'Pitchmen': Just flip a channel, and you're inside infomercials

A retreat in California's Malibu mountains was the last place TV producer Thom Beers figured he'd be hit with a pitch for a reality series. But that's where Discovery's appropriately named Pitchmen, premiering Wednesday (10 ET/PT), was plotted.

"I go away every year to a spartan ashram just to cleanse and shut out the rest of the world — no cellphone, no BlackBerry, no business," says Beers, the reality whiz behind Discovery hit Deadliest Catch and History Channel's IceRoad Truckers. "Just yoga, extreme hiking and living on about 1,500 calories a day."

But the small group he was with included infomercial huckster Tony Sullivan, who sold Beers on a series centered on the multibillion-dollar industry personified by ubiquitous barkers hawking $19.95 items from cleaners to knives.

Over the course of three days, the pair — much to the consternation of the ashram's owner — mapped out Pitchmen, a behind-the-scenes look at the booming infomercial industry and some of its principal players, including Sullivan and the industry's best-known salesman, hyperkinetic Billy Mays.

"What's interesting is how they use their skills to push products," Beers says. "But the series is really about dreams. Sully and Billy are dream merchants for the little guy who can get lucky with an invention and strike it rich. It's great storytelling."

Sullivan and Mays cherry-pick the inventions they think will sell on TV. The pair then strike marketing deals with industry distributors and media buyers.

Viewers — even those who view infomercials as abhorrent — might find entertainment value in Pitchmen, whose initial concept has been tweaked to include the back stories of product inventors on the 13-episode series.

Tonight's episode features Impact Gel inventor Matt Kriesel, anxious about the virtually indestructible shoe insoles he developed, financed by savings and mortgaging his Wisconsin home; and James White, a cancer survivor and inventor of the GPS Pal, a car caddy. Episode 2 features Kristin Hagen, inventor of foot mop Shuffles, and Spaniard Frederic Sciamma, who created the fast-cutting electric Dual Saw.

Mays notes that most ideas don't make it past his and Sully's scrutiny; indeed, one inventor's device that lets women urinate standing up is quickly panned. "Does it have the wow factor? Is it easy to use? Can you sell it at the right price?" Mays says. "I'm looking for a grand slam."

For Mays, that means using infomercials to draw interest not just from sporadic late-night TV viewers, but from big retailers willing to stock scores of "As Seen On TV" products on store shelves.

Mercury Media Holdings, which purchases massive blocks of TV ad time, says test Impact Gel ads point to robust sales. "Billy and Sully have a huge success rate," says Mercury sales exec Mark Biglow. "Sully knows how to script a spot. And Billy's got the consumer's ear."

Discovery president John Ford says Pitchmen would have been entertaining just focused on Sullivan and Mays. "They remind me of the Odd Couple: different styles, with lots of tension and laughter. But with the inventors, this makes for interesting television."

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