The industry launched in 1984 when then-President Reagan signed the Cable Communications Policy Act deregulating TV. Still-young cable networks, desperate for revenue, sold chunks of unsold air time to the highest bidder, often at bargain-basement rates. The lust for shopping on TV was clear; infomercials started popping up around the same time as 24-hour shopping networks such as QVC.
"In the beginning, it was a gold rush, like a Wild West show," said Dworman, who also publishes the Infomercial Marketing Report. "They were these guys who came in, talking about no money down on real estate."
The infomercial "episodes" of "Amazing Discoveries" and "Incredible Breakthroughs," which pushed such items as car wax, stain cleaners and math-whiz kits for kids, were not too far removed in spirit from network shows such as "That's Incredible." Other ads for products such as "Mega Memory" looked like talk shows, complete with bands and live studio audiences.
And then there were the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time infomercial stars, who at times became so popular that they were guests on mainstream talk shows, approached on the streets for autographs and parodied on "Saturday Night Live."
Ron Popeil became a multimillionaire with GLH, the Popeil Pocket Fisherman and the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie. Raspy-voiced Tony Robbins built an empire based on his "Personal Power" books and tapes. Perhaps most prominent of all was Susan Powter of "Stop the Insanity," a weight loss program. Powter's short, spiky, peroxide-blond hairdo and bellowing, hyperactive style became such a rage that television producers Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason ("Designing Women") once toyed with the idea about building a sitcom around her.
But the growing pains of the industry also included questionable items and claims, crackdowns by the Federal Trade Commission and more than a few debacles.
Smooth-talking businessman Dave Del Dotto had his get-rich-quick infomercials -- which featured crooner John Davidson singing about realizing dreams -- pulled off the air in 1992 when the Federal Trade Commission charged him with making unsubstantiated claims. Last year, U.S. marshals, operating at the behest of the Food and Drug Administration, seized about $2.6 million worth of Coral Calcium Supreme, a dietary supplement hawked by entrepreneurs Kevin Trudeau and Robert Barefoot in paid advertising airing on Discovery Channel, Bravo and the Comedy Channel. The FDA and the FTC went to court to stop Trudeau and Barefoot from making claims about coral calcium's health effects.
Renker said the Electronic Retailing Assn. is more diligent now about checking out the legitimacy of infomercial claims. Noted fitness salesman Tony Little: "The industry has come a long way in the last 20 years. We've shaken off a lot of the lower-end products. The public is more educated. There are warranties and consumer experts."
Several of the current infomercial celebrities, including Daisy Fuentes, Mari Winsor of "Winsor Pilates," and Forbes Riley, host of "Pro-Strong Nails" and "Abs of Steel," are scheduled to attend tonight's event. But Powter has no intention of attending the festivities.
Powter, who said she left the industry in disgust because it wasn't "authentic," is marketing her female-targeted weight-loss book, "The Politics of Stupid," and her "Trailer Park Yoga" video on her website.
"I still have my power," said the Seattle-based Powter, 46, who grew back her hair and had her third son six years ago. "What happened to me was an atmospheric happening. I just took my voice back from those morons."
But those in the industry remain optimistic that the upcoming adventures of the Gazelle Freestyle Supertrainer, the Eggstractor and Lateral Thigh Trainer will still appeal to viewers, who will vote with their remotes -- and wallets.
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Great moments in infomercial history
* 1984 -- Herbalife purchases a 90-minute Sunday night block on the USA Network and company founder Mark Hughes hosts the first infomercial, set in a Midwest hotel ballroom and filled with testimonials about the wonders of his product. Distributors in the audience are handed checks for $30,000 to $50,000. The phone lines go crazy.
* 1987 -- The portable Soloflex exercise machine becomes the first high-end product to be sold.
* 1989 -- Mike Levey launches his "Amazing Discoveries" series. With his Everyman demeanor and outlandish sweaters, he excitedly markets hundreds of products, including car wax and kitchen gadgets.
* 1989 -- Tony Robbins launches his "Personal Power" campaign, and Victoria Jackson launches her cosmetics line.
* 1990 -- Dionne Warwick hosts "The Psychic Friends Network," a talk show featuring reenactments of guests' otherworldly experiences.
* 1993 -- "The Martinettis Bring Home a Computer" is the first "storymercial," using a fictional Middle American family to promote the benefits of the Apple Macintosh Performa. The half-hour spot is co-produced by Apple Computer Inc.