drama that eBay does offer on its auction site comes about by serendipity. Extravaganzas on the level of July’s Honus Wagner baseball card sale are few and far between. Even the chances to log in and see the going rate for Subway Series tickets are few and far between.
By far, the rest of eBay is about making money and getting rid of things you no longer want or need. It’s a terrific community, one that is giving e-commerce a good name as it makes investors increasingly wealthy. But a TV show?
Maybe I’m being hasty. After all, a show could emerge from the development stage with an interesting twist, a unique angle into this whole eBay phenomenon.
But assuming that early reports are correct and that a “lifestyles” show focusing on eBay products and the people who sell them is our fate, the downside seems pretty steep.
There is a fine line between maximizing a brand’s power and overreaching its bounds. Might eBay have caught a touch of Amazon flu — the disease that makes e-commerce companies think they’re much more than they really are? It made Amazon think it was not just a bookstore but a retailer of everything that doesn’t move.
Now eBay seems to think that it is more than a mere online auction enabler. Now it’s the eBay pHenomenon, a community, a cultural movement worthy of a permanent video record.
Please. This is what happens when people fail to take the big picture into account. You know who thinks eBay is the next big thing? eBay people. The same people, inside the company, who think the discussion boards and other community features found on eBay prove that people are coming together under its brand name in a unique way.
They’re coming together all right, but a quick look at the discussion boards show that most of that discussion is the same mindless chatter that goes on at Yahoo! and AOL chat sites. Endless blathering about absolutely nothing.
No There There
I understand that the eBay community looks and sounds different to someone stopping in for the first time to gauge the temperature than it would to someone who has grown familiar with all the chatters and their quirks and nicknames and life stories. The point is, there’s nothing terribly unique about the eBay community in that sense.
If once in a while, an interesting item grabs the attention of the greater public, that’s still the exception, not the rule. Can eBay find enough of that stuff to keep a show interesting five days a week? Hardly.
Stay the Course
The world has enough shopping channels already. eBay works because it’s not so in-your-face. There are no hoarse-voiced hucksters shouting at you to buy a particular baseball card set because only 50,000 were printed and they’re going fast. At least not yet.
Here’s my suggestion for eBay: Continue to build your brand, develop that community and attract users the old-fashioned way, by creating something they really want and eventually will feel they need.
That path through the network television show may seem like a shortcut to the same end, but it’s not the right road to take.