In the 1960s, cable-TV prophets predicted futuristic electronic shopping. Something like: "You'll order goods at the push of a button. Cable will display the merchandise, debit your account and tell the warehouse where you live."
Dealt a mixed reception when it was tried in Columbus, Ohio, and elsewhere, interactive cable never took off. But shopping at home by television is big business. Led by Clearwater, Fla.-based Home Shopping Network, as many as 20 video shopping networks or programs are expected to appear this year.
HSN and others grab shoppers where they live with a 24-hour-a-day pitch. They have created what might be called a ledger class of viewers who are drawn to an incessant bargain hunt, where price may be more important than the item itself.
To be sure, some of home shopping's bloom may have worn off, as evidenced by the declines in HSN's stock price and the failure of some of the first networks. Indeed, for some viewers, these channels are short-term fads. The industry, however, is counting on a strong core of viewers who cannot resist a mall in their living room.
Buying from TV is hardly new. The Veg-O-Matic, sauna pants and the current wave of suitcase-sized stomach tighteners belong to the family of advertising known as PI--per inquiry. Stations run PI for free and pocket a percentage of the sales.
What makes home shopping different is its omnipresence, at least in cable homes. Just a minute long, PI fills advertising time that would otherwise go unsold. It doesn't replace programming. For HSN, the commercial is the program.
Home shopping has been a cash cow for cable operators. Unlike programming services such as MTV or Cable News Network, home shopping channels don't charge cable operators anything. In fact, the operators receive 5%, and sometimes more, of gross sales.
So far, home shopping is viewed as a bounty, not a burden, by the cable viewer. While some merchandise is close-out, not all of it is schlock. Leading retailers such as Sears, Roebuck and J. C. Penney sell through these services.
Research shows that cable subscribers would pay $1 a month for access to home shopping. (For now, they don't have to--it's offered as part of basic cable service.) When the going gets boring, the bored go home shopping.
And not just those who subscribe to cable. Services such as HSN, which reaches about 15 million homes, and Telephone Auction are on broadcast television as well as cable.
The "auction" repeats this pattern: Addressing studio bidders, the auctioneer tries to bid up a piece of liquidation merchandise. After about 45 seconds, feigning frustration at the bidding, he lowers the price.
While a toll-free phone number flashes to let viewers in for a taste of the action, his sidekicks swing into motion. Contenders to replace Vanna White in the cult assistant category, they wave their arms, braying "Yes!" and "Right!" at on-camera buyers.
Why is the public to eager to shop at home on TV?
Columnist Ellen Goodman suggested that these shows put the viewer in control. We can occasionally thumb our noses at what TV is selling, from ceramic clowns to cubic zirconium brooches.
And these live programs are a good companion for the lonely. Television's cool glow has long comforted Americans who need some company. How many hotel guests routinely turn on CNN to produce a quick conviviality to new surroundings?
Home shopping, live and interactive, is even better. Most important of all, these programs appeal to a viewer's drive to get a bargain. Never does an HSN viewer pay retail. Every product goes at a discount.
Discounting is hardly new. K mart, for instance, thrives because consumers want to shop where they think they'll find good prices. The psychic value of a bargain looms large.
Television home shopping capitalizes on this tendency. As a form of entertainment, it advances a sort of culture of cheap. It is a culture that prizes the intrinsic worth of goods less than the price paid.
It calls to mind Thorstein Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption. Put forward in 1899 in "The Theory of the Leisure Class," Veblen believed that people are more interested in the status conferred by purchases than in utilitarian value. An item is more attractive if priced high enough to make it exclusive.
Today, a ledger class stalks the marketplace side by side with Veblen's leisure class. It, too, subordinates utilitarian value. But instead of high-priced articles, the ledger class finds a cachet in a cut-rate price. Goods not offered at a discount are, so to speak, no good at all.
By serving the ledger class, home shopping also delivers some of cable-TV's consumer promise. Its viewers like it; cable system owners earn from it, and it fills broadcast channels that, given soft advertising demand, might go dark.
At the same time, it has drawn the television industry's attention away from ordering programs that respond to the news or the muse. No one will ever win an Emmy for Best Liquidation from Another Source. It has also produced a curious and prolific chemical reaction between two national pastimes, TV and shopping. As a result, neither are quite the same. To which some may surely conclude: some bargain.