The Infomercial Comes to Saratoga Springs
By JIM REILLY Features Writer — The Saratogian — January 6th, 1984
One day last summer Steve Rosenbaum was watching a television crew film a segment on Broadway in Saratoga Springs. He noticed a lot of local people crowding around, wandering in front of the camera, hoping to get themselves on television. Two things occurred to him. One is that there is a lot more going on in Saratoga Springs, and probably any other community than you see on television. The other is that people like to see themselves, their friends and their neighbors on the tube. It seemed to him and friend Dave Henahan that if you could get more of a community on television, people would watch it. And somebody would probably be willing to pay for it. The seed was sown for “OurTown Television,” a locally produced cable television show that premieres with a 15-minute segment Jan. 16. It airs at noon and 5:45 p.m. on Jones Intercable’s channel 10. There will be a new show each day, five days a week. “We see it as an opportunity to bring events and people and places within the community onto community video,” Rosenbaum said last week over lunch. “It’s also a chance to bring local sponsors into contact with people in the community.” While Rosenbaum shies away from the words “advertising” and “advertisers,” there is little doubt that both are an essential ingredient of “OurTown.”
Each 15-minute show (Rosenbaum and Henahan hope to expand to 30 minutes in the future) consists of two- or three-minute segments on local sports, events and people. These features will be interspersed with something Rosenbaum calls “infomercials,” (as opposed to “commercials”) which will feature local business people talking about and demonstrating their products or trade. “We will not be selling, it will not be advertising in the strict sense of the word,” Rosenbaum hurries to explain. “We’ve told people to keep them informational rather than promotional … We’re not twisting anything. We’re just giving people a format to talk about the things they do all day.”
Rosenbaum acknowledges that owners and employees can plug a business directly if they want to. But so far, he says, none have. The two would like to establish a regular format for the show, with various local businesses sponsoring and producing segments for the food, sports and entertainment spots each day. Some of the “infomercials” already filmed feature chef Reg Qua of Sperry’s restaurant preparing oysters Rockefeller; Terry Bohn at Le Sounde talking about cassette tapes and home electronics; and Dag Forbush, tennis pro at Saratoga Racquet Club, giving some tennis pointers in a segment called “On Court.”
With the help of volunteer interns, the two have managed to pull together around 30 segments, Rosenbaum said. Some are “infomercials,” others are features, including an interview with Dominic Fantauzzi, head coach of Saratoga High School’s basketball team, and a profile on local folksinger Tom Mitchell. So far, only one full-length “OurTown” show exists. It’s the demonstration tape the two put together to show potential advertisers — ah, “infomercial producers” — what “OurTown” is all about. The tape features Henahan — the “mug” for the show, as Rosenbaum calls him — in a sweater and slacks sitting beside a fireplace in Rosenbaum’s finished basement, “OurTown’s” studio. As host, he introduces each segment, reads the “community calendar” each day, and answers the phone from viewers calling in hoping to win a half-gallon of ice cream or some other prize in the show’s contest. Each daily winner gets a shot at a monthly grand prize.\
The tape is an attempt at professionalism that falls short. Henahan’s gestures and studiedly sincere “radio voice” (he and Rosenbaum worked together for two years at WSPN, Skidmore College’s radio station when they were students there) seem affected; the “infomercial” stars speak too fast, too slow, or stare at the camera, then nervously look away; some of the editing is choppy. The tape runs about 171/2 minutes, two and a half minutes too long. It is somewhere between a home movie and a David Letterman on-the-street spot. But amateurism may be part of the show’s appeal. These are not professional performers, like the people on TV news programs or talk shows; they’re just average people who do something else for a living, who happen to have gained access to roughly 10,000 living rooms via the wonders of video and cable TV. Even Henahan, 25, and Rosenbaum, 22, do something else to make money, since neither expects “OurTown” to be able to pay him a salary for a while. Both tend bar at the Metro, and Rosenbaum sometimes spins records on dance nights. Mark Weiss, the “third partner” in OurTown Television Productions, bought them their equipment. Jones Intercable provides the half-hour of air time free.
State law, as well as the franchise agreement between the city and the cable company, requires that it provide access to free air time on one channel. According to Rosenbaum, the cable company was tickled to have someone willing to do local programming on its public access channel. Local operations manager Patricia Vangel confirmed this. “The channel has been … underutilized, let’s say, in the past,” Vangel said. “We hope to up programming, and community participation, in the future. We’ve already had some overtures from people Mr. Rosenbaum has talked to.” Rosenbaum says “OurTown” will strike a balance between advertising dollars and community service, and won’t sacrifice the latter for the former. “Don’t get me wrong, we’d really like this thing to make money,” he said. “But we’ve got limits. We won’t lie. We won’t try to pass ourselves off as experts on things we know nothing about. And there’ll be no naked ladies or white slavery shows. If we can’t make it without that, the whole thing goes down the toilet, and that’s it.