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CNBC looks at ‘The eBay Effect’

Kevin McDonough United Feature Syndicate

David Faber hosts “The eBay Effect: Inside a Worldwide Obsession” (5 and 8 p.m., CNBC), a provocative profile of the online auction giant. It presents extensive interviews with eBay CEO Meg Whitman, a rare interview with the company’s founder and creator, Pierre Omidyar, as well as multiple features about those who have embarked on whole new careers thanks to the company.

“Effect” also talks to eBay’s many critics.

Like many Internet pioneers, Omidyar is both matter-of-fact and rather self-effacing. He says he got the idea for an online trading company one day, wrote the code for the software on a Friday afternoon after work, and had the site up and running by the following Monday. This was in 1995.

Whitman freely admits to eBay’s growing pains. A mother of two, she talks about eBay as if it were a part of her family.

“It’s hard to make a 10-year-old behave like a 20-year-old,” she contends. “Effect” follows Whitman to England and Germany, where eBay has rapidly become a part of the popular culture.

The documentary takes us into the Silicon Valley headquarters of the company, home to thousands of employees who field customer complaints, keep the servers running, and measure the ebb and flow of transactions. Apparently, traffic plummets when Fox broadcasts “American Idol.”

Other managers weigh ethical issues. Should someone be allowed to sell herself as a prom date? Should they permit the sale of bottled human breast milk?

In the end, they put a kibosh on the dating service and take breast milk off the site because of sanitary concerns.

“The eBay Effect” does such a good job of demonstrating the vast size and influence of eBay that it actually leaves you wanting more. Since CNBC is a business network, I’m a little surprised we don’t hear more hard numbers here.

How much stuff is traded on eBay? Per year, per month, per minute? What’s the most expensive item ever traded?

A more quantitative approach would also help to put criticism of the site in some context. Roughly what percentage of eBay users is disgruntled?

But CNBC and this documentary are hardly the only people who fail to put stories in some perspective.

“The eBay Effect” may also get you thinking about some larger issues that transcend the scope of a business network. What does it say about us when everyone becomes a trader – when virtually every conceivable thing is for sale and we have the means, and seemingly the desire, to find the price of everything?

Other highlights

Scheduled on “60 Minutes II” (8 p.m., CBS): small towns and Army enlistment; two-months vacation; musical charity. “60 Minutes II” will move to Friday nights beginning July 8.

A prescription for murder on “Psychic Detectives” (8 p.m., NBC).

On back-to-back episodes of “Law & Order” (NBC), a hip-hopper’s last hop (9 p.m.), and a dead porn star has enemies in high places (10 p.m.).

“American Masters” (8 p.m., KSPS) profiles the musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

A trap for a real rat on “CSI: NY” (10 p.m., CBS).

Jack loses his grip on “Lost” (10 p.m., ABC).

Cult choice

A New England town recoils when a young lawyer (Aidan Quinn) contracts AIDS in the groundbreaking 1985 TV movie “An Early Frost” (8 p.m., TV Land).

Series notes

Hyde’s sister revealed on “That ‘70s Show” (8 p.m., Fox) … On back-to-back episodes of “Eve” (UPN), a conciliatory gesture (8 p.m.), and singles again (8:30 p.m.) … Awkward crushes emerge on “Beauty and the Geek” (8 p.m., WB) … Of books and the blond on “Stacked” (8:30 p.m., Fox).

Standbys on “King of Queens” (9 p.m., CBS) … A maternity ward mishap on “Veronica Mars” (9 p.m., UPN) … Chloe’s murder mystery on “Smallville” (9 p.m., WB) … Reunion hijinks on “Yes, Dear” (9:30 p.m., CBS).

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