By  on June 21, 1994

NEW YORK -- Was the concept of transactional television overhyped?

The budding genre, which marries entertainment and selling, was trumpeted by the industry as the next programming breakthrough.

It was the hot topic at television and direct response conventions. Everybody wanted to do it, from infomercial companies to broadcast networks.

But last week's cancellation of Joan Rivers' "Can We Shop?" might have dealt a serious blow to the future of transactional programming. QRT Entertainment, a production partnership formed by QVC Inc., Regal Communications and Tribune Entertainment, said the last "Can We Shop?" will air on July 15.

The show was launched in January, the first nationally syndicated home shopping program on broadcast TV. Although cable television had been a rich field for infomercials and home shopping, there had been little precedent for home shopping on network TV.

Transactional TV can take many forms, but the essential concept is a program that will draw viewers who might not necessarily be buyers. Sales are important, but ratings are even more vital. A personality who serves not only as salesperson, but as an entertainer, therefore, is also paramount. Proponents of transactional TV would like to see the category blossom on broadcast television, rather than on cable stations.

"Can We Shop?" took a soft-sell approach, but Rivers' banter with guests always circled back to the product. An announcer provided information about prices and ordering.

Since January, the program has sold about $14 million worth of merchandise to more than 300,000 viewers.

Industry executives said the program's demise could make network and station executives think twice about adding such programs to their lineups.

"Joan Rivers was a proven commodity in the broadcast community as a talk show host and was also a proven commodity on QVC," said one TV executive. "If Joan can't do it, who can?"

"I'm terribly upset because it's a bad omen for people like us who are trying to get transactional shows on the air," said Earl Greenburg, president and chief executive of Transactional Media Inc., which specializes in the category. "When companies as strong as Tribune and QVC can't do it, it's very unsettling. If this had worked, there would have been a glut of transactional shows in the marketplace."Transactional programming would seem to have a lot going for it. The stations that carry it can sell advertising time and collect a percentage of product sales. The programming is inexpensive to produce. "Can We Shop?" was the first syndicated transactional show to achieve a modicum of success. Earlier models, such as "Nitecap" and NBC's "Mall of America," never went beyond the test phase. Many industry experts now believe that finding the right formula for transactional programming is something akin to breaking the sound barrier.

"There's no empirical evidence that it works," said a network executive. "It's still not proven, and Joan's show didn't move the evolutionary curve forward."

Bob Perkins, president of Q Direct, a new division of QVC, said, "It hasn't changed my enthusiasm. It's very clear we're going to have to answer the question of how you get a larger audience. What it will take is a specific concept."

"Can We Shop?" producers tinkered with the format and buyers tinkered with the merchandise, but it was ultimately poor ratings that canceled the show. It had a 0.8 rating, which is considered very low. Industry experts said a syndicated daytime show needs anywhere from a 1.5 to 3 to survive.

"The product mix was going under constant revisions and refinements," said Jim Lutton, vice president of programming for Tribune Entertainment. "We were experimenting a lot. We had some incredible successes with some products.

"It's just part of the learning curve," he continued. "All television shows are a race against time, and unfortunately the economics of the venture and the partnership didn't allow for any more."

While some station managers said they are still intrigued with the idea of transactional programming and the secondary revenue stream it provides, ratings are ultimately more important. There was concern that "Can We Shop?" was dragging down the programs that preceded and followed it and affecting advertising revenues.

"I think it works with HSN and QVC," said Mike Dunlop, general manager of KTXH in Houston. "When people tune into broadcast TV, they tune in for entertainment.

"Transactional television has got a long way to go," he added. "It's a real tough format to sustain, trying to sell something and trying to keep them entertained."One station manager said, "Let's not mix up entertainment and selling. If you're going to sell, do an infomercial. With infomercials, you know what you're getting. With transactional programming, you're using some pretext that it's something else."

"I thought the program was ill-conceived," said Greenburg. "The transactional program that succeeds will be a program that can be distinguished from QVC and HSN. 'Can We Shop?' had too many similarities to traditional home shopping.

"They were selling between four and six products an hour," Greenberg said. "On home shopping, people are preconditioned to buy. With 'Can We Shop?' they were looking to be entertained. Because of the volume of product being put on the air, Joan was forced to be more of a pitch person."

"I think the future of transactional is thematic," said Greg Renker, president of Guthy-Renker, an infomercial company in Palm Desert, Calif. "On Joan Rivers, one minute you were seeing cookware and the next minute you were seeing a mop."

In any case, Renker said he's not convinced that transactional programming has to be entertaining.

"It can be educational and informative," he said. "People watch the news and it's not entertaining."

Despite transactional television's uncertain future, many companies still want to produce shows that mix talking with hawking, hoping that theirs will be the one to achieve the big breakthrough.

Fox Broadcasting reportedly has in development a late-night talk show with transactional elements as well as a sports show with shopping opportunities.

"Sci Fi Trader," a transactional program that will air on the Sci Fi Channel, was produced by TMI and Barbour Langley Programs. Greenburg said getting the show on television was possible because "we're going into a niche marketplace" on a cable channel that reaches 15 million to 17 million homes.

Q Direct's first foray into transactional programming will begin on June 21 with "Stadium Stand," a show it produced with ESPN. It will air after the World Cup Games on the sports cable channel, offering licensed World Cup and Adidas merchandise, such as T-shirts, jerseys, caps, watches and jackets. For now, Tribune Entertainment says it is still interested in the concept."I absolutely think there's a place for transactional programming on broadcast TV," Tribune's Lutton said. "Given the economics of daytime TV, given the advertising support levels, transactional television is a very viable option.

"We're very interested in continuing with it," he added. "I'm not sure what form it will take, but we still think this is an important area to continue to develop."

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