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It started with 112 can openers
By THOMAS ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer
It's 3 a.m., and for reasons known only to you, you find yourself in front of the TV. Of course, it's a wasteland.
Bad movie. Bad movie. Don Lapre. Bad movie. Bad movie. Jewel-encrusted insect revolving around and around on a velvet pedestal as a woman who sounds like she's been popping amphetamines all night gushes about "how delightfully functional" it is. Bad movie. Bad mov -- wait a second. Back up to the insect.
"You'll adore the Diamonds in Technibond Bumblebee Pin. Its retail value is $64.50, but HSN's price is just $21.50. That's right! You save $43. Buy two."
A diamond pin for $21.50? What the. ...
There's a convenient little clock in the upper-left-hand corner of the screen that lets you know how much time you have to buy this ... this treasure. There's also a box that counts the many discriminating shoppers who have taken advantage of this unique opportunity.
At this point, you'll do one of two things: fall to your knees in gratitude, rush to the phone and order a dozen bees to go with your collection of jewel-encrusted ant pins, or shrink in horror and ask yourself, "Who with half a brain would buy this stuff?"
Ah, but we know who, don't we?
Maybe it's not you or anyone you know. But a vast army of people -- mostly women over 40 -- out there in the darkness is picking up the phone and dialing the toll-free number.
The show will go on all night. There's more merchandise. There's always more.
Maybe you don't like the Technibond Bumblebee. But someone out there does.
Smirk all you want. Say it's beneath you, that only desperate people shop from TV.
Home Shopping Network processed more than 80-million calls last year.
And did $1.93-billion in sales.
That's a lot of bees.
It was nothing less than a landmark event in television history. It changed the way we perceive television and how the business of television operates.
HSN was the first TV network comprised entirely of infomercials. The perfect marriage of television and retail sales.
And it started -- where else? -- on the radio.
Twenty-five years ago this month, in a little strip mall on Hercules Avenue in Clearwater, Bob Circosta was doing a news talk show on WWQT-AM 1470. An advertiser called the station. He was short on funds, so instead of money, he offered up 112 Rival electric can openers. Olive green. (What? It was the '70s.)
"I couldn't believe it," Circosta recalled. "I said, "What?"'
Circosta, who was 27 at the time, wanted to be a news anchor at a major TV network. Another Cronkite or Brinkley. Not a small appliance salesman.
He sold all 112 in about an hour.
"I started to describe them, and we had such a good deal -- they were $9.95 -- so I hit on the price."
Soon the station began selling products every day at 2 p.m. For five minutes. Sight unseen. The segment was called the Suncoast Bargaineers.
By 1982, station owner Lowell "Bud" Paxson had put the show on Tampa Bay's Vision Cable, Channel 52, and called it the Home Shopping Channel. At first, it was on three hours a day.
"At the end of an hour, we would say, "How many of you out there want us to stay on for another hour?"' Circosta said. "And if a lot of people called, we stayed. We leased the channel, so we could stay as long as we wanted."
It was that personal connection that people liked, and it would come to define HSN's mission.
"When someone would call me and order something, if they lived on my way home, I'd deliver the merchandise to them," Circosta said. "And nine times out of 10, I'd stay for dinner. That's a true story."
In 1985, the company changed its name to Home Shopping Club and began a nationwide, 24-hour-a-day network. Today, HSN is broadcast into more than 140-million homes worldwide from a sprawling brick, steel and glass complex in mid Pinellas. The people who work there call it a campus.
The University of Zirconium.
"I've had analysts from Wall Street come here," HSN president and CEO Mark Bozek said, "and I swear to you I could see it in their eyes that they were shocked that we have 60 acres here and we're not operating out of a double-wide mobile home with a satellite dish."
No, Paxson hit on something big with those can openers. So big that the market can sustain rivals QVC and ShopNBC.
And it's not just cubic zirconium jewelry. That makes up only about 2 percent of HSN's sales. HSN sells all sorts of things, from $12 cleaning products to $580 digital camcorders.
HSN once sold $1.5-million worth of $900 mattress sets in one day. A guitarist named Esteban once sold $1-million worth of his recordings in four hours, enough to put him on the Billboard top 100 albums chart based on his HSN sales alone.
And actor Suzanne Somers convinced 2,000 women to go on a Bahamas cruise last year that was sold on HSN and billed as the world's largest floating pajama party. It was broadcast live from sea. The Love to Shop Boat.
The Rock has sold merchandise on HSN. So has Kathie Lee Gifford.
Still, the questions keep coming back.
Why is this happening?
And how can anyone sit there and listen to what is essentially one infomercial after another for products they can buy just about anywhere else? Without the shipping and handling. And the endless banter.
The people at HSN will tell you it's because buying from your TV combines two of America's favorite pastimes: watching TV and shopping. Plus, a lot of people either can't or don't want to go out to shop.
But HSN does very well in big cities -- its top five markets are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco -- and that goes a long way toward explaining the company's success. Shopping is very much a personal experience, and in large cities, it's not always easy, especially for women, to battle traffic and long lines at the counter. So they do their shopping from home.
"In small towns, you still get a sense of shopping as a local social interactive experience," said Dr. Josh Meyerowitz, professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire. "In large cities, there's a greater sense of privacy. Nobody needs to know your business. People are anonymous.
"So it makes sense that HSN is strong in large cities because the store on the TV set is closer than any other except for the Web.
"And HSN is like the door-to-door salesman," he added. "Only better. Many people, especially women, might be hesitant. Are they safe with a stranger in the house? Should you offer them something to drink? Do you have to make conversation with them? What about your appearance?
"The appeal of HSN is that it has all the positives of the personal interaction, but you don't have to worry about being in danger or what you're wearing or whether you're polite."
So wouldn't it follow that HSN, and the other home shopping networks, would be hurt by eBay and other Internet shopping sites? Meyerowitz doesn't think so. "EBay is mostly words," he said. "Not people. HSN is very engaging and very seductive."
Nobody from HSN has won an Emmy. The network has no star-studded fall lineup, no news, weather or sports.
It's just out there. Waiting for you to pass by.
"Sometimes, because it's live TV, we are certainly fodder every season for Saturday Night Live," Bozek said. "That's because this is a unique format where men or women talk endlessly about a ring.
"But that ring brings in $5,000 a minute. So she can talk all she wants. And we can be parodied all they want. But it works.
"It just works."
You can go back to sleep now.
Home Shopping Network by the numbers
HEADQUARTERS: 1.4-million-square-foot facility on 53 acres in north St. Petersburg.
REACH: More than 143-million households worldwide.
VIEWERSHIP: 75 percent female, age 40 and older. Average household income: $63,000.
WHAT THEY SELL: HSN's cubic zirconium accounts for only 2 percent of its sales, which totaled $1.93-billion last year. The company offers everything from digital cameras to diet foods.
WHO OWNS IT: HSN is now owned by Barry Diller's USA Interactive and has intense competition from QVC, which was founded in 1986 and has grown bigger than HSN with $3.9-billion in sales last year. Third on the list is 12-year-old ShopNBC, with $463-million in 2001 sales.
HSN CELEBRITIES (AND WHAT THEY HAVE SOLD): Vanna White (shoes), Frankie Avalon (pain relief medication), U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (music CD), Omar Sharif (cologne), Al "The Soup Nazi" Yeganeh (soup), Dennis Rodman (sports merchandise), Gladys Knight (cookbook), Nadia Comaneci (fitness equipment), Kathie Lee Gifford (music CD), Richard Petty (sports merchandise), Wolfgang Puck (cookware).
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