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Psychic Friends Network, hosted by Dionne Warwick, has become a $100 million-plus business for Inphomation Inc. GHETTO OF GADGETS, GET-RICH SCHEMES DESPITE MEDIUM'S POTENTIAL, AD REVIEWER WONDERS WHERE GOOD STUFF WILL GO

By Published on .

As we plod bumper-to-bumper along the clogged interstates of cable TV in search of the elusive information superhighway, we are faced with the question, "What will become of infomercials?"

In a 500-channel environment, will the second wave of cheap media time create a profitable new frontier for some future Sally Struthers' Lipo-Flowbee, or Mark Spitz's Miracle Dental Floss Rewaxer? Or will audience fragmentation make even the cheapest media uneconomical in the face of anemic response rates?

It's an interesting question-although what's most interesting of all is that anyone cares enough to ask. Worrying about the future of infomercials is like worrying about the future of the "Montel Williams" show. It's like worrying about the future of the World Wrestling Federation. It's like worrying about the future of crack.

All are extremely successful products with a faithful following, but none of them appeals to people's best impulses, and their success reveals about our culture things we probably didn't want to know. Or admit.

We ask ourselves what will become of infomercials but, after 10 years, a better question might be, "Why is this cavalcade of shlock all that infomercials have become?" Why, in 1994, has this exciting, promising, uniquely sales-intensive medium remained a ghetto for gadgets, get-rich schemes and gaudy promises of fantasies fulfilled? Why are the top three infomercials (for the last week I checked) a hip-and-thigh exerciser ("I can look like that!"), a "Making Love Work" seminar and the Psychic Friends Network?

These are not rhetorical questions. There is an answer-an answer that gets back to how infomercials came to be but also speaks volumes about the future. And it's an answer that should make everybody in the industry feel better about themselves, if not by instilling pride then at least by mitigating shame.

Dionne Warwick and a bunch of soap-opera characters aren't selling supernatural happy talk to losers because The Elders of Info Commerce have conspired to pollute the nation's co-ax. Victoria Principal isn't getting rich on vain, self-deluding suckers in a conscious attempt to undermine America's values.

It hasn't happened this way because someone chose it to happen. It happened because it had to happen.

We can wish all we want that major marketers had embraced the genre and made it wholesome, but this isn't about utopianism. It's about Darwinism. If you think of the marketplace instead as an ecosystem, you see that the evolution of the species was determined naturally by two overwhelming environmental influences:

Factor 1. The convergence of technologies.

A decade ago saw the emergence of new cable networks offering vast early-morning deserts of unsold airtime, coinciding precisely with the development of 800-line phone service, inexpensive database computerization and sophisticated credit-card fulfillment. Thus could a get-rich-in-real-estate seminar pitchman achieve with one 30-minute ad what previously he couldn't do without booking 179 Ramada conference rooms in 46 states.

Factor 2. Many people are stupid.

OK, maybe that's not fair. What I mean is, many people are stupid and vain and gullible, and pathetically willing to suspend disbelief when it costs only four easy payments of $19.99 to conquer obesity, aging, loneliness, financial frustration, and the tyranny of $10 haircuts every five-to-six weeks.

Technological achievements unleashed on a sleep-deprived, unresistant population in the TV ecosystem. That, not industrywide malevolence, explains the infomercial culture. That explains why hundreds of thousands of people have purchased Flowbee brand vacuum-cleaner-powered suction hair-cutting systems. And that is why the industry need not fear as it looks into the future.

The amount of cheap infoprogramming time will inevitably expand, creating yet again the favorable media environment. And people will remain forever stupid, gullible and vain. If infomercial producers can come up with shows that work against a whole array of narrow audiences (will the Lipo-Flowbee pull on both the Psoriasis Channel and the Yachting Network?), they should prosper well into the next century-until the evolution of a fitter species.

Let us suppose the Yachting Network doesn't want to be one-stop shopping for all your suction haircutting needs, but fills its cablecast day with some new hybrid of nautical information/entertainment/sales. And let us suppose the Psoriasis Channel does the same. As does 12-Step TV, Plumbing Central and the Menendez Brothers' Network.

If this were to happen, demand for theme-specific advertainment could select out Victoria Principal and many a hip-and-thigh machine. But, for the adaptable producers of the evolved species of infomercial programming, it should be nothing less than a feeding frenzy.

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