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Valley channel surfers who stumble upon the nation's strangest home-shopping show should be forgiven if they mistakenly believe they've picked up a TV signal from a parallel universe. After all, how many video merchandisers would dare use dawn-of-television production values, cornball gags and swap-meet bargaining tactics to hawk this one-of-a-kind merchandise: a Lost in Space board game, a neon Budweiser sign and a piece of amber with a prehistoric bug trapped inside?
At least one: The Video Catalog Channel.
"We're down-home. We're informal. And we like to think of ourselves as 'Home Shopping Meets Hee Haw.'"
So says Kent Blackwelder, general manager of the Tennessee-based VCC, an independently owned, round-the-clock shopping channel specializing in one-of-a-kind collectibles ranging from $5 fossils to $25,000 antique jewelry. Currently airing over ten UHF stations scattered around the country (including Phoenix's KDMA, Channel 25), the show is also broadcast by satellite; its primary audience consists of the owners of some four million dish antennas in the United States and Canada.
This year, the channel's fourth season, the show's producers expect to sell more than $14 million worth of merchandise. During one recent eight-hour period, Blackwelder claims VCC sold more than $25,000 worth of unmounted jewels, one of the channel's higher-end items.
Unlike the Home Shopping Network, QVC and other bigger, better-known shopping shows, VCC rarely stands firm on a price. Using an 800 telephone number, credit-card-wielding couch potatoes are encouraged to negotiate prices in spirited bidding wars, with parties on both sides of the table frequently taking good-natured digs at one another.
"We blast the customers--and they love it," claims Blackwelder, recalling how one of the channel's owners handled a gripe from a viewer. The viewer complained that an antique key-wound watch he'd purchased had a hole in the back. "Johnny got the guy on the phone and let him have it unmercifully right there on the air," explains Blackwelder. "He said, 'It's a hole for the damn key to go into, you idiot!'"
Since making its Valley debut late last fall, this quirky haggle fest has been inexplicably successful in convincing many members of the local La-Z-Boy community that they can't live without bullets used in the Civil War, bobbing-head Beatles dolls and coins salvaged from a 100-year-old shipwreck.
Perhaps hypnotized by close-ups of the show's endlessly spinning product turntable and the nonstop elevator music droning in the background, VCC viewers in the greater Phoenix area are now responsible for nearly one out of five orders telephoned into the show's headquarters outside Knoxville. Sales generated by viewers in the Phoenix area have reportedly quadrupled each month since November, making the Valley one of VCC's top markets. (Just how many people are currently watching the VCC show on Channel 25, no one can accurately say. Quarterly Nielsen ratings for the period KDMA has been airing the show will not be released for several weeks.)
"In Phoenix, loose gem stones are our biggest seller," reports Blackwelder. "Apparently, you've got a lot of shade-tree jewelers out there."
That's assuming those customers are eventually able to tear their eyes from the screen. "We have dedicated people who tell us they watch it virtually every waking hour," says KDMA owner Ken Casey, whose station runs VCC 24 hours a day and receives a commission on all sales generated from the greater Phoenix market. "The response has been way beyond our expectations."
Judging from calls received by the station, the show has a large Sun City following. Casey adds that while most shopping networks appeal primarily to women, VCC's heavy emphasis on macho collectibles like beer-advertising paraphernalia, miniature military figures and Civil War memorabilia has won over many male viewers.
"Everyone wants to know where in hell we get this stuff," says Kent Blackwelder. "We have buyers who scour the country. When they go to a watch show, they don't even have to go down on the [display] floor. They just stay in their motel room, and people come to them with their collections." VCC viewers can expect to see many, many old watches in the weeks to come; Blackwelder reports the company just purchased $500,000 worth of the antique timepieces.
More like interactive radio than state-of-the-art television, this Barcalounger bazaar is a deliberate throwback to the no-frills broadcasting of a generation ago. While an unseen announcer dickers over price with a phone-in buyer, what passes for action onscreen is often no more dramatic than a hand swooping into frame to lift a vintage pocket knife or a set of Indian-head pennies off a motorized lazy Susan and holding it up to the camera. And when no one calls in (frequently the case during off-hours), there are long stretches of twirling products and dead silence, inadvertently turning the program into what one recent VCC convert calls "the funniest thing on television."
Blackwelder confesses that some of the show's biggest fans never even buy anything. "I have people calling all the time saying 'I sit here and watch with my kids during the fossil and mineral show because you're talking about the Jurassic period.' See, as much as selling, we're educating people."
And while PBS probably isn't losing any sleep over VCC's flyweight academic content, Blackwell insists that the show's educational process works both ways. Or so he discovered after unsuccessfully asking $300 for an autographed football helmet previously worn by Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman. Blackwelder then put the helmet up for grabs at best offer.
The helmet no one wanted to buy for $300 eventually sold for $445.
The lesson learned?
Blackwelder laughs. "That it's good to be in the home-shopping business.