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Bill Maher Hosts Online Interview Show for Amazon


On Mondays the business news focuses on technology.

Amazon.com has taken the biggest leap yet for a major online company in creating entertainment for the Internet. It's producing a weekly half-hour talk show with comedian Bill Maher. The twelve-episode summer program is a new step for online entertainment, and it's also bringing content and advertising closer together.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL reporting:

The set of Amazon Fishbowl, looks and feels just like the set of an old-fashioned television talk show. There's a studio audience, applause sign, and there's a warm-up act - the show's executive producer Billy Martin.

Mr. BILLY MARTIN (Executive Producer, Amazon.com's Fishbowl): So ladies and gentlemen, here's what I want you to know to about the middle of the show, is, there's going to be jokes. You need to laugh right out loud. See the microphones over your heads? See those? Those were placed there by the NSA.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SYDELL: Fishbowl's host, Bill Maher, finds fodder for comedy in this new medium in his opening monologue.

Mr. BILL MAHER (Host of Amazon.com's Fishbowl): And the technology is more amazing than you can even imagine. I have actually been miniaturized.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHER: And I am in your hard drive right now. And I'd like to talk to you about your porn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHER: It's a little out of control.

SYDELL: Maher made his name on that old technology, TV, as the creator and host of Politically Incorrect on ABC, and is the current host of HBO's Real Time. He is known for his edgy political humor and ability to finesse dialogues between artists and political types of opposing views.

On Fishbowl, he's doing softer fare. Tonight's show includes an interview with the popular suspense novelist, Dean Koontz, and a live performance from The Dixie Chicks.

(Soundbite of music)

THE DIXIE CHICKS (Musicians): (Singing) I'm not ready to back down. Still mad as hell and I don't have time to go 'round and 'round and 'round.

SYDELL: After the song, Maher interviews the group about their recent CD. Several of the songs are a reaction to the controversy over a statement made two years ago by lead singer Natalie Maines that was critical of President Bush.

Despite the hate mail her words provoked, the newest release, Taking the Long Way, went to number one on the charts - notes a beaming Maines.

Ms. NATALIE MAINES (Leader Singer for The Dixie Chicks): Yeah, we like the album and we're glad that the music does matter in the end.

Mr. MAHER: Yeah.

Ms. MAINES: People pay attention to that.

(Soundbite of applause)

SYDELL: No doubt Maines and the producer of this program, Amazon.com, hope internet viewers are paying enough attention to the music to move their cursor just a little lower on the computer screen. That's where they can click an icon that lets them purchase the latest Dixie Chicks CD.

Although Chris Bruzzo, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Amazon, claims sales are not the main reason for producing the show.

Mr. CHRIS BRUZZO (Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Amazon): Our primary goal is to entertain our audience. But, you are on Amazon.com when you're watching this show, so that allows us to make it incredibly easy for an audience member to both experience and be entertained by an artist, and follow-up on that.

SYDELL: No doubt, with a credit card in hand.

In an age when digital video recorders are making it possible for most people to skip past television commercials, advertisements and entertainment are moving closer together. There's more product placement in programming. Recently, Seventh Heaven wrote Oreo Cookies into a script.

But merging the interactivity of the Internet with entertainment that promotes products has many advertisers salivating, says Peter Sealey, an adjunct professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, at Berkeley.

Professor PETER SEELY (Marketing, Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley): If you can bring the impulse buy of the product, and an advertisement for that product, together, and at that moment - do you think that American Idol wouldn't have been selling those concert tickets they started promoting on the Idols' concert tour? Can you imagine selling those concert tickets just as they were watching Kat sing her Over the Rainbow on the floor? Oh!

SYDELL: Sealey believes Amazon is riding the wave of the future. Retailers will start to use online entertainment to promote their products. It's actually closer to early television, he says, when single sponsors supported a show, and the soap operas got their name because soap companies produced them to sell their products to housewives.

Bill Maher, known for his left-wing politics, seemed a little taken aback when this NPR reporter wondered if he had any problem with doing a show that promoted the products of its producer.

Mr. MAHER: Why? Do you think I'm a communist? I don't understand why the press asks me this question, like commerce is wrong. Like selling stuff is bad. Like I'm somehow selling out if I'm involved in American capitalism? I'm an American.

SYDELL: Amazon Fishbowl will be stream cast every Thursday night. It will remain accessible in its entirety for sometime after. In new media fashion, it can also be watched in segments. Interviews with the guests will be placed right next to links to their products.

And while the show itself is essential one long ad for several different products, it doesn't mean its commercial free. Show sponsors, UPS and Cingular, both have ads in the first show.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.