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Operators Are Standing By . . . All Over the Place : Television: The National Infomercial Marketing Assn.'s annual gathering in Las Vegas is where Susan Powter meets Vanna White.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Mirage Hotel here is merely one of several casinos around town where thousands of people come hoping to make a fast buck. This week, more than a thousand others have descended on it in hopes of making a fast pitch.

In the same hotel where Siegfried and Roy entice visitors with their magic, a multitude of producers, marketers, salesmen and stars of “infomercials"--those 30-minute TV commercials disguised as talk shows or documentaries--have gathered to discuss what sales and visual magic to perform in enticing skeptical viewers to buy incredible sweater machines, “spray-on” hair, lasting lipstick and books and tapes that will bring them trim bodies, health, wealth, happiness and self-esteem for the rest of their lives.

All for a mere $19.95 and up--plus shipping and handling, of course.

The fourth annual trade exhibition and meeting of the National Infomercial Marketing Assn., which ends today, brought together the folks from “Amazing Discoveries” with the folks from “Incredible Breakthroughs.” Hyper-passionate Susan Powter of the blond spike haircut and the “Stop the Insanity” fitness plea compared hair styles with “Perfect Smile” pitch person Vanna White. Panel discussions included “Don’t Know Much Biology: The Dissection of a Winning Infomercial” and “Counting Beans and Crunching Numbers: Happiness Is Positive Cash Flow.”

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Another highlight was the “Emmys of Infomercials” ceremony Wednesday night featuring Vegas singers, dancers and celebrity presenters. Statuettes were given for the best talk-show infomercial, best male and female presenter, and best infomercial of the year (see accompanying story, F20).

Even prominent participants and members of the association’s board seemed somewhat startled by the large, enthusiastic turnout. Three years ago, at the first convention, there were only 120 attendees and no trade exhibition. This year, there were about 1,200 attendees and 140 booths in the exhibition.

Infomercial industry experts said the conference’s burst in popularity reflects the coming-of-age and new-found respectability of the business, which some claim will sell close to $1-billion worth of products this year.

Over the past three years, the Nordic Track infomercial has earned about $225 million, while juicers advertised by Jay (The Juiceman) Kordich have brought in $160 million in revenue. Victoria Jackson’s cosmetics have grossed more than $200 million.

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Industry insiders said the financial benefits, along with the exposure and recognizability of popular infomercials such as “Stop the Insanity” and “Microcrisp,” has taken the “snake-oil salesman” stigma off infomercials and made them a credible and attractive avenue for small entrepreneurs and large corporations to make money.

“Two years ago, people didn’t even want to use the word infomercial ,” said Mike Levey, Positive Response Television president, who is also host of two of the more popular infomercial series, “Amazing Discoveries” and “Ask Mike.” “Nobody wanted to say it because it meant negative things. Now it’s the hottest word on Wall Street.”

Yet a mood of doom or uncertainly hung over some at the conference. Ron Popeil, chairman of Ronco Inc., the creators of the Ronco Food Dyhydrator, GLH (Great Looking Hair) Formula and the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, said the industry was in “a terrible state” because of the entrance of Fortune 500 companies such as Revlon and Volvo. The big companies are driving up the price of television advertising time that can be purchased, he said, pushing the smaller entrepreneur off the air and possibly out of business.

Other infomercial executives frowned on the growing number of “psychic” services that they said continued to give the industry a bad name, even though “Psychic Network” and “Psychic Friends” are among the most successful infomercials. Concerns were also voiced about the Federal Communications Commission’s recent vote to consider establishing limits on the amount of commercial matter television stations could broadcast.

But Jeffrey Glickman, president of First Class Marketing Inc., which helps develop and market products for infomercial companies, was more optimistic about the industry’s future: “The bottom line will always be providing a product that will satisfy the needs of the customer. There’s still a lot of reason to be hopeful. This is only going to get bigger.”

Despite the differing moods, the atmosphere was mostly business-like, frantic and upbeat. Aisles were packed with attendees visiting booths with names like American Fulfillment (a product packaging company) and White Wizard, the odorless stain remover. Television crews and photographers formed paparazzi -type circles around Powter, “The Juiceman” and Jackson. Levey abandoned an interview in mid-sentence, saying, “I’ve got to see someone,” and turned around to discuss business with a visitor.

Greg Renker, president of Guthy-Renker Corp., one of the top five infomercial companies, with credits such as Tony Robbins’ “Personal Power” series, Kathy Smith’s “Fat Burning System” and “Perfect Smile,” compared making infomercials to the motion picture business.

“I feel like I’m making movies,” Renker said. “These things are becoming more and more expensive to produce. The last Tony Robbins infomercial cost $550,000 to make. The first one cost $150,000. I’m like a movie studio. I’ll probably make 15 ‘movies’ next year. I’ll look for big stars and the right script, the perfect location. Then I’ll pray a few of them hit. I’ll hope for a few ‘Jurassic Parks.’ I don’t want a ‘Last Action Hero.’ ”

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Tony Hoffman of Maui Productions sat in a nearby booth planning his next pitch. Hoffman, the host of “Incredible Breakthroughs,” which introduced the Stain-O-Rator and other products, said his next project will be an info-documentary.

“We own the rights to two Elvis Presley songs that he recorded at 19 years old, before the words rock ‘n’ roll existed,” he said. “We’ve got interviews with his high school girlfriends, teachers. We’re hoping to get a big name to tell the story.”

The two songs will be pressed on a Sun Records 78 r.p.m. record and put in a large plaque to be hung on a wall. The songs will also be put on a cassette so consumers can listen to them.

The cost for the plaque and cassette: $99.95.

Satisfaction guaranteed.


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