COVER

The dawning of the informercial age

Psychic hotlines have turned late-night TV into a gold mine, a bonanza built on uncertainty and doubt

MARCI MCDONALD September 4 1995
COVER

The dawning of the informercial age

Psychic hotlines have turned late-night TV into a gold mine, a bonanza built on uncertainty and doubt

MARCI MCDONALD September 4 1995

The dawning of the informercial age

MARCI MCDONALD

COVER

In the cavernous expanse of the Club Trilogy, a disco on Toronto's bleak airport strip, an unlikely cast had gathered for an even unlikelier show business task. Beneath a battery of TV lights and cameras, veteran rock

’n’ roller Ronnie Hawkins, fresh from celebrating his 60th birthday at Massey Hall, was prodding his Hawks into the spotlight to film a raucous rendition of their new single, Days Gone By. Waiting in the wings for their turn before the cameras were soul singer George St. Kitts, a Hollywood comic named Joey Vance and a micro-mini skirted former Playboy model named Lisa Heughan, who had just made headlines with a provocative claim: on New Year’s Eve in 1992, Heughan charged that U.S. customs officials, upon learning of her occupation, had harassed her after she refused to strip at their office party. But that attention-getting lineup was on hand merely to promote the real star of the night’s show: Heughan’s father, Tony Carrino, better known as Anthony Carr, who

bills himself as “the world’s most documented psychic”— a title owed at least in part to

a part his irrepressible knack for publicity stunts. The son of a circus high diver, Carr learned of his psychic abilities from the gypsy card readers who used to babysit him during his father’s carny career. Now, to the strains of a rock band entitled Gravy, Carr was making another bid for celebrity—filming a variety-cum-talk show to plug his 10-1 month-old psychic phone line, the Anthony Carr Psychic and Astrology Group. For, as Carr discovered, no psychic hotline can exist without an infomercial—a paid TV commer-1 cial whose chatty entertainment format and

celebrity testimonials are designed to whip viewers into such an emotional state that they cannot resist dialling the 1-900 number repeatedly bannered across their screens. Indeed, those increasingly prolific psychic infomercials are changing the dynamics of the advertising and broadcast industries, inspiring a new rush to longer ads with their own plots—and their own stars. “I’m more or less the entertainer,” Carr admits, “the front man for the company who gets them to call the line.” Ever since they first appeared on American TV screens in 1991, psychic infomercials have revolutionized an advertising form once dismissed as the murky fiefdom of fly-by-night operators peddling slicer-dicers and spray-on hair. In the process, they have also proved a boon to broadcasters, turning the unprofitable post-midnight hours formerly reserved for reruns into a newfound gold mine. At Hamilton’s CHCH TV, which shows a steady overnight diet of infomer-

ciáis—including Carr’s first effort and a new pitch for the top-rated Canadian entry, jojo’s Psychic Alliance—they have meant more than $1 million in extra annual revenues. “For years, the rating services told us virtually nobody was watching at that time of night,” says Rob Dilworth, the station’s director of audience research. “But these guys have proven there are people out there.” Scott McClellan, communications director for the Canadian Direct Marketing Association, agrees. According to McClellan, last year infomercials generated $30 million in Canadian sales—a fraction of the estimated $1.4-billion North American market. Using that bottom-line argument before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission last fall, he helped persuade the CRTC to let the country’s broadcasters run infomercials during the regulated airtime before midnight, as well as weekend mornings, to compete with those already airing on U.S. border stations.

Still, most Canadian programmers prefer to leave the lengthy commercials in their old time slots, where they have already blurred the increasingly fuzzy line between advertising and entertainment. "One of the arguments we made to the CRTC is that people tune in just to watch infomercials," McClellan says. "It's quite clear that Jojo has her own audience." In fact, broadcasters and direct marketers alike credit psychic hotlines with revitalizing the in fomercial industry. So crucial are the hybrid ads considered to the fortunes of psychic hotlines that some companies supply their telephone seers with broadcast schedules to prepare them for an onslaught of calls. Says Mary Grant, the manager of a numbered company that owns Carr's psychic line: "I can tell you almost to the minute when the calls are going to come, from the time the in fomercial starts to a half-hour after it ends." In Canada, unlike the United States, each in fomercial must now be cleared by the Telecaster Committee, a 23-year-old service set up by the country's private broadcasters to vet TV commer cials for possible regulatory transgressions that could cost a station its licence. But in the eight months since the committee began reviewing infomercials for a $10-a-minute fee, it has ap proved 69 submissions-including 10 for psychic phone lines. Most are patterned after the granddaddy of the genre, which began on U.S. channels four years

ago, touting the wildly successful Psychic Friends Network. A 30-minute mock talk show, it stars Grammy Award-winning singer Dionne (I Say a Little Prayer For You) Warwick as host and features her 52-year-old personal clairvoyant, Linda Georgian. A former Florida phys ed teacher who still does personal readings from her Fort Lauderdale home, Georgian had worked up her own TV show for a local cable channel when she was approached in 1991 by a Maryland directresponse marketer to front an infomercial for a psychic 1-900 line. Georgian, in turn, tapped her friend Warwick, who was paid a flat fee for her appearance, plus a tiny royalty on each call. Ironically, some analysts see the singer, whose own career was then in the doldrums, as the se cret of the ad's appeal. Says Steve Dworman of the Los Angeles-based Infomercial Marketing Report: "They had Dionne Warwick and great production values." A ired more than 300 times a week on chan nels across the continent, the lavishly pro duced half-hour has since prompted more than four million calls to The Psychic Friends Network-an estimated 7,500 to 10,000 a day-each one at the rate of $3.99 (U.S.) a minute or $4.99 in Canada. Last year, that response ac counted for at least half of the $100 million in phone sales raked in by the line's operators, Baltimore-based Inphomation Communications Inc. According to Jordan Whitney Inc., publisher of the California-based Direct Response Television Monitoring Report, The Psychic Friends Network ranked as 1994's top infomercial-outstripping Buns of Steel, Smart Mop and even Inphomation's telegenic psychologist Barbara De Angelis, who pitches a video-cassette series called Making Love Work. To Dworman, the fact that fortune-tellers are outdrawing relationship gurus is merely a sign that some marketers have cannily read the troubled times. "I think it says more about our so ciety than about a consumer trend," he observes. The man credited with launching the psychic in fomercial phenomenon is Michael Warren Lasky,

Psychic hotlines have turned late-night TV into a gold mine, a bonanza built on uncertainty and doubt

the president of Inphomation, a former professional sports handicapper. Last June, Baltimore’s Sun reported that in 1986 the Maryland attorney general’s office had sued Lasky for failing to turn over the membership rolls of a fitness franchise, the Pikesville Nautilus Club, which had gone out of business the previous year. Although the court ruled that Lasky was not legally obliged to reimburse disgruntled former members, he ultimately did so.

Now, his Inphomation reports $150 million in annual phone sales, inspiring other entrepreneurial spirits to follow the lead of his hit infomercial. Among that cast is the main backer behind Anthony Carr’s psychic phone line: a former Carleton University economist named Peter Appleton, who was once the president of the nowdefunct Alliance for a Drug-Free Canada, a corporate-sponsored lobby group. In 1990, he co-authored a book on the narcotics trade called Billion $$$ High.

Despite the success of Lasky’s foray into electronic marketing, he declined to be interviewed by Maclean’s, as did Warwick, who now works out of Brazil.

And Inphomation’s California public relations agency reports that the usually talkative Georgian has shut herself away in Fort Lauderdale, suffering from cluster migraines. Still, their Psychic Friends Network plays on. Now in its ninth edition, the infomercial has come to resemble a prime-time TV series: like characters in an ongoing sitcom plot, audience members reappear to report how previous predictions have materialized in the form of new boyfriends or calamities averted.

Warwick’s newly resuscitated celebrity has also prompted dozens of other fading showbiz and sports stars to leap into the infomercial spotlight.

till, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the clearest gauge of Warwick’s impact is the rush of other personalities to host their own infomercials for copycat psychic lines. Among them are Michael Jackson’s look-alike sister, LaToya, and Philip Michael Thomas, an actor last seen as Don Johnson’s co-star on the hit series Miami Vice. Now as emcee of the Philip Michael Thomas Psychic Connection, he sings and plays the piano with his daughter Sasha while urging viewers to “turn things around in your life” by calling for a free three-minute sample reading.

But the only celebrity who has made a dent in Inphomation’s market is Kenny Kingston, a veteran Hollywood medium who bills himself as “Psychic to the Stars.” Greeting viewers with his signature salutation, “Hello, sweet spirit,” Kingston has periodically turned up on TV talk shows to recount his conversations with the ghosts of Marilyn Monroe and Lucille Ball. He claims both have conveniently supplied him with predictions for the annual Oscar race, although not always with otherworldly accuracy. This spring, he appeared to be cashing in on the current rage for helpful hints from the far side: his infomercial, entitled Your Psychic Experience, wafted to the 14th spot on the National Cable Rankings.

Meanwhile, the latest arrival on the TV psychic bandwagon is Sylvester Stallone’s mother, Jacqueline, who filmed her own infomercial last month in California for the same Miami telemarketers who run jojo’s Psychic Alliance. Stallone, who claims to have once supplied astrological advice to Dionne Warwick, says she put her son through school by plotting astral charts at her kitchen table in Philadelphia. “He was raised on it,” she says. “Even his teachers would call for their horoscopes. They didn’t care whether Sylvester

showed up at school or not.” Stallone admits she failed to foresee her own entry into the psychic infomercial bazaar, whose thriving fortune she sees as an ominous sign. “Basically,” she says, “it shows the world is in pain.”

In fact, at the very moment the infomercial industry is on the verge of mainstream respectability—with leading ad agencies creating special divisions to handle the new form—its pioneers are also anguishing over its future. Inspired by the psychic infomercial phenomenon, some Fortune 500 corporations like Ford Motor Co. and Procter & Gamble Inc. have suddenly invaded the field over the past year, throwing it into upheaval. “Now, the big guys are doing infomercials,” says Jordan Whitney’s John Kogler.

“It’s an excellent way to educate consumers about a product, which you can’t do in a 30-second spot.”

Last year, in the most striking example, Apple Computer Inc. launched a half-hour TV ad patterned on a situation comedy script. Entitled The Martinettis Bring Home a Computer, the story line followed the members of an apparently typical American family—played by actors—as they discovered the joys of the company’s Macintosh Performa model. So heartwarming did the domestic drama prove that response was three to four times higher than Apple’s projections—and inspired a new term in infomercial jargon, the “storymercial.” Now, pharmaceutical firms have followed suit after the makers of one sleeping pill realized that a late-night TV spot provided a forum tailor-made for their insomniac market. In the wake of Ross Perot’s prime-time infomercials in the 1992 presidential elections, politicians too have begun to explore their campaign and fund-raising possibilities. And a lyrical ad commissioned by Prince Edward Island’s ; department of tourism prompted one I industry expert to predict that in| fomercials could replace travelogues.

But the entry of such wealthy players H has increased the cost of even postmidnight airtime on both sides of the border. “It’s a seller’s market from the stations’ point of view,” confirms David Savage, vice-president of the Washington-based National Informational Marketing Association. “Their rates are going up, so it’s becoming harder for marketers to make a profit.” That worry is on the agenda of NIMA’s annual convention next month in Las Vegas, where the industry stages its version of the Academy Awards. Last year, those festivities were buoyant, studded by stars, including Wheel of Fortune’s Vanna White, who is better known among the infomercial crowd for promoting a tooth-whitener called Perfect Smile. But this year, the convention will open with a gloomy question: “Media Costs: Are They Really Out of Control?”

The spiralling rates are pushing marginal infomercials like Anthony Carr’s psychic variety show right off the airwaves. Already, he complains that the company that hired him can only afford 4 a.m. spots on a half-dozen stations. But Carr’s pal Ronnie Hawkins—taking time out from a cross-Canada tour—can attest to an audience for even those obscure slots. “Everywhere I went,” he marvels, “two or three people said to me, ‘I saw you on that crazy psychic show.’ ” Not that Hawkins is a believer in the phone divination he is purportedly plugging. “I always call it good guessing,” he says. “I told Anthony, ‘Give me three winning lottery numbers in a row and I’ll say, ‘Kid, you’ve got something going.’ ” □

Celebrity feeds the lure of the 1-900 number