Diet gimmicks, psychic networks, Tae-Bo. Like crabgrass on TV's front lawn, infomercials fuzzy up the airwaves with make-believe “shows” hosted by has-been stars peddling ab flatteners and acne creams.
The 30-minute come-ons have replaced late-night movies, midday talk and news shows, and weekend children's programs. They compete against each other in the wee hours and even show up in prime time in the guise of religious “specials” and charity appeals.
Legalized in 1989, TV infomercials have spawned a billion-dollar industry. Guthy-Renker Corp., the name behind slick half-hour presentations for self-help author Tony Robbins, singer-actress Kathie Lee Gifford (for her line of facial creams), and actress Connie Sellecca (more zit remedies), makes $400 million a year producing the direct-sales campaigns.
Top products like the Bowflex exercise machine generate up to $2 million a month from phone-in orders spurred by TV spots.
Those numbers mean there'll only be more to come. And not just on TV. Tune into talk radio on weekends and you'll hear commercials disguised as talk shows for real estate and get-rich schemes. At the movies, “cinemercials” now precede features.
Even real TV shows have begun to look like infomercials. What is Survivor this season but one long plug-o-rama for Target, Doritos, and Mountain Dew?
With the ad market nationwide down about 20 percent this year, selling time to infomercials guarantees TV stations much-needed cash flow. Stations are paid between $300 and $1,000 per hour to run the ads, more than they'd make selling the few minutes per half-hour of commercials they're allowed during real programming.
Toledo's NBC affiliate, WNWO-TV, Channel 24, runs back-to-back infomercials weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., prime daytime real estate that used to feature local news and a syndicated talk show. The local Fox station, WUPW-TV, Channel 36, puts infomercials weekday mornings against the networks' news hours. CBS affiliate WTOL-TV, Channel 11, airs Billy Graham crusades in prime time.
So far, WTVG-TV, Channel 13, the ABC affiliate, has resisted glutting its lineup with 30-minute ads.
“That's because we have the backing of a large corporation [owner ABC/Disney] and we're trying hard to live on a budget so there won't be drastic cutbacks and we won't have to touch our news products,” said the station's general manager, David Zamichow.
Professional TV watcher Robert S. Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular TV, calls infomercials “a virus” killing off local shows and replacing old movies.
“You used to be able to turn on TV on Sunday afternoons and see great old movies,” he said. “Your TV was a little museum in your house and the old movies provided a cultural education. Infomercials have taken that away.”
Elaine Liner is The Blade's media editor. E-mail her at email@example.com. or call 1-419-724-6126.