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Amazon Adds Talk Show to Its Offerings

The online retailer will try to blend commerce and entertainment with its weekly broadcast.

January 19, 2006|Chris Gaither | Times Staff Writer

Celebrities promoting their newest movie, book or album have a new stop on the talk-show circuit: Amazon.com.

The Internet megastore plans to announce today a weekly online talk show with host Bill Maher.

With "Amazon Fishbowl With Bill Maher," Amazon.com Inc. is trying to blend commerce with entertainment, much as Starbucks Corp. sells CDs and DVDs alongside coffee to position its brand as a lifestyle. In an e-commerce twist on movie and TV product placement, Amazon will place links to buy the works discussed during the show beside the program's display window.

"Two uber-trends are crashing into each other: Retail is trying to turn itself into entertainment at the same time that entertainment is trying to turn itself into retail," said David Card, senior analyst with Jupiter Research. "What's unique about the Internet as a medium is it's an opportunity to blend the retail experience, the entertainment experience and the discovery of new stuff. It's hard to do that on TV."

The Seattle-based e-tailer joins the crowd of Internet companies hearing Hollywood's siren song. Amazon hired experienced show business agents and producers to develop the half-hour show, and the company is creating a wholly owned subsidiary in Los Angeles to create more original programming.

The television industry has been cranking out hits and duds for decades, but on the Internet the recipe for a successful show is unknown. It's unclear whether Amazon will be able to persuade A-list celebrities to consistently appear on the show, or whether that will make much of a difference in attracting viewers.

An Amazon spokesman said the company was "setting a high bar" and trying to book the most renowned actors, directors, musicians and authors that would interest its customers.

Its first episode will feature author Stephen King, musician Rob Thomas, actress Toni Collette and writer Armistead Maupin.

"We're trying to let customers discover new artists, and artists discover new customers," said Kathy Savitt, an Amazon vice president.

Amazon will tape the pilot, sponsored by United Parcel Service Inc., at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, and make highlights available on-demand starting Tuesday, when King's latest book goes on sale.

King is eschewing the TV show circuit to promote "Cell," his new book about mobile phones triggering murderous rampages. He plans to make Amazon his only broadcast appearance, his publicist said.

"We wanted to do something innovative and different," said Suzanne Balaban, director of publicity for Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. "This seemed to be a fresh opportunity. It's a new outlet for people to talk about books."

Amazon has promised 12 more shows, starting June 1, which will be shot while Maher's HBO show, "Real Time With Bill Maher," is on hiatus. Each will be streamed live Thursday nights at 8 from a Los Angeles sound stage that Amazon is renting from an undisclosed TV studio. Viewers can also watch archived clips or the entire show after it runs.

"Fishbowl" will follow a standard talk-show format, with an opening monologue by Maher, interviews with guests and musical performances. The show won't include commercial interruptions, but Amazon and UPS will show a "special delivery" of an Amazon order by a celebrity, as when Harrison Ford hand-delivered "Star Wars Trilogy" to a customer in Wyoming in July.

Billy Martin, a former stand-up comedian who has written for five Academy Award shows, will serve as co-executive producer and head writer. United Talent Agency partner Peter Benedek is helping connect Amazon with stars.

Amazon decided to launch the show after finding success streaming other entertainment programs online, including five short films in 2004 and a live concert in July to celebrate the company's 10th birthday, Savitt said.

She would not disclose how many viewers those efforts drew, or how much "Fishbowl" will cost to produce. But she said Amazon viewed shows such as "Fishbowl" as a potential source of online advertising revenue.

The company is betting that some of the nearly 50 million people who visit it each month to shop will take a few minutes to watch the show. Amazon was the seventh-most visited website in the United States in December, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

"Amazon gets a lot of traffic, and if they put it on their front page people will click on it," Card said. "The big question is whether they convert to actually buying the books and songs and movies they're promoting."

Another big question: whether online shoppers who stumble across the show will become regular viewers.

"All we can do is provide the most innovative and interesting content we can," Savitt said. "Then it's up to customers to decide how much time they want to spend with it."

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