After 17 years at QVC, former producer Jim Beslin decided to pen a novel inspired by his time behind the scenes at the world's largest home shopping network. Shoplandia opens the studio doors and invites you into the fast-paced, high-pressure world where it's always live and anything could happen and usually does.
|Jim and Victoria Principal|
Who could these hosts be???????
The man in a tuxedo walked confidently onto the set, paused in the center of the stage and smiled directly into the camera with a flirtatious eye. ... The young ingenue host thought about that rush she experienced, making things up on the fly, saying things she didn’t believe just to quell the silence in the room. ... The aging prime time host worried that the suits were searching for new talent, young slim women with chirpy voices, eager-to-please types with perpetual smiles and triple pierced ears. ... The last honest salesman, a fatherly figure, mid-fifties, gracious and humorous behind his wire-rimmed glasses. just shook his head.
After reading the book, I sure have some rather strong opinions on the matter. Unfortunately for me, Jim's lips are sealed! I dream of taking Jim out for some buy one get one free margaritas and weaseling some good dirt out of him. Until that day, we can all play the guessing game, which is really half the fun!
|Jim and Joan Rivers|
QB: How did you end up working in the home shopping world? What jobs did you do?
JB: I was working in news when I heard about this new channel QVC that started out in the suburban town of West Chester, PA. I realized if I was going to stay in news, I'd have to move to a new city every few years. I was hired at QVC as a line producer, which I believe is the best retail job in America. The line producer is on headsets, watching immediate sales, seeing what products America wants and doesn't want. I eventually became a managing producer and worked with brands such as Disney, Coach Fine Leathers, Sony, etc. to put their shows together. I also managed the team of coordinating producers for ten years.
QB: Like the terrible hot dog incident in Shoplandia, what was the worst home shopping fail you had to contend with--item fell apart, demo didn't work, etc.?
JB: Oh jeez. Tough one. We've had hosts and guests slice their fingers or burn themselves or singe their eyebrows while on the air. When bread bakeries were the rage, we sometimes had trouble making the bread. Sometimes it just doesn't rise correctly. One time we had a pretty famous singer who while singing on the air was hit in the head with the boom camera.
QB: What about the worst testimonial calls, or T-calls as the cool kids call them (you learn all the behind the scenes lingo in this book!)?
JB: The worst thing that could happen was getting a t-caller who would just start saying obscene things. Of course, the call would be dropped right away. It was very, very rare but it was unsettling for not just the host but for the whole crew.
|Jim and Morgan Fairchild|
QB: Based on the description in your book, being a show producer is a lot like being an air traffic controller--just with colliding egos instead of planes. What was the most difficult thing to juggle: host egos, celebrity vendors, frantic buyers, the "suits" from upstairs, etc.?
JB: Juggling is a good analogy. What made it fascinating was the different mix every day. Sometimes you were steadily juggling four bowling pins and then someone would throw a flaming tennis racket into the mix. The key to quality television production is proper preparation, but that was a luxury in the early days. In the story "Backtiming," you get a sense of how much line producers juggled (professionally and personally) while producing the show on the fly.
QB: Was there a type of show that was most challenging to produce--time of day, time of year, type of product, remote location, celebrity, new host, etc.?
JB: The 24-hour cook events required so much coordination. All the vendors would want prep time on the set and space was limited. In 1997, I produced Presidential Inaugural Collectibles and we set up to do a live show from Clinton's Inaugural Ball at the National Building Museum. Ten minutes before the show, our cable crapped out and we had to get into a closet that we had been told by the ball's director would be off limits after Secret Service swept the area. The whole crew was wearing tuxedos, and I had to hustle through the ball to find the director, so she could have Secret Service grant us access to the closet. We started the show about fifteen minutes late but we managed to do the broadcast. I was a total wreck.
QB: Even the non-home-shopping world is enthralled by the celebrities that visit (read about Jim's favorite celebrity encounters here) However, home shopping aficionados want to know about all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that surrounded those appearances. Did hosts openly campaign to work with certain people? From the book, it seemed like the entire atmosphere changed when a celebrity was in the building.
JB: I did not see hosts campaign for specific shows, but I'm guessing there could be friendly rivalries. I think everyone has their own favorite celebrities who visited. When I tell people meeting Florence Henderson was one of my biggest thrills, people laugh. For me though, there was a connection because she felt like a second mom to me through The Brady Bunch.
|Jim and Willie Nelson|
QB: In Shoplandia, some of the hosts flipped an internal switch when the camera light turned on and suddenly became the likable boy or girl next door. Were any of them basically the same on-air and off?
JB: The hosts are the best versions of themselves when they are on the air. They are like anyone would be if they were going to dinner with their potential in-laws for the first time. They are on their best behavior if that makes sense. Working so closely with them in the studio, a producer needs to let them vent and settle them down, kind of like that moment in the first chapter. A good producer's job is to make the host feel comfortable so they can focus on their presentation. When a producer approaches a host and the host taps their mic to insure it is down, you know they are about to speak the truth.
QB: After working for so long as a producer, did you start to develop an instinct for which products, hosts, vendors, execs would last and which ones would crash and burn?
JB: Ha. We all had our opinions but that would be as hard to predict as guessing which products were going to be hits.
QB: You've seen a whole lot of changes over the years. What do you think is for the better and what do you miss about the good old days?
JB: The quality of both the products and the production has grown tremendously since 1986. What do I miss? Do I dare say the dancing numbers during the Gold Rush? Lucky Number? The Word Game? Q Bird? Ha.
QB: How much does all the criticism on the message boards bother people?
JB: Well, I was once called a "mental midget" on the message boards. Another time I was called "a marketing genius," and they didn't mean it in a positive way. I printed out both comments and have proudly pinned them to the bulletin board over my writing desk. Some of the comments could get nasty, but many were insightful.
QB: When people found out where you worked, did they ever try to audition for you?
JB: Nobody broke into an audition, but women often told me they think they should be a host or their friends always tell them they should audition.
QB: Like one of the minor characters in book, do most home shopping fans claim that they just keep QVC on in the background (while wearing a Susan Graver top with Quacker Factory pants, of course)?
JB: There's a range. So many people do just watch occasionally and pick up a few things a year. Even now that I've left the Q, I love chatting with home shopping fans to hear their opinions. Each person has a particular host or show they love and someone else that they don't enjoy watching.
QB: Can you watch QVC now without getting heart palpitations? Is there anything you buy?
JB: I think like most recovering producers, I talk to my television. Whether I'm watching a home shopping show, or the local news, or a live sporting event, if the talent hesitates before speaking into the camera, I'll yell, "You're up! You're up! YOU'RE LIVE!" I also have the bad habit of replying "copy that" when my wife asks if I heard her. I just bought the Kansas City Steakburgers last week. Grilling season is here!
QB: While you were at the Q, was there someone who could sell you?
JB: Good question. In the book, the host Frankie Mack tells a new show host how his mother asked him if she should buy a certain hand cream and he told his mother, "if I loved you, I wouldn't sell you this." I do think some hosts, even sometimes the callers, will convey a surprisingly good reason why a product would make a good purchase. The advantage of being a producer was I could go over and check out the product myself. My soft spot for products was autographed cookbooks. I'd always break down when I had a chance to get a cookbook signed. My collection includes Julia Child, Graham Kerr, Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, and the Two Fat Ladies.
Up close, the current show host had gray hair and mounds of makeup caked on his sweaty, beefy forehead. He smiled into the camera and teased, “Don’t go away, you won’t believe what we have next.”
Oh my, oh my, who could that be??? Shoplandia is available now on Amazon. Read it and take a guess!