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Amazing Discoveries by Infomercial Audiences ! : Television: They learn that enthusiasm and patience are a must and 'Don't get caught sleeping, because you will be replaced.'

August 26, 1993|NANCY MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Wanted: Superhumanly patient person willing to sit for eight to 12 hours at a stretch, stay awake, look interested, laugh and applaud on cue. Business attire required. Snoozers will be fired. Enthusiasm essential. Delicious breakfast and lunch provided; restroom breaks allowed. Five dollars an hour, time and a half over 8 hours, double time over 10 hours.

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It might not be everybody's cup of tea, but early on a recent Sunday, 90 people eagerly assemble at a Burbank studio to fill this job description. They're to be audience members at the taping of an infomercial.

The show is a segment of "Ask Mike!"--a spinoff of the pioneering infomercial show "Amazing Discoveries" and hosted, like the original, by infomogul Mike Levey. Would-be actors, retirees, a few assistant directors and simply the uncommonly curious, many of the audience members are not just here for the money.

"If you're interested (in show business) like me," says Anthony Foucher, an aspiring actor and vocalist, "it teaches you a lot about concentration, blocking. My patience is out of interest."

The long-form commercial has borrowed freely from the talk show, the variety show and the sitcom, yet the high production values, genial hosts and rapt audience are not quite what they appear to be. All is in the service of selling--everything from "powerful" juicers to "IQ-enhancing" self-help tapes to "astonishing" stain removers.

Since the birth of the infomercial in 1984, when government deregulation opened the door to TV ads longer than 12 minutes, the industry has grown to a $1-billion-a-year moneymaking machine. Steve Dworman, publisher of the West Los Angeles-based Infomercial Marketing Report, notes that Cher's hair-care infomercial with Lori Davis grossed approximately $57 million the first year, while Victoria Principal's infomercial has earned about $20 million over the last two years. Then there's cosmetic mogul Victoria Jackson who since 1989 has grossed between $175 million and $200 million.

When the audience is insomniac, bored and frustrated America, circa 2 a.m., the essential elements of TV entertainment apply more than ever: the welcome glow of familiar faces, the cheery patter of rehearsed conversation, the bright lights and the laughs.

"People like our shows because they have a lot of energy," says Lisa Levey, Mike's wife and producer of "Ask Mike!" "Most of the time people are watching in the middle of the night. They take your mind off your problems. It's like a total break from reality."

Everyone at "Ask Mike!" refers to the half-hour infomercials as "shows" and assumes that viewers think of them the same way. And many apparently do. Among the 500 fan letters Levey receives a week are many from parents telling him how their baby woke them up in the small hours and led them to discover him. Restaurant workers are another core viewer group.

The audience for today's show, having arrived at the studio at 9 a.m., is offered a plentiful buffet of coffee, bagels, croissants and doughnuts and then is coached on the signals for light laughter, chuckling and light clapping. They are here to watch a Phoenix computer-instruction entrepreneur named Kim Komando hawking computer instruction videotapes.

Having a live audience for the taping, says Mike Levey, "adds a very happy, upbeat feel to the show." It also serves as "a sort of on-site focus group"--people he can turn to for reaction as to whether something is working.

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Before the taping begins, however, Komando's slick appearance stirs consternation among the staff, who feel she might alienate viewers. Like "Amazing Discoveries," "Ask Mike!" relies on the just-plain-folks appeal of the show to win customers. "She's too glamorous," one crew member complains.

Komando is asked to shed a bracelet to tone down the glitz.

Hovering about on the sidelines are the men who have assembled the audience--Jeffrey Olan and Terry Zarchi, two of the three owners of Rainbow Casting.

Of the 25 or 30 agencies that cast extras, audience members and bit players in films and TV shows, Olan estimates, only about 10, including Rainbow, can keep people working constantly. The 12,000 names they have on file, Zarchi says, include doctors, lawyers and directors. Extras have been known to drive up to shoots in Rolls-Royces equipped with cellular phones, or to travel to Los Angeles from Las Vegas or San Diego for a peek inside show business.

There is only one major requirement for being an audience member at an infomercial: "When I send them in, I tell them, 'Don't get caught sleeping, because you will be replaced,' " Olan says.

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