In cooperation with four other major Chicago nonprofits, WTTW has aired some 40 hours of upscale home-shopping in the last two weeks of October , testing both the buying market and public acceptance.
If the experiment gives promising results, the public TV station may rush to create a national shopping service for cable TV, or keep the service on its broadcast channel, or both, according to Bruce Marcus, senior v.p. of corporate marketing and communications.
And if people don't accept the idea and buy the products, he said, the selling will disappear for good.
Marcus declined to release sales figures, but said after seven days on-air that proceeds were at the expected level and growing every day.
The Chicago Holiday Gift Exchange, as WTTW called it, brought immediate objections from public-interest advocates. Gigi Sohn of the Media Access Group, a public-interest law firm in Washington, told the Wall Street Journal that the gift exchange was ''an abuse of the public trust.''
''If they were trying to put themselves out of business, they couldn't do a better job,'' said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education. He predicted the project would alienate the Clinton Administration at a time when pubcasters are trying to find a role in the ''information superhighway.''
But WTTW said viewer calls have been largely positive, and the Chicago dailies haven't attacked the project.
Pat Widder, former media-beat reporter and now associate managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, said ''it will be interesting to see how this works'' for WTTW. ''If public television continues to be what it was, it won't be around,'' she said. ''They're not going to be around if they don't have funds.''
Selling products on a noncommercial channel doesn't bother her. ''What do you call a pledge drive when they're selling premiums?'' she asks.
WTTW sees no legal problem with the project, said Marcus. ''We feel we're operating within our mission. We're not breaking any rules.''
In its gift exchange, WTTW is selling merchandise--mostly priced between $30 and $85--from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Field Museum of Natural History and the Lincoln Park Zoo, as well as from the station itself. WTTW takes a percentage of gross sales, he said.
Products and accompanying educational segments are often inspired by current displays or programs of the five institutions--such as the African art show at the Art Institute. Between product pitches, the producers insert educational/promotional segments such as one about the African art exhibit.
Best-sellers include not only African masks but also a Rain Forest Preservation Kit from the zoo (the buyer gets 100 square feet of Costa Rican forest), Beethoven afghans from the orchestra, and dinosaur models from the museum, according to Marcus.
After the first week, one-third to one-half of calls about the gift exchange have been ''positive,'' such as queries about products, and 80 to 90 percent of the remainder have been complaints about preempted programs, Marcus said. The station avoided preempting children's or prime-time weeknight programming, he said.
In the first week of the Oct. 16-31 experiment, the gift exchange aired Saturday during the day, 10-6, and then weekdays 12:30 to 4. During the second week, Marcus said, it significantly increased sales by moving into later hours, 7-11 p.m. on Saturday and weeknights 10 p.m. to midnight, ending with a Sunday block Oct. 31, noon to 5 p.m.
Marcus said WTTW designed its gift exchange for ''less of an aggressive marketing look'' than the cable shopping channels he had studied. Though prices and shipping costs are superimposed on the screen, the numbers don't blink, discount prices aren't given, and quantities of remaining products don't count down, he explained.
WTTW President Bill McCarter has been active for years in trying to expand public TV's sources of support. A decade ago, the station supported and participated in public TV's FCC-supervised experiment with on-air advertising.
WTTW's experiment with home shopping generally met its first objective of gathering information about techniques, said organizer Bruce Marcus, but as for its second objective, ''overall sales volume was less than what we hoped it would be.'' Costs were lower than revenue, but came pretty close, he said.
The Chicago Holiday Gift Exchange ''didn't net us hundreds of thousands,'' he said. ''That was not our plan.''
Marcus said WTTW learned how to proceed if it chooses to begin airing a home-shopping service as a regular thing, or starts a regional or national home-shopping service on cable.
Making money was a secondary objective, Marcus said. If it had been his main assignment, he would have been more selective about items sold, tested fewer of them and given more airtime to those that sold well, he explained.
Best-sellers included functional products such as umbrellas, cotton clothing, afghans, food and books, especially in the $30-$50 range, Marcus said. Jewelry didn't sell well, though he figured expensive gifts would have done better if WTTW had been able to air the experiment closer to Christmas.
All of the cooperating institutions' gift shops have seen ''significant increases'' in on-site sales since the broadcasts last month, which featured promotional material about the four organizations. Next time, WTTW would try to benefit from these gains by charging institutions a participation fee up front, Marcus said.
Whatever happens on-air, WTTW plans to begin retailing PTV-related merchandise in a shopping mall within coming months, Marcus said.
The station got few complaints about the home-shopping project from viewers, he said.
A local media watchdog called the Coalition for Democracy in Public Television objected to ''another step in the blurring of the distinction between WTTW and for-profit broadcasters.'' The coalition, which claims 130 member organizations including Operation PUSH, seeks an elected board for WTTW.
The Chicago Holiday Gift Exchange looked so much like cable's home shopping networks that it looked incongruous, said coalition spokesman and independent producer Scott Sanders. ''It doesn't make any sense being on public television, and I hope it doesn't come back.''
Web page posted Sept. 12, 1995
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