A Home Shopping Network Dream Come True

Call it a live, unscripted circus of consumerism, a 24-hour-a-day tent revival for the digital age, where the religion is capitalism, and the only faith you need is in your product and your pitch.

It is the Home Shopping Network, or HSN, whose stars include everyone from celebrities hawking their brands to the guy next door, putting everything on the line for that chance to earn thousands in minutes.

Each year 10,000 people apply to the network for a chance to try out their product on air. But only a few hundred make the grade. So what does it take?

Jim Song is one inventor who has been through the experience. His brainchild — that has consumed him for nearly two decades — is a device that steam-cleans toothbrushes. He calls it the "Germ Terminator."

ABC News followed Song and his wife Adi as they tried to make the dream come true.

Velocity Calling

One of the most astonishing things about HSN is just how much product can be sold when, in the words of network president Marty Nealon, "something really resonates with a customer."

She calls it velocity. "Somebody gets out there, and they're able to really explain something. And they get excited. And the phone lines just light up — and all across America — because television is so powerful," she said.

One of the network's biggest sellers is the "huggable hanger" — clothes hangers lined with a non-slip velvety surface. After selling more than 15 million of them, the hangers' inventor, former housewife Joy Mangano, is now a millionaire.

When viewers look at the inventions on the network, "it looks so simple," Nealon said, leading them to think they can do it themselves. "And that's what's exciting," she added.

Doing Their Homework

The Songs' first step was an audition, where they had to convince HSN executives to buy some of their products.

The stakes were high. The Songs have a family of seven, and they spent their savings and mortgaged their house to bring the Germ Terminator to market.

"Our life is riding on this product," Jim told ABC News' Jay Schadler. "We've invested in the patent attorneys, we've invested in the engineers." Part of their money also went to manufacturing more than 300,000 of the devices.

That's a conservative number. "There's 300 million people in the United States alone who brush their teeth. And I figured that 300,000 would not be enough," he said.

In front of the executives, Adi told them: "You wash your silverware everyday before you use it, after you use it. Why wouldn't you clean your toothbrush?"

But HSN buyer Nathan Bangs pointed out the item was untested, and set to appear during the busy Christmas season, when air time is especially valuable.

Marketing executive Suzi Ross appeared more enthusiastic. She said the device was "easy to understand" and "highly demonstrable."

The final say came from Bangs, who became convinced. "Can you be here in September?" he asked Jim. "Absolutely," Jim replied.

Salesperson, Showperson

With their foot in the door, the next step for the Songs was to get their heads out of the clouds.

Within the space of a month, they would have to pack and ship their items, as well as come up with what Jim was going to say on air.

Jim is passionate about inventing things, but he was afraid of selling them in a live, unscripted pitch for his network debut. However, on HSN, the spectacle is almost as important as the product.

No one knows this better than former actress Suzanne Somers, the so-called queen of HSN. Somers earns more than $50 million a year selling her wares on the network, just one weekend a month — everything, from cookies to cashmere, pajamas to protein.

"This is true show business," she told Schadler. "If you come understanding show business, you'll do really well. You're putting on a show. You're here to entertain. But at the same time, this is a serious business for us."

Somers considers herself a good saleswoman, but she adds, "I sell what I love. I love it and I use it, and I wear it and I eat it. Then they look at me and go, 'Well, I want what she's having.' "

Solution to a Problem

On the day the Germ Terminator was to debut, Jim was so nervous he thought he might vomit. He would only have one shot: 12 minutes to sell 300 germ terminators in order to be invited back.

An HSN executive advised him, "Just think small. Think like you're in just this little tube. You have to do everything small, but your story is big."

His chance to make years of hard work pay off would happen with Kris Scanlon — the host of his show that day. After a brief introduction of the product, Jim began with, "I am so excited to be here today."

Then Jim began to establish the problem faced by the consumer — and proposed his invention as a solution.

"Let me ask you a question. I just brushed my teeth with this toothbrush before I came out here. We know subconsciously that there are germs on this toothbrush," he told HSN's audience.

The solution, he said, was in his invention, which he promised "kills greater than 99.999 percent of all germs … in major laboratory testing." HSN checks such claims through their quality assurance lab and their legal department.

Jim brought out a cup, the kind in which many people store their toothbrushes. It was lined with a residue. "Look at this stuff in here." Scanlon followed up: "I know. It's disgusting."

At this time — after only a few minutes on the air — HSN had received 136 calls.

Capitalist High

"It gives you peace of mind every time," Jim continued. He demonstrated how simple it was to operate the product.

"You add water. When you hear it steam, you know it's clean."

With only five minutes left, 194 Germ Terminators had been sold. "It's the only steam dry heat home toothbrush sanitizer of its kind in the market anywhere," Jim said.

The sales continued, and Scanlon told viewers, "in a moment you're going to probably hear that we are sold out of the product."

She was right. With less than a minute to go, the Germ Terminators were all sold out. Scanlon quickly said, "Jim, we have to ask you, make more."

"Awesome, awesome. I'd love to be back. I'd love the opportunity again," Jim replied.

Jim left his place in front of the camera shocked by the experience. "I just said to myself before I went on, 'Just let what's in your heart just come out.' And, you know, I have no recollection of what just happened. I really have no idea."

But even before Jim was off the set, the network was already ordering more Germ Terminators and scheduling his return visit. The Songs felt good.

Nealon congratulated him. They sold almost double what was expected of them — about 500. Now the Songs had only 299,500 Germ Terminators left to go.

This story originally aired in December 2003. The "germ terminator" has been so successful that the Songs sold all 300,000 of their original products on HSN and elsewhere, and have added another distribution center.