Picks and Pans Review: Pass the Buck

updated 07/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Money makes the dial go round this week as we look at cable's capitalist casino: shows that promise to make you dough and shows that try to take your dough.

HOME SHOPPING NETWORK

This, home shoppers, is the most amazing new network to hit cable since the Weather Channel! That's right, amazing! But wait! There's more! The Home Shopping Network is wildly successful, too! And if you watch right now, you'll also get laughs! Absolutely free! Yes, this is a special television offer.

Here's how it works: Day or night, you tune in to see merchandise, mostly tacky, on the screen: a cubic zirconia (poor woman's diamond) ring, a "hand-painted" clown that rotates and plays Send in the Clowns, a kitschy basket of porcelain flowers or a big-ticket ($999.75) item like a video camcorder. An excited voice announces the retail price, then the low HSN price. You hear bells and whistles. Call an 800 number and order—quickly, for in a few minutes this bargain will be replaced by another. While the buying proceeds, you see a counter clicking off how many have been sold; when the item is cheap, like the Magic Dusters (two for $6.75), that ticker ticks faster than a gas pump in an oil crisis, into the hundreds, even thousands. Now that's excitement. Then you get to see the host or hostess. My favorite is Carmella Richards. She's pretty. She smiles nicely. She's cable's Vanna White—and she talks. Carmella tells you all about the bargains. The "gold-finished tableware," she says, is "gonna change your whole attitude toward eating. We're not talking about eating a meal. We're talking about dining." While someone's hand in front of the camera fondles "cubic zirconia" the size of baseballs, Carmella reassures buyers: "They're not overdone. They're not gaudy." Like all the other hosts, Carmella also talks to buyers on the phone. She has lots of fans, people who watch all day, people who admit to buying a half dozen things per day—home-shopping addicts, in other words. "I was born to shop," one woman says. "I've been shopping and shopping and shopping," another confesses wistfully. "I don't know why I'm shopping." Carmella and her callers talk about the weather. They talk about their hometowns. "Oh, that's great," Carmella says, "New Jersey. That's terrific." They say hello to friends and relatives watching "national TV," and Carmella gives them a "toot" with a rubber-bulbed bicycle horn. And the callers extol the virtues of HSN merchandise, often doing a better job of selling than the salesmen on the air. Buyers get treated like family members; on their birthdays and anniversaries they even get HSN coupons. All from the convenience of their own rec room. "Remember the old days when you had to go to the retail store, the mall?" says Carmella. "Isn't that funny?"

So here you have the network that's never interrupted by commercials, because it's nothing but commercials, the network that is the apex of a long line of salesmanship leading back to medicine men and up through door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen, K-Tel commercials, telethons and Tupperware parties. HSN gives people what they want, and makes a fortune doing it. Wall Street is impressed. HSN, now available in about seven million cable homes, offered its stock for sale at $18 only last May; at last count, it was up to $95, making this brand-new company worth more than $1 billion. So competitors are leaping up, including one, Cable Value Network, that's owned partly by cable systems. But I don't care about that business stuff. I just like to watch Carmella toot that horn.

THE HUCKSTERS

Before HSN came along, the phenom of cable huckstering were all those get-rich-quick shows that promised to make you a mint by selling you home-study courses in real estate or stocks or simply happiness. These hucksters buy a half hour or hour—usually late at night on cable networks like Lifetime or USA or on local stations—and air long commercials that are made to look more and more like real shows. The Keys to Success with Art (Jeopardy) Fleming as host tries to look like a documentary on successful people: cookie magnate Wally "Famous" Amos, insurance magnate W. Clement Stone, makeup magnette Mary Kay Ash. Another successful person interviewed just happens to be in real estate and just happens to be selling a home-study course. Slick. Real estate mogul Dave Del Dotto has entertainment on his show: a singer belting Over the Rainbow. "Remember," says Dave, "dream not, have not." One real estate show also sells subliminal tapes-all you hear is waves while tiny voices in the background tell you you're smart, successful, and so on. If you like the tapes, you can pay another $15 to become a dealer. One E. Joseph Cossman ("Co$$man," on the TV) tells you how to set up your own business. Another guy tells you how to make a fortune in penny stocks. And one more, an honestly charming and funny woman named Rita Davenport, sells tapes to help women find a high-paying job, a better marriage or a nicer house. They all sell their greenback gospels with the fervor of any video preacher. And all sell courses that instruct mostly on cassettes, which seems to say that people who want to get rich quick don't have time to read.

It may be camp fun to watch these cable greedathons. But they also say something slightly sad about us—about people who can't stop shopping, people so lonely they die to talk to a stranger on the phone, people so impressed with TV they'll spend money to be on TV and people who think they can get rich or happy without working at it. Sometimes, TV is a mirror too clear.

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