By Bill Zehme
Playboy, June 1987
Ralph Kramden, a bus driver from Brooklyn, was the father of TV home shopping. He called it Better Living Through Television and hatched a portentous scheme from which an unstoppable movement has followed. For $200, he had acquired 2000 Handy Housewife Helpers, gizmos that could core apples, open cans, pop corks, cut glass, remove corns, scale fish and double as screwdrivers. Certain that he could liquidate them at one dollar apiece, he blustered his way onto live television as the self-proclaimed Chef of the Future and, abetted by a sewer-worker friend, attempted to demonstrate—zip, zip, zip—the item’s miraculous versatility. Viewers were entreated to place orders immediately.
“The phone number to call in New York is Bensonhurst 5-6832!” urged the sewer worker. “Hurry, hurry. Don’t get shut out!” Presumably, after the Chef of the Future had hacked his fingers to fleshy nubs, sales were spotty at best. Still, there was an admirable sort of earnest innocence in the presentation.
Better Living Through Television has, in the 32 years since, lost its innocence. It is flat-out cathode-ray commerce: omnivorous, omnipresent consumerism staged with the urgency of a disease-of-the-week telethon, dressed in pseudo-Vegas schmaltz and pitched with dulcet-d.j. hubba. We’re talking 24-hour programing devoted exclusively to acquisitiveness, to offering up stuff, most of which you never dreamed existed, at sub-flea market rates, attainable by simply dialing a toll-free number and forking over your credit card digits. Loot will follow, via United Parcel Service, promptly, if not sooner. Meanwhile, the video wash of marked-down merchandise, luxuriantly photographed at impossible angles, keeps gushing across the screen. Materialism has never been as blatant, shopping never as stressless and television never as frightening.
If anything, TV home shopping is a bastardized form of game-show grubbiness. When Newsweek recently scrutinized the epic popularity of Wheel of Fortune, the focus landed on selective, upwardly mobile greed. That is, instead of hauling in cash prizes, winning contestants get to go shopping on the set, choosing among the Mediterranean patio furniture, the diamond-infested beetle brooches and the his-and-hers catamarans. “What could be more in sync with our hyperacquisitive ethos?” we were asked. “Wheel of Fortune is more than a game show; it’s an electronic shopping mall.”
“This is the utilization of television. Call me an opportunist. We’re the best thing that’s happened to the living room since the easy chair.”
Now the jackpot is tangible, telephonically speaking, throughout couch-potatodom. Moreover, the mall never closes unless there’s a power failure. Even then, diehard shoppers won’t be subdued. I talked with one honey-voiced phone operator for the behemoth Home Shopping Network (HSN) in Florida who insisted, “They call us whenever their TVs aren’t working just to find out what’s on the screen.”
Michael Winerip, writing in The New York Times, coined the term convenient no-stop shopping and spoke with a typically delirious addict who bleated, “I wish the heck they sold food—I’d never go out.” At last, agoraphobiacs, a show of our own!
At first glance, these programs smell of the big shill: noisy hokum that conjures Veg-o-matic—Ginsu-pocket-fish—Mr. Microphone memories. The on-camera announcers, who foster buddy-buddy viewer rapport with suspicious ease, vaguely remind me of that dogged strain of salesperson who mysteriously appears at your side the moment you enter a store and unnervingly trails in your wake until you are driven to buy something, anything, and flee for your life. These announcers encourage us to “get in on” bargains by perkily issuing such threats as, “If you snooze, you lose around here!” and “I’d have a tough time living with myself if I let this deal slip through my fingers!” Then actual viewers call in and make live on-air testimonials such as, “This is everything a cubic zirconia could be and more!”
The effect is that of a cajoling, animated catalog whose static yammer is reminiscent of those radio-phone-in yak Tests. No coincidence, really. The Home Shopping Network was, in fact, born on radio. Its founders, former Florida attorney general Roy M. Speer and partner Lowell “Bud” Paxson, latched on to the concept out of dire embarrassment. It seems that Paxson owned a Clearwater station, WWQT-AM, that was anathema to advertisers. In 1977, he and Speer—flushed with inspiration—decided to turn WWQT into a department store of the airwaves. Floridians flocked to listen. By 1982, after Clearwater went cable, the boys had invented a local 24-hour Home Shopping Channel. Two years ago, the channel became a national network that has since split off into two sister networks reaching more than 40,000,000 American homes by way of cable and UHF broadcast stations. Fiscal year 1985-1986 garnered HSN $160,200,000 in sales; the figure for the first quarter of this year was $103,500,000. This month, the company’s Home Shopping Game Show (the unavoidable hybrid), produced in conjunction with tony MCA-TV and Hands Across America impresario Ken Kragen, will roll out into general syndication. Contestants win HSN Spendable Kash, a.k.a. credit, with which to recklessly shop till they drop.
Not surprisingly, clone operations have quickly glutted the market. According to a Broadcasting magazine report, video home shopping is expected to do 2.25 billion dollars’ worth of business this year. (HSN’s Paxson foresees an eventual 75-billion-dollar industry.) The clones number in the dozens, ranging from slick to seat-of-pants style, and air as both vampire-shift programing and full-run channels. TV home shopping is fast becoming a big-boys-only game. Retailing gargantuans such as Sears and JC Penney are already unveiling operations of their own. Scrappy new entrants pop up weekly. Not a few have had a gnat’s life span.
The racket is an ephemeral one. I had planned to visit the headquarters of a Chicago-based late-night show called America’s Marketplace; but less than a week after I phoned, it was no more. “Our capitalization fell through,” a spokeswoman said, invoking a common refrain. Similarly, Crazy Eddie, with his insane prices on electronics, has come and gone. More fatalities are expected over the next few months. The Playboy Channel cautiously launched a holiday-season-only version that offered good-life goods but hasn’t yet attempted a year-round siege.
One entrant that deserves mention is the eminently watchable ValueTelevision (VTV), a daily syndicated talk-and-shop hour. Hosted by Alex “Jeopardy!” Trebek and Meredith “Petticoat Junction” MacRae, it combines glib chat with soft sell on a fern-and-wicker Yupscale set. There are cooking segments, comedy sketches (“Alex, don’t aim that Black & Decker paint sprayer at your shirt! Yikes!”) and well-worn guests such as Zsa Zsa Gabor. Interestingly, VTV’s executive producer is Susan Winston, the Wunderkind expatriate of Good Morning America and CBS Morning News. Although it has slightly legitimized the genre, VTV is taped in advance and loses that all-important sense of “Buy now” immediacy. The upshot: Some insiders with whom I talked think VTV may soon be vapor.
“There’s nothing faddish about beating the system,” Peter Barton told me, defending the staying power of TV home shopping. “There’s nothing faddish about a bargain.” I had flown to Minneapolis to see his Cable Value Network (CVN) in action. Barton, a wry, laconic 36-year-old golden boy, had been CVN’s president since it began 24-hour broadcasting last September. The network, which appealingly peddles reputable brand-name loot, ranks second behind HSN and draws its discounting finesse from the direct-marketing mammoth C.O.M.B. CVN takes no fewer than 25,000 first-time-purchase orders per week and shows no sign of losing momentum.
Barton, meanwhile, lives to beat the system. He even insisted that CVN’s home-shop game show be called Beat the System. He brags of being “one of about six people in the country” with a civilian rating to fly Air Force jets. “Flying a B-1 is one of life’s great rushes,” he will say, beating the system. I asked whether his old classmates from the Harvard Business School were amazed at CVN’s success. “I would call it chagrined,” he replied, smiling. “Ever since the day we announced this thing, doom sayers have been running nine to one.”
“Viewers say they watch us for 15 to 18 hours a day—not only to buy things but to listen to the phone calls from all over the country. They hear the exotic drawls, the crazy comments, the reasons for ordering. It’s fascinating for them.”
For sport, I tossed the gauntlet of doom at him and prepared to get the system beat out of me. I wondered, Isn’t all of this kind of odious, this crass mercantilization of television? “Not mercantilization,” he corrected patiently. “This is the utilization of television. Call me an opportunist. We’re the best thing that’s happened to the living room since the easy chair. From a cable operator’s point of view, we’ve always had a wire going into somebody’s house. And we’ve always thought, Shit, what else can we do with that wire? Let’s try banking. Let’s try two-way data. Retailing is just the manifestation of that desire to better use that wire. It’s not the beginning of the Selling Out of Television. It’s the beginning of interactivity with viewers.”
Ah, interactivity. Of course. When you talk to your television and it talks back. When there’s a possibility of actually hearing your own voice crackle over coast-to-coast frequency as you chat up your incredible acquisition and jocularly banter with the nice on-camera hawker. Why, without straying from your paneled den, you can become an instant national celebrity (doing an endorsement, even!) and the toast of your Kaffeeklatsch. “It’s the highest form of television,” Barton twittered. “It feeds on itself. Viewers get on the air, say something about the product and, ultimately, sell it for us. They’re our best salespeople.”
Budget Bob Circosta, the mellifluous senior flog artist of HSN, conveyed to me the profound impact of interactive television. “A young lady called me on the air just about a month ago,” he said, “and she was ordering an exercise bike. Well, as we were talking, she told me that she was pregnant and in labor. Her contractions were 12 minutes apart and her whole family was gathered around her—meaning there was no danger. So I proceeded to give her breathing exercises over the air, since I’m familiar with Lamaze. I tell you, we had a lot of fun with it! And the next day, soooo many people called in to find out whether she’d delivered a boy or a girl. In fact, it turned out to be a bouncing boy!” And, if there’s a God, she named the little piker Budget Bob.
The concept boggles—it’s spontaneous; it’s gripping; it’s real, true-life human drama played out live amid a veritable mother lode of fabulous bargains. First, women in labor; next, couples in bed! Patients in hospitals! Trapped baby sitters in maniac-stalked homes! Get me the police—and, say, that Pollenex air purifier isn’t a bad idea, either! Interactivity breeds something even more thrilling than instant celebrityhood—call it permissible eavesdropping. Can video entertainment get more vicarious than this?
“Listen, this is more exciting than some of the soaps,” echoed Eleanor May, a retailing expert and professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School for Business. “And it’s certainly more exciting than the news.”
Or, to invoke the sagacious Budget Bob again, “There’s nothing negative on our station—everything’s good! Viewers say they watch us for 15 to 18 hours a day—not only to buy things but to listen to the phone calls from all over the country. They hear the exotic drawls, the crazy comments, the reasons for ordering. It’s fascinating for them.”
“You’re combining our national predilection for materialism with our addiction to television and a get-yours-now kind of impulsiveness … You’ve got amazing potential for making a dent in America’s consuming habits.”
Home-shopping junkies can justify their passion in any number of ways. Ronald Stampfl, professor of retailing management at the University of Wisconsin, suggested a dependency theory. “You can sit and watch battery-operated gadgets, porcelain figurines and jewelry for just so long,” he pointed out. “Then you’re almost anesthetized. These shows do create an anesthetizing kind of selling value. You’re at their mercy: I just want to watch ten more minutes and see what the next item will be. It’s like an auction, and you don’t necessarily have to bid.”
Then there’s the compliance effect, according to psychology instructor Edward Hirt of Penn State. “These sales people seem to genuinely care about you and have your best interests in mind,” he noted after glaring at CVN for a few hours. “You begin to think they’re your friends and, in a sense, it’s always harder to turn down a friend.”
I sidled up to a few extremely friendly CVN on-air personalities in Minneapolis and asked about their previous broadcast experience. It was almost negligible; all of them, however, had selling backgrounds. Talent manager Mark Brown asserted, “Bottom line: These are sales jobs, not typical broadcast jobs. We’re like pioneers.”
Karen Connelly, a former hairdresser who handles the morning shift with her husband, Skip (Coffee with the Connellys), told me her pre-eminent career qualification: “I have the gift of gab.”
“It’s everything you didn’t know you wanted, available quickly.”
Colleen McCarthy-Lopez, a striking strawberry blonde, said, “We are the adopted siblings, kids and grandkids of our viewers. I had a lady on the air last week who said, ‘You know, honey, you remind me of me 30 years ago!’”
The most rabid fans of the phenomenon, at this point, tend to be lonelyhearts, housewives, seniors and handicapped people. “Many times, however, true retail forms come in at the bottom of the scale,” observed Stampfl, who envisions a day when Ralph Lauren will create fashion lines to be sold only on shopping channels. “You’re combining our national predilection for materialism with our addiction to television and a get-yours-now kind of impulsiveness,” he reasoned. “You’ve got amazing potential for making a dent in America’s consuming habits.”
As Peter Barton put it, “I have seen the future and it is now. Most lonelyhearts can’t buy Xerox computers, and we sell tons of ’em. There is no turning back.”
Over the course of several weeks, I struggled to Live Better Through Television. My office Zenith flickered, night and day, with deals, bargains, buys, close-outs, giveaways, goldathons, fashion follies, silver steals and values aplenty—most of them courtesy of Home Shopping Network Number Two. (Alas, I’m not cable-ready.) Imagine a fever dream set at Kmart and we’ll be on the same wavelength. Horns toot incessantly, chunky girls model furs, announcers wink a lot and wear plaid on plaid, callers regularly insist that their spouses will kill them for running up credit lines and much ado is made over synthetic gem stones. David Letterman has been stumping for the abolition of TV home shopping. This is why.
And, yet, between pitches for red-white-and-blue feather dusters and polyethylene anniversary clocks, I began to see stuff I wouldn’t mind owning. Miniature TV sets. Portable telephones. Ionizers. Cordless shavers. Electronic pocket address-books. HSN’s prexy, Paxson, has said of his wares, “It’s everything you didn’t know you wanted, available quickly.” As soon as the braying hustle of the audio began to sound commonplace, the idea of actually participating, of transacting, was far less, um, distasteful. I thought, Why should it be a concession to save money? To bestow upon myself sensible, drastically discounted booty? Can I afford not to pay attention to this remarkable new convenience of the 20th Century?
I waited for my opening. I grew tense. Then it appeared: an infrared-heat neck-cushion massager. Regularly retailing at 40 bucks, it would be mine for $19.75. Problem was, I had less than a minute to move on it (on HSN, you can buy what you see only while you see it). I reached for my phone, but it was already ringing. Another call. A shattered opportunity. I was now consumed with somehow making it up to myself—a teleshopper possessed, if you will. I prepared to pounce on the next irrefutably useful product.
For reasons I will never entirely understand, the Black & Decker Cordless Grass Shear caught my fancy. Maybe it was the markdown—from $66.95 to a very tidy $21. Maybe it was the announcer’s breathless promise that this excellent instrument could trim the edge of a two-acre lot with one charge. Maybe it was the jaunty way it glimmered under the hot TV lights. It matters little now. This morning, by way of UPS delivery, I became the owner of a very handsome Grass Shear. True, I reside in an apartment and have no lawn to speak of, much less shear. Nevertheless, I feel as though I did quite nicely for myself.
Perhaps only Ralph Kramden would understand.
“Materialism has never been as blatant, shopping never as stressless and TV never as frightening.”