For John Basedow, fitness is both simple and lucrative

Times Staff Writer

He's 6 feet 3, 190 pounds and ripped all over. John Basedow is his name, and if you watch any television at all, you've probably seen his washboard stomach, pumped-up chest and Popeye biceps -- all of which he peacocks in endlessly airing commercials touting his "Fitness Made Simple" exercise videos. Flip on the tube morning, noon or night, and there he is before a flaming backdrop, talking up his "45-Minute Fat Burning Workout" or doing crunches to maintain his "Six-Pack Abs."

But now, just when you thought there was no possible way to see any more of Basedow's shirtless physique, the 34-year-old is taking his exercise videos to another level with a new 30-minute infomercial. This week, in segments that will air on hundreds of stations throughout the country, viewers will have the opportunity to see even more close-ups of his rippled body parts and buy four of his most popular videotapes for just $69.95.

So who is this guy, and why does he seem to be everywhere on TV?

Rags-to-riches stories are common in the U.S. So is Hollywood- and music-enabled stardom. But Basedow's rise from obscurity to televised ubiquity is born of traditional American dream self-determination and strengthened with a direct-response media-buying system that encourages repetition of commercials that bring in sales.

And Basedow sells, to the tune of about 40,000 videos (at $29.95 a pop) each year. Then there are the product spinoffs he says his fans demand -- photographs and calendars of him, and T-shirts with the triangular "Fitness Made Simple" logo.

Basedow says that he receives several hundred e-mails and letters from fans each week and that it's rare for him to dine out without being approached for an autograph or a picture.

The downside to fame: Last month a rumor that he had been killed in the tsunami was circulating online. Otherwise, Basedow admits he likes the perks of celebrity, though they weren't his motivation for starting "Fitness Made Simple." That would be vanity -- or, as Basedow puts it, "the cosmetic benefit."

In 1996, after three years of hosting a syndicated health-and-science TV program on Long Island, Basedow was out of a job. He was pudgy, unknown and so poor that he'd taken a loan to make his $1,000 mortgage payment. A "goal-oriented person" with time on his hands and a "bowling pin on legs" staring back from his mirror, he decided to get in shape with the idea of eventually becoming a fitness model.

A once gangly former tennis player whose frame tended to collect fat in the midsection, Basedow embarked on a series of regimens that coupled weight training and exercise with all kinds of diets -- pineapple and tuna, low carb, low fat.

"I would try all these things, but I was never getting the results worth the effort," he says in a phone interview from his Long Island studio. "That was the point I was at when one day I sat down and looked at what I had been doing over the last year and a half -- what had worked, what had worked to some degree -- and that's when I started gleaning the good and bad points that led to 'Fitness Made Simple.' "

After just eight weeks of following his new regimen, he says, he had reduced his body fat from 14% to 5% and sculpted himself into a quasi-Adonis who was finally rewarded with the modeling gigs he was after.

But as much as he'd lost in weight, he says, he gained even more from the experience.

"What happened was I ended up getting so into fitness and seeing that the cosmetic benefits were the tip of the iceberg.... When you start realizing it can make everything in your life better, that's when it becomes a real part of your lifestyle."

It's this firsthand experience, evidenced with Basedow's rock-hard bod and earnest -- if wooden -- delivery, that's been his strongest selling point. In the lingo of direct-response television, or DRTV, he's what's known as a "true believer."

"When you have somebody that gives testimony who sincerely believes in what he's doing, it comes through, and the consumer can see that and there's automatic likability and also a trust factor that plays into it," says Barbara Tulipane, chief executive and president of the Electronic Retailing Assn., a direct marketing trade group. "He's living that show."

With the addition of his new 30-minute spot, Basedow joins the ranks of 600 infomercials that hope to lure buyers with an itchy 800-number finger this year. Given his current sales, it's likely that his will be among the 1 in 15 that succeeds.

According to Tim Hawthorne, a DRTV adman who's known as "the father of the modern infomercial," Basedow's success is rooted in classic counterpositioning. He's not high-strung like fitness infomercial staples Richard Simmons and Tony Little. His videos cost a fraction of the $1,000 Chuck Norris/Christie Brinkley-endorsed Total Gym. And they don't promote a magic fat loss pill or other too-good-to-be-true gimmick.

"Most of his consumers, I would bet, probably have some crazy ab belt and ab rollers sitting in their closet. They've probably tried a half-dozen different diets," says Hawthorne. "He just makes it look simple. Somehow he just seems credible and honest in his delivery."

Sam Catanese, chief executive of the Infomercial Monitoring Service, offers a more cynical take: It's the repetition, stupid. "If you see something over and over and over again, you're going to buy it." And if there's one commercial TV viewers are seeing over and over and over again, it's Basedow's. At any given time anywhere in the country, Basedow is airing approximately three different commercials on dozens of stations.

The reason they run so frequently is that the airtime is remnant; whatever spots didn't sell at a station's or cable company's published rate are sold at a discount to DRTV advertisers. In Basedow's case, those spots are purchased with something called per-inquiry buying -- a revenue-sharing deal that gives stations or cable companies a cut of every dollar of revenue made from their on-the-air sales.

If Basedow's spot makes $1,000 every time it runs, when another that's pushing a vacuum, steam cleaner or anti-aging cream makes just $500, the networks will go with Basedow.

Basedow won't disclose the precise amount he's earned from his videos and other products. He will only say he lives "comfortably," in the same Long Island house he struggled to make payments on in 1998, when he made his first "Fitness Made Simple" exercise video.

At that point he was selling only five or six a week, all of them through a syndicated fitness advice column he was writing for the same periodicals in which he modeled -- Exercise for Men, Natural Men's Exercise, Fitness Plus and half a dozen others.

He made the jump from page to small screen after scraping together favors from his days in TV to produce his first low-budget spot. In six months, he says, he was completely out of debt.

In the five years since, Basedow has released five more videos. In addition to exercise videos and "inspirational photos," his website,

www.fitness-made-simple.com, now offers a nutrition-oriented DVD and personal consultations.

Basedow says he has no plans other than "to do more of what I'm doing now and just have a lot of offshoot products from it."

In DRTV-speak, that means he may branch out with products sold through home shopping networks and eventually see his DVD on the shelves of mass retailers such as Wal-Mart. Whether his videos will ever surpass Billy Blanks' $300-million-grossing "Tae Bo" series is unlikely, but one thing's for sure: The more successful Basedow is, the more we're going to see him.

"I don't think 'Fitness Made Simple' is anywhere near 'Tae Bo,' but Basedow is going to have more staying power," Hawthorne says. "I have a feeling he'll be here for a long, long time."

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