Order Now!: The Short History of Paid Programing

Whether or not you’ve ever actually watched a full one, you’re certainly familiar with the show-length advertisements known as infomercials. But have you ever wondered how these comically bad ads came about? After all, unlike other forms of advertisement, infomercials were created specifically for television. Here’s the story of the paid programs we all love to hate.

The Infomercial’s Ancestor

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If you’re familiar with old-timey radio programs, then you probably already know that many pre-television radio programs didn’t have ads so much as sponsors whose name and product would be plugged in between just about every song. Even those unfamiliar with these early radio programs may recognize the idea from the movie O’ Brother Where Art Thou, where there are frequent mentions of Pappy O’Daniel’s Flour Hour.

Interestingly, that character was actually based on a real life Texas governor with the same name who also had a flour company, Hillbilly Flour, that sponsored a radio program. As if the frequent mention of the sponsor’s name wasn’t enough, the real Pappy O’Daniel ensured that even his performers reminded people of the product, so he even helped form a band known as the Light Crust Doughboys (the Hillbilly Band in the video was created after the Doughboys broke up). Sure it was still not quite an infomercial, but I’m sure you can see that sponsored programming is certainly nothing new.

Changing Mediums

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As television began  to catch on, the same concept was used again, only instead of using music or radio plays, the sponsors could create entire TV shows devoted mainly to pitching their products while consumers watched the programming intently. One of the most famous early examples was NBC’s The Magic Clown, which was created and sponsored by Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy and featured regular interruptions promoting said candy (aside from the name in the intro, there's basically a full commercial at 4:09).

The first real infomercial appeared around 1950 and was for a blender, although there is a heated debate as to whether it was for a VitaMix or a Waring blender.

It wasn’t long before the FCC caught wind of the schemes and started cracking down on advertising on television by restricting the amount of ads that could appear during a regular hour of television to only 18 minutes.

The first modern-styled infomercial ran in the seventies on San Diego’s XETV and promoted local homes available for purchase. Because the station was broadcast and licensed out of Tijuana, the FCC’s ad regulations had no jurisdiction over their programming.

Opening New Doors

While there were certainly a few exceptions to the FCC’s rule, like the program ran on XETV, it’s Frank Cannella who is considered the father of infomercials. That’s because when the young ad man was asked to market a new hair growth treatment in 1982, he thought, ‘why not advertise it in a half-hour block?’ Somehow he managed to convince networks to buy the program-length ad despite the ban on these types of ads and the commercial was shown late at night in place of the test patterns and static the networks would otherwise show after their programming ended. The inventor of New Generation hair products soon became a millionaire and Cannella became an advertising legend.

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The infomercial format proved successful and rather than cracking down on the networks showing them, the FCC decided to eliminate their program-length ad restrictions all together in 1984. The next year, Cannella quit working for his old ad agency and formed his own dedicated exclusively to the new medium of infomercials. Soon enough, Soloflex, hair in a can, juicers and the famed George Foreman grill all became goldmines thanks to the new advertising format.

Of course, restrictions remain and vary from country to country. For example, in the UK, mainstream networks couldn’t broadcast infomercials until 2009 and now they can show up to three hours of infomercials per day. In the early nineties in Canada, infomercials could only consist of photographs, not moving video, a restriction that has long since been removed.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of shady businesses and get-rich-quick schemes jumped on the opportunity to advertise through infomercials. Since the 90’s federal and state consumer protection agencies have seemed to be constantly suing one infomercial company or pitchman or another. Fortunately, the ads are becoming at least a little less sketchy, in 2006, the first ever third-party testimonial verification company was launched to validate the testimonials used in commercials and infomercials. It’s not a huge difference yet, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.


Infomercials started out as an exclusively late night offering. I’m sure many of you even remember seeing them come on and then reminding yourself, ‘I guess it’s time for bed.’ In more modern times though, late night TV has become increasingly popular, leaving infomercials to sneak their way into daytime programming as well. As more soaps and game shows were cancelled, mid-day infomercials became increasingly common, but these days it’s not uncommon to see infomercials airing on certain cable networks during prime time. Heck, there are even stations dedicated exclusively to playing infomercials.

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The infomercials themselves have even become more legitimate. Back in the eighties and nineties, the only political candidates to turn to infomercials were fringe candidates like Lyndon LaRouche and Ross Perot, but in the 2008 election, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both used infomercials to help push their campaigns. Humorously, they still seem just as cheesy as any other infomercial though.

Since the recession, infomercials have become even more popular as networks have started seeing fewer traditional ad dollars heading through the door. Rather than making or syndicating actual shows that don’t have enough ad money, stations have increasingly turned to infomercials to fill in the gaps in their programming. Most notably, Fox cancelled its Saturday morning cartoon block after a dispute with provider 4KidsEntertainment and has now replaced the programming with a two hour block of infomercials –won’t someone think of the children!

Personally, I never buy anything I see on infomercials because I just don’t trust them, but I have watched a few, if for no other reason than the fact that they were just so darn ridiculous –did you know there’s a blender that can whip water? What about you guys? Do you ever watch paid programming? And if so, have you ever actually ordered anything from an infomercial?

Sources: Wikipedia #1,#2, #3, USA Today, Direct Marketing Magazine and Response Magazine

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Too many years ago, I used to run across an informercial for the Super-Slicer. I think the major cash outlay was for the items to be sliced. The demonstrator was a man with strong new Jersey/New York type accent. For 30 minutes he demonstrated how to slice things and arrange the slices attractively on a plate. That was basically like a spread deck of cards. Little variation. As a bonus (!)the buyer would get a plastic tool to slice into things like radishes or oranges; it would also peel them. These could then be used to garnish a platter.

I used to catch this now and then, very late on Saturday nights. Kept waiting for Gallagher to show up with the Sledgomatic and Patented Pans. It was that cheesy.
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