Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A "Manly View" of Home Shopping

This entry originally appeared in Queen Bea's HOME SHOPPING QUEEN blog last May. It was a piece Bea asked me to write, and one in which she collaborated with me behind the scenes. Her blog is missed by all of its fans, and with her absence the blogesphere isn't nearly as much fun. Here's hoping she returns to writing and publishing soon. I would also be remiss not to mention that this piece was written just slightly less than two months before the death of Billy Mays, who is mentioned in the present tense in this entry. God bless, he is missed as well.

"Hugh Jee, 10/7/09

I was asked by our friend QUEEN BEA to write a guest column about “Men and Home Shopping” in order to get a male perspective on home shopping and the home shopping culture. Obviously “QB” has read my columns on the TV series LIFE ON MARS and ASHES TO ASHES- she knows of my fascination with worlds somewhat like my own, but not quite. And that’s how I look at women and their love of shopping, and their attitude towards the home shopping networks as opposed to my own.

"Dontcha Think The Boy Is Stray-yaah-yange?"

Let’s get to the heart of the matter- as far as the shopping channels are concerned men are not quite nonentities- but its close. Several years ago I checked out the demographics of “who buys” at one of the channel’s websites. It stated that 75% of all buyers are women. Recently an informed source has passed on to me that the number of male customers is more like 10%. So the breakdown is something like this; female customers 75-90%; “other” 10-25%. This same source has said that in corporate meetings, when customers are discussed the pronoun”he” is about as common as a miniskirt in Saudi Arabia. Men do tune in for the tech and coin shows; the former is more or less a “one shot” purchase (the buyer never to be seen or heard from again), and the latter is regarded as a “niche” purchaser.

So.....I’m a typical guy, a wretched minority, tuning in for the guy stuff (get techy, NFL football, outdoor items, and home and garden). I stay away from the coin shows. When I was little my grandma gave me a bunch of old coins from the 1920's or older. Me being the savvy businessman that I was at age eight, I decided to spend those coins on MR. SOFTEE and MAGLIONE’s ITALIAN ICE when the trucks came around each summer. I still feel guilty...and quite a bit poorer...about those third grade Joneses I had. Nope...I can’t bear to watch those damn coin shows.

But I do tune in for some of the shows that feature “non guy’ stuff as well.....but I’ll get to that just a little later.

Actually I ‘m not very fond of shopping, particularly shopping for myself. Shopping for others doesn’t bother me. I could go into a monologue on shopping, but for now, I’ll just stick to the home shopping , the networks, and some of the personalities on the channels.

I confess- I have exactly ONE home shopping purchase, EVER. That was for a canopy for tailgating at football games- there’s something immensely frustrating about tying to cook burgers in a parking lot during a torrential rainstorm with 48 degree temps. I first became aware of the home shopping channels in the mid 1980's. I was living in Florida at the time and the cable system just picked up what was then called THE HOME SHOPPING CLUB. I don’t remember all of the hosts but Bobbie Ray (Carter) was there, as was a crazy little brunette from Georgia named Alicia Ames, who had a horn at her desk that she would toot for the callers. Ms Ames seemed like she was forever jacked up on CafĂ© Cubano, streaming out more words per second than Chris Mathews (of MSNBC) and Suzanne Runyan combined. At first I thought “what kind of desperate housewife (I should have asked for a writer’s credit from ABC) watches this insanity?”

"Oh Lord, I've Seen The Light!"

But a funny thing happened. Over time I began to see the entertainment value of what was then called HSC. It was a hoot. This was live TV, and weirdness, blunders, bloopers, and anything else associated with a live broadcast usually did happen sometime along the way. I’ve said this before, and I’m sticking to it; the only two true forms of reality TV are on live sports broadcasts and the shopping channels. There are no “do overs”; no director yelling “cut’ and going to the video tape; no editors deciding what the viewers will see as far as content. Its all LIVE, and nobody gets a mulligan.

Some people ask... what qualifies a former standup comedienne like Helen Keaney to be a host on HSN.? Well, if you can do standup, and be relatively successful, you can probably do just about anything else in front of a camera. Every audience is different, so is each situation, and the ability to think on your feet is critical, as is your ease in front of the camera. Several months ago HSN brought in a whole stable of young talent. One new host, Kara Connor, was knowledgeable and attractive- but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any person in her position so ill at ease with a camera. She was fine when teamed with another host, but was forever lost trying to locate the camera she was supposed to look into, and always seemed one step away from tossing it.

Being a guy who ventures into a domain where 75%...or 90%..... of the viewers and purchasers are women might seem odd to some. But I do find some of the programming very informative. I’ve probably learned more about computers and technology from watching HSN and QVC than I ever could from reading magazines or by watching the usual programming for techno- geeks on regular commercial TV. I don’t think I’ll ever buy a computer, TV, or home theater system from a home shopping network- I want to see it and touch it up close and personal before shelling out some bucks in these tough times- and if it does break, I want to be the guy to break it, not some guy in a brown outfit driving a truck like a maniac. But I do like the way the gadgetry is explained in very, very, very simple terms- even an idiot like me can handle that..

Another aspect of the shopping channels that is guy friendly are the sports related shows. I’m not a NASCAR fan, but QVC has had a long a fruitful relationship with NASCAR, with shows on location featuring host Dan Hughes and various drivers and racing personalities. The NFL shows are favorites- I’m a fan of former Giant Carl Banks, a bright and funny guy who makes regular appearances on HSN’s NFL shows.

"You're Gonna Carry That Weight!"

An NFL Shop show on QVC was one of the funniest segments of live television I’ve ever seen. The following happened about six or seven years ago, on an early morning show featuring then brand new QVC host Jacque Gonzales. Jacque was working with model Angela, and they were showing a rack of NFL licensed team jerseys. Angela served as both a model, and as a valet stand for Jacque, who piled jersey after jersey on Angela until the poor woman looked like a pile of laundry that had sprouted legs. After a dozen NFL jerseys were stacked on top of her, Angela’s knees buckled, she fell backwards like she had just collapsed by the weight of all the jerseys.

A stunned Jacque was speechless for several seconds, motionless, just looking at Angela lying on the floor. Jacque moved closer to Angela to see if she was OK. And then Angela opened her eyes and laughed at Jacque who jumped back, squealed, and then started laughing, after she realized that she had been Angela.

To close out the hour, Jacque and Angela played the same game, Jacque the displayer, Angela the coat rack....and again she fell to the floor, going for another laugh.

Jacque was the host during another really funny segment. It was a show that displayed a new product called THE YANKEE FLIPPER. This was a device that when attached to your bird feeder made life impossible for any squirrel that wanted a free meal. When the little old rodent reached the bird feeder its activated a device that spun the feeder’s platform, turning the little bugger into Rocky the Flying Squirrel. After seeing the taped demo of the item with the product representative Jacque started laughing...and couldn’t stop for the next five minutes. I wonder how many of those contraptions they sold?

"That's The Craziest Thing I've Ever Hoid!"

The unscripted nature of the HSN, QVC, and other shopping networks can make them more entertaining than what the networks call entertainment....particularly of the most brainless of genres, so-called “reality” TV. Some of the best escapist REAL reality television of recent years came in the middle of the decade when HSN teamed “The Doctor of Shopology”, John Cremeans, with my favorite Philadelphia export, the beautiful Lynn Murphy. There was always a feeling of controlled chaos about to erupt- but it was preferable to watching the news in the morning. Iraq was going badly, then came Katrina and its aftermath. Waking up each day to those horrors had to be balanced with levity...and HSN’s SUNRISE gave you a mental vacation from death and destruction with your morning coffee.

SUNRISE was always at its funniest when John would get Lynn laughing...sometimes she couldn’t stop, and I believe on a few occasions their mikes were cut and music began to play so Lynn could get herself together. One time an obviously elderly female caller asked Lynn and John why JC was called the “Doctor of Sexology”, driving Lynn into several minutes of hysterical, tears coming out of the eyes laughter.

Oh...look what I found!

And there were the promos that Lynn thought were being taped...but were actually live and going out over the airwaves....and the flubbed lines and surprise of “that’s do-over!”. John and Lynn were easily as funny and complimentary as Regis and Kelly, or Mike and Juliet

Unfortunately, the pairing of Cremeans and Murphy didn’t last very long. An ambitious page for the SUNRISE program was put on the HSN website, complete with a forum. The very first entry on Day One of the forum was “Time For A New SUNRISE DUO”. The bulletin board sharks smelled blood and started to circle, and John and Lynn became targets for the miserable and the disgruntled. There’s one thing in common about the forums of both HSN and QVC....every week some of the villagers need a new witch to burn. So after about a year of unfair abuse John moved over to the late lamented AMERICA’s STORE, and Lynn teamed with Rich Hollenberg until she moved on to afternoons and evenings less than a year later.

SUNRISE (now HSN TODAY) has had almost as many host duos as SANTANA has had band members. Maybe the latest combo (Adam Freeman and Amy Morrison) will have that golden touch.

Last night (April 29th) Lynn and gal pal Diana Perkovic teamed for two hours of almost non-stop comedy. The two basically goofed on each other from start to finish, the Lucy and Ethel of the 21st century. If that show doesn’t make it to THE SOUP this week, then Joel McHale ain’t doin’ his job. The highlight, during a fashion segment, was when an attorney assigned to night court in The Bronx called in....the other attorneys and public defenders were watching the hilarity on HSN provided by Lynn and Diana. And so was at least one judge. The tax dollars of the citizens of New York put to good use, ladies and gents.

Some Closing Thoughts

As much as the hosts and vendors can be entertaining on the shopping channels, there can be some very poignant moments as well. Just about an hour ago I had QVC on while typing this. Designer Nolan Miller came on with a taped message...he was gaunt, with thin hair, and gasping for breath. He just wanted to give a message to his loyal customers and give them a thank you. Sadly, this had the appearances of what could be a goodbye.

And recently there was Jill Bauer with joy of her announcement of a pregnancy, and shortly after, of her tragic loss- played out live on national TV, to a potential of 75, 000,000 American households.

Yes, this is REALLY reality TV.

The subculture of homeshopping breeds a closeness between the hosts and their audiences, something that is desired by management and is necessary for success. The relationship is much like a quasi-family in the eyes and emotions of many of the viewers. When a host leaves a network, unannounced, the event is often felt as if a friend vanished from the face of the earth, with no one willing or able to give an explanation of what happened or where did she/he go? Subconsciously this is like a death in the family for some viewers who felt close to a host.

You don’t believe me? Check out the HSN bulletin board- the departure of Kelly Repassy is still being mourned almost a year after the fact.

Many “vanishing hosts” resurface - Mindy McCourtney is “Queen of the Infomercial”. Just put on the tube at 5:00am. She could be on three different channels with three different products. Kathy Levine turned author/ designer, moved on to HSN then back to QVC.

And as for Kim Parrish, who I wrote a profile about in my blog, and got the greatest reaction of any article before or since- from QVC host to fashion designer on HSN, to President of Miss America’s Outstanding Teen- and now (according to one website) is the co-author of a children’s book.....and (according to another source) she is part of a management group that also includes PITCHMEN Anthony Sullivan and Billy Mays.

Twenty years ago I was mocking the concept of home shopping. Today I find the subculture fascinating, with personalities and situations that are more real than the contrived shallowness of reality TV. And though I am not a buyer, I am a watcher. They keep me entertained.

The least I can do is talk ‘em up just a bit.

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