It's the middle of the night in eastern Pennsylvania, an hour when most businesses are closed and most residents have long since gone to bed.
But inside a sprawling studio here on the outskirts of Philadelphia, the workday is in full swing, as a parade of peppy, hopeful -- and, in some cases, increasingly nervous -- salespeople get ready to pitch their products on live television to a national audience.
Welcome to the midnight world of QVC, one of the most successful television networks in the United States, the so-called ESPN of shopping. Twenty-four hours a day, on every day of the year except Christmas, QVC beams its blend of shopping and entertainment into 166 million homes worldwide, from the United States to the U.K. to Germany to Asia -- almost anywhere a home shopper sits ready with a credit card and a cable connection.
The wares go far beyond the stereotypical home-shopping mainstays -- commemorative plates and ceramic figurines -- although those are available, too.
A recent 2 a.m. visit to the QVC studios in West Chester revealed the beehive of activity behind the live broadcast. On brightly lit sets made to look like the rooms of a typical home, stage hands assembled and shuffled props while program hosts -- the celebrities of home shopping -- shepherded vendors on and off stage. Backstage, meanwhile, the vendors honed their pitches to make the most of their coveted slots on the network, which are hard to come by but can, if a product takes off, mean giant market success in a matter of minutes.
"In our book, entertainment -- shopping is entertainment, and we don't draw a line and say one minute we are going to entertain you and the next minute we are going to go shopping," said Doug Rose, vice president of programming at QVC (which stands for Quality, Value, Convenience). "We feel when we are doing our job right, shopping is fun to watch."
Part of making QVC fun to watch means airing no commercials -- not that the network needs any. QVC takes a cut of everything it sells. And it has it down to a science.
A newfangled gizmo called NuFace, said to use "microcurrents" to improve muscle tone in the face, was about to hit the airwaves.
"It's kind of like a personal trainer for your face," said Beth Ann Catalano, a NuFace vendor.
A personal trainer for your face? Kind of like chewing gum?
"Not kinda," Catalano said with a laugh. "You can do it while you are on the telephone, you can relax and do it on conference calls all day."
Also up for sale was an at-home laser hair-removal machine called Tria Beauty. The product, vendor Bob Grove said, was "the first FDA-engineered laser that is on the market for doing laser at home."
"Basically you have long-lasting hair removal; this allows you to do hair removal in the privacy and convenience of your own home," Grove said.
The casual appeal of many of the on-air pitches belie the serious attention to detail the network brings to every aspect of its business. QVC monitors its competition on quad-screen televisions, like a news channel making sure it's not being scooped. Fiercely protective of its image, it shadowed a visiting television crew with no less than four handlers.