Print headline: “The Stepford Channel,” published here in October 1992.
The story: It was the ’90s and suddenly David Letterman and Jay Leno found themselves competing for eyeballs with the likes of Jay “the Juiceman” Kordich. The infomercial — that mind-numbing, long-form television commercial in which washed-up celebrities hawked juicers or fitness machines — had been around in some form for years. It reached its cultural zenith, however, in the George H.W. Bush years, that last era before the internet shattered our collective attention span.
The hard numbers: What infomercials lacked in Hollywood credibility, they made up for in profit. In 1991 alone, the industry generated more than $750 million in product sales, inspiring its own version of the Oscars (the Play awards) and minting its own superstars. Tony Robbins, the anvil-jawed motivational guru who repeatedly confessed his former loserdom to famous friends, the dutifully nodding ex-football star Fran Tarkenton among them, had surfed this wave of entertainment-free entertainment to $100 million in sales for his “Personal Power” series.
Groping for explanations: Up to that point, commercials had been considered a necessary evil of watching television. Suddenly, they were the show itself. As infomercials, including the unavoidable “Psychic Friends Network” pitches starring Dionne Warwick, crowded out old Bogart movies and “Honeymooners” reruns on late night television, critics were left to wonder why people were suddenly “feeling powerless to turn off the smiling famous faces and euphoric, satisfied customers who promise a better, younger, prettier, richer, happier, more personally empowered you,” as Rick Marin wrote in 1992. He could only speculate as to the cause. “In a decade with much talk about dysfunction, the world of the infomercial is mesmerizingly functional, even multifunctional,” he surmised. “Everything works, or seems to. And if it doesn’t? There’s always the money-back guarantee.”
But seriously, why? Maybe it was the limits of technology. Smartphones and tablets, with their limitless potential for customizing viewing habits, would not become ubiquitous for a decade and a half. TiVo and other DVRs would not emerge to scramble America’s viewing habits for nearly a decade. In those days, families still tended to gather nightly around an actual television set and let whatever was on wash over them, including commercials — even long ones, apparently. The ’90s were also the heyday of Prozac, which may have left people open to easy feel-good solutions. As Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at Johns Hopkins University, conjectured, “what people seem to want from the infomercial is an experience that is wholly and brainlessly affirmative. It may be commercial television in its purest state.”
An early version of “The Walking Dead”? The infomercial landscape came to resemble a zombie apocalypse of the celebrity undead. Many past-their-prime(time) stars suddenly seemed to be beaming into our living rooms. There was Linda Gray, late of “Dallas,” alongside James Brolin hawking “The Secret of Creating Your Future.” The ex-“Saturday Night Live” comedian Victoria Jackson trying to sell $150 million worth of makeup through her “Beauty Breakthroughs” with Meredith Baxter and Ali MacGraw. Inevitably, Richard Simmons showed up with a mawkish pitch for his “Deal-A-Meal” diet plan. Even actual A-listers (Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen, arguably Cher) stooped to conquer.
Curious choices: Jessica Hahn, a former church secretary who was famous from her part in the sex scandal that helped bring down televangelist Jim Bakker, cashed in on her notoriety by hawking a steamy 1-900 line called “Love Phone.”
Silver linings: Fortunately, the ascendance of the infomercial coincided with the apogee of Generation X, whose armchair pastime was making fun of terrible movies and television shows (to wit, “Mystery Science Theater 3000”). These saccharine testimonials proved a gold mine for jaded, Gen X-centric comedians. “The Ben Stiller Show” memorably torched “Tony Bobbins.” Mike Myers and Dana Carvey opened “Wayne’s World” with a mock infomercial for the Suck Kut hair vacuum. And without breathless infomercial gurus like Tom Vu, Chris Farley’s bellowing motivational speaker bit on “Saturday Night Live” would have been unimaginable.
How it ended: In the era of Netflix, Hulu and Apple TV, who will sit still for even a 30-second spot, let alone a 30-minute spot?