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copyright 2004, Shawn Wilsie. All rights reserved.
It was a cloudy October day in 1991 when ValueVision signed on the air. Carmella Richards and Frank Keenan welcomed a handful of viewers to a new shopping channel, broadcasting from a small facility in an office strip mall. Carmella and Frank were familiar faces to viewers of the Cable Value Network (CVN) which was the number one shopping network in the 1980’s, until it was swallowed up in a corporate takeover by the (distant) number 3 network at that time, QVC. Rather than join the hosts at QVC, Carmella, Frank, and a score of other hosts and managers of CVN decided to try their hand at their own shopping network. Today it’s known as ShopNBC and is seen in 55 million homes.
No cable systems carried the new channel and the birth of DirecTV and Dish Network were still years away. The only viewers for the first 3 months were owners of large satellite dishes and viewers on 6 low power TV stations in cities like Minneapolis, Cleveland, Houston, and a few others. In addition to Carmella and Frank, the first group of former CVN hosts included Susan Garrett, Charla Rines, Tony Smith, Mike Sullivan, Eddie Nelson, Steve Sedahl, Jim Zons, and Wes McCoy. New faces Shannon Smith, Wendy T., Michelle Murphy, Michelle Cross, Shawn Wilsie, and Wes’ wife Pam joined them.
-Shawn Wilsie,Carmella Richards, and Eddie Nelson have a laugh... CLICK HERE
Originally the network was only live for 12 hours a day, from 9 AM to 9 PM Central Time, with the broadcast day repeated on videotape from 9 PM to 9 AM. This helped keep costs down for the young operation. Even so it was not uncommon for employees to take on a second job within the company. A cameraman might pack in the warehouse after his camera shift. If the call center got overwhelmed with calls in the early days it was very common to see corporate vice presidents and presidents answering calls and taking orders. Carmella and Charla both doubled as buyers for the company in their extra time. There was a real spirit within the building that, by pulling together, doing extra jobs, and working as a team that this little company would grow to incredible heights and be a real contender in the shopping industry.
By December of 1991 it was holiday shopping season and the first real test for ValueVision. As with any company this can be “make or break” time. Don’t have success during the holidays; don’t plan on being around next year! How to get people to buy from ValueVision when the more established QVC and Home Shopping Club (HSC) were so powerful was a key question. Management had kept its vendor contacts from CVN, which helped answer that to a point. ValueVision was able to buy gold at prices that QVC and HSC couldn’t touch and that was one key draw in the early days that continues to this day. The other thing that helped was an idea had by one of the early executives that was wondering how to get people, not only to buy, but also to buy more. This was the birth of the “shopping cart”.
For many who were viewers in the early years, up until the mid 1990’s, the “shopping cart” was the only way to go. It allowed you to shop for a 24-hour period, originally from noon to noon, for one low shipping and handling charge. The “video shopping cart” actually started as the “Holiday Shopping Cart” in 1991 as a promotion to get early viewers tuned in. This was an idea that neither QVC nor HSC could execute if they wanted to because of how large an operation they are. ValueVision was small enough that one employee could take all of one customers orders, pick them all by hand, box them up and then send them off together as one “order”. The other networks were too large to make such time devoted to one order financially possible. The promotion was such a hit that it was decided to continue it after the holidays, as the “Video Shopping Cart” which continued for many years to come. The death of the shopping cart was really only a sign of the times. Shipping charges had gone up dramatically so the cost of the cart increased over the years from $4.95 to $12.95. Saying “shop all you want, for 24 hours, for $12.95” had nowhere near the appeal it once did. The network had grown so much that it was, also, becoming less financially smart to have one employee pick one customers entire order. The “shopping cart” had served the network well, it made ValueVision unique, and brought dedicated viewers to this new network.
The first 2 years of ValueVisions life the studio was located as part of a small “office strip mall”, a long building housing many small business, in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, MN. This two story tall section had enough room for a small reception area, off of which had an office for the CEO and CFO. A short hallway took you past the call center, home to about 10 call center reps at the busiest time, and a small room with a vending machine, coffee maker on the opposite side. Past this was the control room and then the back half of the building was the two story tall warehouse. Above the front third of the building, on the second floor, was wide open office space with desks for the one programmer, Carmella and Charla (to do their buying), the Vice President in charge of Production (Bob Glassman), and Frank Keenan, also a VP. All of the hosts shared one desk, also in this area. One corner of this area had all the product samples sitting on shelves, ready to be used on air. A short ramps from this area took you to the studio which housed two small sets. The studio was on the dreaded mezzanine.
-for a picture Charla and Frank on one of the early sets CLICK HERE
Any early host will have many stories to tell you of working from a live television studio, on a mezzanine, overlooking an active warehouse! First off the temperature on the mezzanine frequently exceeded 85 degrees (to be kind). But the nature of live television is “the show must go on” so, without complaining (too much) the hosts performed in these unusual conditions. I recall one night selling some nice jewelry and looking down from my spot, into the warehouse, to see one of the directors walking around with a broom held up. Turns out he was chasing a bat that had flown in through the open warehouse door. Eddie Nelson was on the same set one afternoon when the live cameras caught a bird, again had flown in through the open door, who seemed to be making a home in one of the fake plants on the set.
One thing to keep in mind about where we were broadcasting from... This is a building built for offices in the traditional sense, it’s not intended to handle the power needs of a television operation. The lights, television monitors, cameras, they all require lots of electricity. Add that to a 100-degree, Minnesota summer day, and the air conditioning needed to keep that equipment cool and that spells power outage. In hindsight, with all the power outages we had, it’s amazing any viewers stuck around long enough to see when (or if) we came back. One afternoon the power was off for several hours before it was restored. Imagine any business, trying to grow, and when you want to visit it, it’s closed for some reason. Would you keep going back after the second or third time it was shut? Probably not. Luckily the ValueVision viewers were loyal and didn’t loose faith in us and stuck with us. In fact, we were growing like we never could have imagined.
By the summer of 1992, cable stations had started to pick up ValueVisions programming, mainly on a part-time basis. Truth be told that ValueVision was having to buy time on most of these stations in order to be seem. In the early 90’s the TV shopping industry was a benefit to the cable system because they made money by running a shopping channel. QVC and HSC paid the local cable system a percentage based on the sales made by the homes on the cable system. As part of that agreement; however, was the clause that if the cable system aired a competitors broadcast then the percentage they were paid was cut, DRAMATICLY! This made traditional carriage difficult but by buying the time ValueVision made it on cable, and by the clause in the contracts with the other networks.
Fall of 1992 showed such incredibly growth it was time to expand. ValueVision started leasing the space next to them, ripped out the wall and doubled the space. Much to the delight of the hosts, this meant a new studio in it’s own first floor, enclosed space! More packers were hired, the call center expanded, and buyers hired so no longer were employees having to share jobs. By fall of 1992 more hosts were brought on including some old CVN faces like Bill Fahey, Skip Connelly and 5 more new hosts from the Minneapolis area. The company was starting to get some good press as it grew to more and more cable systems. By this time the list of cable systems, mainly metropolitan areas, had grown to about 40 systems which, combined with the broadcast stations, gave ValueVision access to 4 million homes. That was still a small fraction of the “big guys” but because of the presence in large cities it really got ValueVision “on the map”.
-Were you watching in 1993? If so you would remember this set CLICK HERE TO SEE
-to see a picture of a fun time from fall 1992 CLICK HERE
The Christmas shopping season of 1992 came and went. By the dawn of 1993 it was becoming obvious to management that, as good as the company was doing, it was necessary to cut back a bit on some of the expenses. The fiscal year ended on January 31st and, as good as it was in some areas, fat could be trimmed. Unfortunately for some that came in the first ever, and only ever, across the board cut in staff. Some call center representatives, buyers, and even some hosts were all out of work on February 14th, 1993. The company’s own “St. Valentines Day massacre” as one host described it. One of the things that made ValueVision stand apart was that all shows were hosted by two people. The theory was that if a viewer didn’t care for one host, they would watch for the other. The facts became clear; however, that the network would be better off with one host per show. The good was that the hosts who survived would, by and large, take the company into the new millennium. The hosts who remained were Carmella Richards, Charla Rines (who would soon leave for one year to start a new shopping network that never made it off the ground), Wes and Pam McCoy (who remained as the sole “team”), Steve Sedahl, Wendy T., Shannon Smith, Jim Zons, Shawn Wilsie, Michelle Murphy, Skip Connelly, and Bill Fahey, Frank Keenan continued his dual role as executive off air, and on air with his “red pen” when he would come out and cut prices.
One of the obstacles the early years brought was how to create “events”. Today with all the guests that come in every day is an “event” in it’s own way. Back then just about every hour was an hour of jewelry (about 2/3rds of the time) and with no guest. Some creative marketing gave an inventory of primarily gold and gems some unique shows. Hours of (and even al day events of) “Bracelet Blitz” were not uncommon. For the ring fans, a “Ring Riot” would bring in the eyes. It was during this time that ValueVision became the industry leader in per-gram gold pricing, a title we continue to hold until this day, and we took advantage of that with “Gold Rush”. That was an all day or all weekend event that viewers always looked forward to.
It was in 1993 that ValueVision did something no shopping network had really done to this point. The selling of computers. Now this was a very low-key thing. Just a few computers and there was no regularly scheduled computer show. It was sold without even turning it on; it just sat on the set and was talked about. No Internet, no printer, just a computer that you could (and I swear this is what we said) “store recipes on”. Believe it or not, it sold, and it was realized that this was a product category we could get into that no network was attempting with any seriousness. It would take another year but eventually computers would become a part of the networks regular product mix.
Guests started making more appearances on the fledgling network during ’93. Chuck Clemency was becoming a fixture with his sapphires and “TNT”, tanzanite and tourmaline jewelry. Harry Ivens brought in a nice line of gemstones and ValueVision debuted it’s own line of CZ jewelry with “Brilliante”. As the need for more products grew, the need for more buyers did as well. It also meant that this company, having doubled its office space in just one year, was in need of more space again. This time knocking down a wall wouldn’t be enough. It needed it’s own building, and fast!
ValueVision found a new home in it’s own building in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie. As the building came together it meant packing up the old building and the memories of this company’s first two years. By now, thanks to its October purchase of 4 full power TV stations, ValueVision was broadcasting into almost 10 million cable homes. That’s still below the reach of HSC and QVC but impressive growth still. The move was a great excuse for a “moving sale”. To really show off that the network was serious the sets were torn down and the broadcast took place for a week from the near gutted studio. For those that had been with the company since the start it was a bittersweet move since this little building saw the birth of the network. For everyone else it was a welcome move to a real space with so much more room to grow. It also meant the birth of the “overnights".
-to see the studio as it was "coming down" CLICK HERE
The network was now ready to join the “big leagues” and begin broadcasting 24 hours a day. Charla would be the 9am-Noon girl. At Noon Carmella Richards would take over followed by Bill Fahey at 3pm. 6pm brought on the McCoys and at 9 it was time for Steve Sedahl or Shannon Smith. Now at Midnight Jim Zons began the overnights followed by Shawn Wilsie at 3am. It was also about this time that Joleen Benoit joined the gang of hosts along with former HSC host Chuck Podhaisky. The former Miss Minnesota is still hosting for ShopNBC today while Mr. Podhaisky left under a year later.
-the overnights, let the craziness begin...
To understand how things got so wild you must understand that this is the industry of selling. The modern (i.e. 2004) shopping network is a highly computerized operation with constant readouts of what’s selling and what isn’t. Back then the only thing the host saw on computer was how many calls were coming in. He or she didn’t know if people were ordering what was being shown or if, in the case of the late nights, it was some drunk with nothing better to do than crank call shopping networks. Today the show line-up is programmed way in advance and can’t be changed without proper approval. Back then the product to be aired was written by hand on a sheet and could be changed at a moments notice by anyone.
The craziness started simply enough. I was hosting and doing a nice presentation for an “egg shaped pendant” that was part of the “Bold Elegance” collection we were selling at that time. In 1993 we didn’t have models for the jewelry so the item was displayed on a little “neck”, a stand shaped like the neckline, that I stood behind. As I was “pitching” I happened to look down at the pendant. From my perspective it looked like one of the big eyed aliens from the movie “close encounters” with a beanie on it’s head. Well that’s all it took and I was holding back the laughter. Every time I even just tried to look at the monitor, just to see if the audience saw what I did, I lost it. Needless to say that none were sold and we soon moved on to another item.
Now guess what item was in my show again a couple nights later? THE SAME PENDANT! This time I couldn’t help it, I decided to speak, in a subtle way, to what all of America is thinking. Let’s face it, if an item is ugly, we all know it. I started talking about how “surely you know somebody who DESERVES this as a gift”, “can you imagine their reaction when they see THIS as a gift!” and about how “nobody would ever anticipate this as a gift”. Jim Zons caught my joke and took it to the next level the following night. He showed the pendant, turned it upright and, in a funny voice, said “take me to your leader”. The subtle sarcasm caught on and we sold over a hundred of the stupid pendant. Today the owners of that pendant have a rare “treasure” that many of us ValueVision “veterans” remember fondly and with a chuckle.
-If you're sure you REALLY want to see that stupid pendant CLICK HERE
Soon after I was taking a walk through the “samples area”. The series of shelves where the on-air samples for our hard goods are stored. Today it’s a locked, secure area but again this was 1993 and anyone could walk through. I soon realized we had a great deal of “crap” that never made it on the air. Based on the fun we had with the pendant I decided to try and pitch something else with that same “you know this is as hideous/stupid/pointless as I do which is exactly why we want it”. It worked again! Soon Jim joined the fun and for about 2 or 3 weeks we had nightly “specials”. A 21 piece farm set, a porcelain pig, a “clown sitting on a bench” porcelain teapot, and a series of other “egg shaped items” from porcelain eggs to an egg-shaped clock. Sometimes, to add to the fun, the items would be electronically “superimposed” on the screen so it would appear to fly across the screen over what ever else was being shown. The birth of the “swine of savings”, “price reducing reindeer”, “Goddess of great prices”, and more.
We were having more fun and the audience loved it. The overnights has always been a bit of a “club”, regular viewers we really developed a rapport with. On air we would chat with “Dianne from Connecticut” and “Rosemary from Long Island” nightly and would usually talk about anything other than what they bought. Nothing like this had ever been done in the history of television shopping and the other networks were even taking note. Soon the hosts on QVC, usually very reserved, were “loosening up” between the hours of 1 and 5 in the morning. We were breaking new ground, having a blast, and in our naiveté figured we could just keep doing our thing with no interference since management was asleep.
What brought a halt to the fun was not any of the “nightly specials”, nor was it the fact we were having so much fun. It was the “egg shaped man”. He was the invention of an extremely talented Visual Merchandiser, the people who prepare the product for air, who took the idea of superimposing an object and combined it with the “popularity” of the egg shaped items we sold and soon the “Egg Shaped Man” was born. We also had a director who volunteered as the voice of Egg Shaped Man. We had three images of him, one generic pose with the accompanying words “I am Egg Shaped Man”, another holding a fishing pole with the voiceover “stay on the line”, and the last had him holding a sign saying “sold out” with the line “this item is sold out”. (CLICK HERE TO SEE EGG SHAPED MAN) We had some great fun with this for a few weeks before word came down to basically “cease and desist”. The concern was that it was damaging to the “image” of the network. In hindsight it’s understandable, any corporation works hard on their brand and image. It was probably silly to just think we could throw it on the air without some reaction. Actually the audience reaction was great, they loved it, but alas they don’t sign our paychecks. To management’s credit the Egg Shaped Man idea was left on the table and, several months later, he was allowed to return in a “cleaned up” (more professionally done”) form. After only a few weeks the plug was pulled again for “image concerns” and is now just a fond memory. The irony is probably that now a similar character is seen every year on the “Today” show as part of their summer concert series. Their sponsor is some egg council and the logo is an “egg shaped man” with the today show logo.
Quotes from the fake naval aviator misterjingles. Not a pilot, or 9/11 survivor.