An Internet Pledge

As soon as America Online Inc. announced that it would convert $165 billion of its Net-valued shares into the hard currency of Time Warner Inc., investment bankers, reporters and chat room touts immediately began to dream up other complementary pairings.

Surely, they said, there must be other inflated Net shares seeking the safe anchorage of a media stalwart. Maybe Yahoo, aloft on the helium of a $120 billion market cap, would need someplace to moor its blimp. And certainly, earthbound old-media relics like News Corp. could use an Internet pick-me-up.

Or so spun the scenarios.

But nobody mentioned the merger with the most obvious synergies: eBay and PBS.

Let the world's largest online auction merge with broadcasting's longest-running fundraiser, then stand back and learn the real value of an Upstairs, Downstairs tote bag. EBay, with a market cap of $16.9 billion, has the wherewithal. And it has the new economy know-how that PBS, in its perennial search for cash, could certainly use. Despite an audience of 100 million a week and some of the most pedigreed content in the media world, PBS too often seems to be shaking down viewers or dragging its donor lists down some political back alley, all in the name of scaring up funds for the next installment of Nature.

Though PBS has its own Web presence, the PBS.org site seems naive about raking in true wealth. The section on how to become a PBS contributor suggests, "You can become a member of your local station with a financial gift of your choosing, large or small."

Choosing? Small? With such disdain for closing the sale at PBS, it's no wonder 19 of every 20 of the network's viewers are deadbeats who watch Masterpiece Theater on someone else's dime. Why not turn the whole mucky money matter over to the 7.7 million registered auctioneers at eBay?

Those people are go-getters. In her recent "Dear eBay Community" letter on its Web site, CEO Meg Whitman writes that "eBay has helped people achieve success on their own terms." And how. While the Live from Lincoln Center crowd sat on its duff last year, eBay's members were generating $741 million in gross sales (some grosser than others, but more on that in a moment).

Turn Whitman's army loose on the PBS fundraising problem, and suddenly you're talking one huge, interactive, many-to-many pledge drive, in Internet time, 24/7/365! (What do I hear for this framed glossy print, signed by THE ENTIRE ORIGINAL CAST of Fawlty Towers?) There would be the usual issues of corporate cultures to resolve, of course.

But each side does have something to learn from the other. Take video sales.

The ShopPBS section of the network's site offers New York by Ric Burns, public television's favorite documentary filmmaker, which it promotes this way: "So how did this city turn from a Dutch trading post in 1624 into the thriving global and cultural center? Find out in this unprecedented six-part series!"

Price: $99.98.

The exclamation mark is on the right track, e-retailingwise. But otherwise this blurb could use a little Shockwave. And why cap the upside by setting a dollar figure, here in these exuberant name-your-own-price times? Now compare the PBS approach to the way a documentary gets pitched, eBay-style: HOME VIDEO DOCUMENTARY OF MY PREGNANT WIFE Item #23501798. First bid: $9.95. Time left: 8 days, 19 hours+. "My 26-year-old wife Sasha is eight months pregnant and we decided to make this video. What I did was have her dress up in some nice lingerie, and we videotaped her. We speak a little about her body. The video is one hour long, taped in SP speed and very clear. Please include $3.99 shipping.

Please CHECK MY OTHER AUCTIONS of Sasha."

See? Each side has something to learn from the other. On idiom and punctuation, PBS wins on points. But for unique selling proposition, the game goes to eBay.

Yet in the end, despite the distinct cultural divide between the two audiences, they are much more alike than different -- especially when it comes to the cultlike devotion of their members. Consider this donor testimonial on the PBS site: "PBS is a laboratory of ideas. It's a laboratory of my imagination. It expands my soul, my heart, my mind. I think I've made myself just a teeny-weeny bit immortal by giving this gift."

Then this eBay user evaluates doing business with the Sasha documentarian: "I can't keep my hands off myself! LOVE IT! Thanks!"

With customers of both so satisfied, antitrust officials should have no trouble finding an eBay-PBS merger in the public interest.

- Tim Race is editor of the Monday business section of the New York Times.

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