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 Backstage Visit to QVC Studios
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.
Newfangled Products at Bargain Prices
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.
As vendors make their pitches, monitors track the volume of calls and sales. Part of the marketing power of QVC is its ability to change course -- live, on the air -- to reflect the response of viewers to a particular product.
"The way I talk about it is, every time we present a product on air, America votes," said Scott Crossin, director of broadcast operations. "We have instant visibility to how our customers respond in real time."
Lisa Robertson, an overnight program host, said the pressure of immediate sales results could contribute to stage fright for some vendors. "In about four minutes you are going to know if you're working or not, and your sell is going to be done anywhere between six and 12 minutes," she said. "That's a lot of pressure."
Such pressure, with the added ingredient of live television, has made for some infamous moments through the years. Archival clips from the QVC channel of vendors falling off ladders or fainting have become underground hits on YouTube.
"I had one poor gentleman who came on the set, I introduced him, he said, 'Hello' -- that was the last word he said," Robertson said. "He completely froze."
John Kenedy took the stage to sell a product called Tanda Clear, which promises to banish acne using a special blue light. It was his first-ever outing as a QVC vendor.
The QVC Host: A Special Hybrid
"It went well," Kenedy said afterward. "I was very nervous. I thought I was going to lose my voice, but you get through it. The host is fabulous."
As a QVC host, Robertson is something of a cross between a TV anchor, a salesperson and an entertainer. A lot of her job, she said, is knowing the products she's helping to sell.
"You can't say you own it if you don't, you can't say you're going to buy it if you aren't, you can't say you've used it if you haven't, you can't say you love it if you don't," Robertson said. "You have to be clear."
Not everyone may be familiar with Lisa Robertson, but does she ever have fans. Many QVC viewers are fiercely loyal and seem borderline obsessed with the network, the cult of QVC.
"I love QVC; I'm a QVC queen," said Charmaine Greene, who was shopping at the QVC outlet adjacent to the studio. "We do a lot of ordering."
Wired magazine once described shop-at-home viewers as "trailer-park housewives frantically phoning for another ceramic clown." But don't tell that to Pam Henriquez and Linda Weaver, who drove an hour and a half to shop at the outlet mall.
"It's always a treat for us to come down and spend the day down here, because we go to the outlet and then we go to our favorite restaurant right up the road, and then we go to the studio and buy more," said Henriquez, adding that she buys something from the network every week.
It's not just about the shopping, though, she said. "It's entertainment. I learn a lot."
Greene said, "I try to watch daily just to get my QVC fix, this is what I call it. I turn the TV on at least a few times a day just to see what they are selling. And if, then if it's something that I am interested in, I just watch."
How the ESPN of Shopping Keeps Score
Back in the studio, the women from NuFace -- Catalano and her colleague, Carol Cole -- were nervous. It was 2 a.m., and this was their product's big debut, make-or-break time. Before the NuFace vendors went on air, Robertson offered pointers.
"When we start out with this, I need us to start out with something very impactful," Robertson said. "So instead of just starting describing what it is, I need for you to kind of, up front, to talk about it being a microcurrent device that is based on the same technology you would find in professional offices."
The vendors' concentration was momentarily shaken when a stage hand dropped a platter of NuFace products, sending them clattering to the floor just moments before air. But Catalano remained composed and took the stage, doing her best to sell a $300 hi-tech device to a late night audience, while the clock counted down the minutes.
As she finished, her partners watching the real-time sales data smiled broadly.
"We really are [happy]," Catalano said, "because the per-minute is what's important, how much are you selling, dollars per minute. That's what's important to us, and we're really happy about it."
Too soon to tell if they'll be getting rich, but they may be invited back. Because as long as a product sells, QVC wins.
On the ESPN of shopping, the score is kept in dollars and cents.