"I am just here to sell stuff," announced Bill Maher, the television host and comedian, early in an episode of his new show; "no politics." The show, Amazon Fishbowl with Bill Maher, is the weekly, Web-streamed program featuring guests from the worlds of books, music, and film—guests whose works can be purchased at Amazon.com (AMZN). And the show streams live from the online retailer's home page every Thursday night.
The show, which launched last month, may have come as a surprise to fans of Maher's HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher, and his now-cancelled ABC program, Politically Incorrect. But it shouldn't surprise observers of Amazon.com, which has proven itself to be a pioneer many times over.
Launched as an online bookstore in 1994, the retailer has expanded its product line—to music, movies, and even non-perishable groceries—and opened regional sites to serve Europe and Asia. Its success has inspired countless other businesses, including FreshDirect, Netflix, and Drugstore.com.
BUY THIS BLOG. Now that it has substantially changed how people shop, it has stepped up an effort to change how people decide what to buy. That effort is transforming Amazon.com into a hybrid of Internet retailer and multimedia content-producer. In the past months the site has launched blogs, a podcast, and a series of exclusive video and audio segments, all of which feature and discuss products sold on its site.
AmazonConnect, for instance, is a collection of more than 7,000 blogs written by Amazon-marketed authors. But perhaps the most noteworthy of these media initiatives is Amazon Fishbowl, both because it stars a television personality as big as Maher and because it's the first episodic production to be created especially for the Net.
By producing and streaming its own entertainment content, Amazon can reach consumers without advertising its products through a third party. And indeed, the retailer stopped buying TV-commercial time in 2002. But this is about more than saving on ad buys. "The show's primary goals are to entertain viewers and help them discover new books, music, and films," explains Amazon spokesperson, Drew Herdener.
A SLIPPERY SETTING. "In a world where commercials are zapped, it's important to integrate products into the programming," says J.D. Connor, professor of visual and environmental studies at Harvard University. "People like to shop, but people also like to think that what they're doing is more than just shopping." Connor calls the atmosphere that Amazon has created a "slippery setting," because it gently slides consumers towards making a purchase with a soft-sell disguised as entertainment or even education.
This blurring of media and sales is a trend that goes far beyond Amazon. On the media landscape, there is the newish genre of shopping magazines pioneered by Condé Nast's Lucky. From TV and movies to novels and video games, all types of media are getting in on the thriving business of product placement.
And of course, television, radio stations, and magazines all carry advertising. But there's a substantial gap between looking at a print or TV ad and making the purchase. When reading an Amazon blog or watching an Amazon video or show, you're just one click away.
ANIMATED LINKS. In the case of Maher's show, the step between watching and buying is almost nonexistent. With the arrival of each new guest, an animated banner ad below the show's "TV" screen displays a picture of the product in question—the author's new book, the actor/director's new DVD, or the musician's new album—along with a link to the appropriate page on Amazon.com. (During Maher's opening monologue, the ad links to his DVD New Rules.)
Although Amazon spokesperson Sean Sundwall dismisses the idea that Amazon.com is moving toward becoming an online media outlet—describing the multimedia initiatives as merely extensions of Amazon's mission to help customers discover new products—Connor sees the new content as significantly different.
"This isn't just building a community of reviewers," he says. "They want people to spend time on the site and invest themselves in the products, because the more time you spend thinking about a product, the more likely you are to buy it."
ACTORS' DUDS. While the Internet is a new context, this style of vertical integration is far from a new idea. In 1927, William S. Paley, the founder of CBS, purchased what was then just a small network of radio stations to use primarily as a vehicle to advertise his family's cigar company. The cigar company did well by this arrangement, but its success didn't compare to that of Columbia Broadcasting.
Today, the closest parallel to Amazon's retail/media hybrid also comes from the world of TV. For instance, ABC, in collaboration with the San Francisco-based Delivery Agent, sells clothing and jewelry worn by actors on programs including Desperate Housewives and Gray's Anatomy through www.shopabctv.com.
Unlike Amazon Fishbowl, there is no direct link between the show and the purchase—a not so trivial obstacle to the final sale. A second obstacle is viewer reception: While they might appreciate entertainment while they shop, they might not care to shop when they just want to be entertained.
It's only a matter of time, however, before the Net and TV converge to the point that such one-click couch-shopping will be possible. And Amazon may well be the pioneer once again.