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Making a Buck by Selling a 'Dollar'

In Portland, Maine, skydiving lessons and weekend getaways at the Embassy Suites are selling fast on UPN affiliate WPME and sister WB outlet WPXT. Both stations peddle goods and services from area merchants on a locally produced home-shopping program, The Dollar Saver Show. That “show” is actually a bunch of disguised TV commercials strung together into a half-hour.

It's something else, too. The brainchild of entrepreneur Brian Phoenix, this local home-shopping program is turning out to be a way for stations to earn incremental dollars and get new advertisers on-air.

Phoenix has sold the idea to two other TV stations, including CBS affiliate WAGM in Presque Isle, five hours north of Portland, where it's called The Dollar Stretcher Show.

More are hopping aboard

Clear Channel-owned UPN affiliate WTTX Elmira, N.Y., is the latest TV station to sign on, and its sister station in Albany is looking at the program. Three New Hampshire radio stations now air versions, with three more ready to hop aboard.

Here's how the Dollar idea works: Viewers snap up goods and services, from cleaning services and hotel stays to restaurant certificates, all discounted by 30%. Merchants barter the goods, getting in return commercial exposure and foot traffic because buyers have to visit the merchant to pick their purchases up—and perhaps buy more.

For a cut of the sales, Phoenix's Consumer Value Broadcasting ( trains the staff and sets up the computer system.

Station salespeople procure products or services from advertisers. That can be anything from a $14 family bowling package to a $2,500 wood-burning stove. Orders are fulfilled through a third-party company. The stations never take possession of the items.

When viewers call in, a custom computer program generates a proof-of-purchase certificate printed on non-duplicatable paper. Stores like the in-person delivery. “Merchants want to see people walk through their doors,” Phoenix says.

In a tight advertising economy, TV stations are hunting for fresh ways to generate new revenue. The revenue they get from Dollar programs can add up to as much as $250,000 a year for a small-market TV station and, Phoenix estimates, could mean as much as $400,000 in a larger market. The majority of advertisers are new to TV and radio.

The barter solution

Phoenix, a former radio-station manager, has been tinkering since 1990 with local shopping shows as a way for stations to cultivate extra cash. He says advertisers in every market want to advertise on TV but are reluctant to commit to traditional “cash” advertising. His barter solution is easier to swallow.

Home shopping isn't glamorous, but it is lucrative. National shopping channels QVC and HSN are among the most profitable TV networks in the industry. Phoenix's programs attempt to bring that success to the local level.

WAGM General Manager Gordon Wark first heard the Dollar show 15 years ago on a Portland radio station. “It created quite a stir,” he recalls, “Some people pooh-poohed the idea, but they were making money.” When Phoenix converted the idea to TV, Wark signed on. Not only does it make money, the show is an alternative to buying syndicated product to fill open time slots. “It is a way to utilize excess inventory rather than licensing a show or using something on our shelves,” he says.

With with small staffs and tight budgets, most stations cannot afford to produce daily infotainment shows. Phoenix's solution is quick and simple: An account executive visits the merchant and takes three pictures with a digital camera. On-air, the pictures appear onscreen with a voiceover describing the product and local vendor. The spots logged in by the trafficking department are just like commercials and play between a short introduction and sign-off created locally by the spot-production crew. In Portland, Phoenix even does the voiceover himself. “These are easy sales,” he says. “All you have to do is trade.”

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