By  on February 8, 1994

NEW YORK -- Joan Rivers has left the talk show circuit for greener pastures. Rivers's new vehicle, "Can We Shop?" aims straight for the green in the pocketbook, while cloaking itself in an entertainment format.

"Can We Shop?" is the first nationally syndicated home shopping program on broadcast TV. As such, it is a risky venture. While cable television has been fertile soil for infomercials and shopping channels, there has been little precedent for home shopping on network TV.

NBC's "Mall of America" disappeared into oblivion after one show; in October 1992, ABC's "Nitecap" had a test run of six weeks and has not been heard from since.

The eyes of the broadcasting and retailing communities are watching to see whether the Rivers show flies with viewers, who are accustomed to seeing talk shows and soaps in the early afternoon.

"I think it's going to be an educational process," Rivers said. "But I think the show is very strong. You can watch it and never buy anything and still have a good time."

Launched on Jan. 17, "Can We Shop?" is produced by Tribune Entertainment, QVC and Regal Communications.

While "Can We Shop?" executives declined to reveal volume projections, industry sources said the show must sell at least $200,000 worth of merchandise a day to break even. That would mean yearly sales of more than $50 million.

Mark Riely, a principal of MacDonald, Grippo, Riely, an entertainment consulting firm, said production costs should be relatively low: about $100,000 a week, excluding Rivers's fee. He said he thought the show would have little trouble meeting its sales goals.

Jewelry designer Erwin Pearl, a guest on a recently taped show, offered two pieces of jewelry during a 10-minute segment. Pearl won't get sales results until after the program airs, but said he would be pleased with a volume of $30,000 to $50,000.

Ratings are another matter. "Can We Shop?" has access to 93 million homes, about twice QVC's estimated 45 million. An executive for "Can We Shop?" admitted that ratings "have not been great -- in the 1 percent and 2 percent range."But, the executive added, "Ratings are not the determining factor. We need both sales and ratings, but in certain cases, sales can compensate."

As for sales, Larry Ferber, the show's executive producer, said, "We've had some days where we go, 'Wow,' and some days where we go, 'Eh.'

"We're learning that certain products work well," Ferber added. "We did a bread maker that sold really well. Nutrition books sell well. Jewelry sells relatively well. A toilet bowl cleaner that lasts in your toilet for five years sold really well."

"Can We Shop?" guests have included Dolly Parton, who hawked her Dolly line of cosmetics from Revlon; Kathy Smith, a fitness expert who sold a personal stereo and video exercise program, and several pop psychologists who sold books.

But "Can We Shop?" has more upscale ambitions.

Rivers would like to sell fantasy items.

"We're working now with Van Cleef and Arpels," she said. "We want to sell Rolls-Royces."

Three of the program's merchandising executives -- Bill Lane, Linda Wiatrowski and Gail Gordon Channer -- worked at Bloomingdale's and are using that store as a guidepost.

"There's a lot of opportunity for the better brand names that have been holding off," said Lane, who is vice president of merchandising for the show. "We understand it is a big decision for brand names. But we can drive their business in stores."

Lane and Channer, who is merchandising director, have been talking to various designers and manufacturers. Arnold Scaasi has agreed to launch a jewelry line in March, Oleg Cassini will sell neckwear this month, and Orlane and Perlier are developing exclusive cosmetics and bath kits for the show.

"Eventually, we'll be developing our own designers in accessories, apparel and jewelry," said Lane. "We'll nurture different designers."

According to Ferber, most of the merchandise is bought on consignment, which means vendors assume the risk.

The show's gross margin is 40 percent of sales. Stations that carry the show may get about 5 percent, which is the industry standard.The show takes a soft-sell approach. An announcer introduces three or four items for sale at the start of each show, then returns intermittently to offer the products again.

Rivers's banter always circles back to the products, but an announcer provides information about prices and ordering.

"Joan's a star," said Ferber. "Selling shouldn't be her thing."

If "Can We Shop?" is to succeed, it had better be somebody's thing.

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