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QVC

14 Things You Might Not Know About QVC

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QVC

Developed by Franklin Mint founder Joe Segel in 1986 as an alternative to the Home Shopping Network, QVC (which stands for Quality, Value, and Convenience) has taken the notion of “theatrical retailing” and turned it into a $9 billion dollar business. Hosts work 24 hours a day to beam live product demonstrations to consumers, chirp greetings to callers, and find new ways to extol the benefits of leaf blowers.

But behind the porcelain-veneer smiles churns a relentless machine that works very hard to make everything seem very casual. Take a look at some of the channel’s top selling points.

1. THEY RE-INVENTED HOME SHOPPING.

The concept of home shopping was popularized by Bud Paxson, an AM radio station owner who settled a debt with an advertiser by accepting 118 can openers that he sold over the dial to listeners. Paxson brought the idea to television in the form of HSN; Segel thought the presentations were tacky. In starting rival QVC, Segal hired more polished hosts—and more importantly, gave cable providers a percentage of sales. In return, QVC would get a higher channel assignment and more eyeballs.

2. THEY LAUNCHED WITH A SHOWER RADIO.

QVC went live on November 24, 1986, with host John Eastman presenting a Windsor Shower Companion for $11.49. Sensing Eastman would probably hit a ceiling on how he could demonstrate such an item without rolling out a tub, the production also offered a live drawing that resembled a Power Ball segment: customers that had a credit card matching the four-digit number were entered into a $25,000 sweepstakes. The channel took $7,400 worth of orders that day. Fifteen years later, on December 2, 2001, the number was $80 million.

3. EVERY GESTURE COUNTS.

If you think a host is taking a bite of a brownie or twirling a ring in a spontaneous way, think again. Because QVC’s control room sees sales statistics in real time, they can correlate host and guest behaviors with spikes in sales and advise them (via earpiece) to repeat the action, phrase, or wardrobe. When Joe Sugarman was on air pushing BluBlocker sunglasses, he learned wearing a loud tie helped him move more product; Ron Popeil would jump in the air knowing it led to an increase in profits. Currently, QVC breakout host David Venable can bump his numbers up when he does his “happy dance.”

4. MIKE ROWE GOT HIRED FOR SELLING A PENCIL.

Rowe, who has developed a cult following for his Ford commercials, Dirty Jobs, and overall rugged manliness, had an infamous run as a late-night host for the channel in the early 1990s. To get the gig, he was asked to explain the virtues of a number-two pencil to a QVC exec. For eight minutes. Rowe talked about the “vibrant yellow” of the instrument, its “real wood” feel, and how Einstein and Picasso had made history with such a utensil. When his time was up, the interviewer wrote “You’re Hired” on a piece of paper. (He was later fired, then re-hired, with the channel apparently unable to make up its collective mind on whether Rowe's droll delivery was a good fit for the operation.)    

5. HOSTS HAVE IT ROUGH.

There may be no more vastly under-appreciated job than that of home-shopping host: in addition to finding fresh ways to peddle jewelry, salespeople have to interact with callers, come to the broadcast armed with product knowledge (some even take tours of manufacturing facilities), and monitor production directions via an earpiece, all without cue cards or teleprompters. If all this sounds difficult, it is: hosts are nominally given six months of training. But the really hard part is getting hired. Of the 3,000 people who came to an open audition in 2007—including actors, journalists, and former guests—only three made it on air.  

6. BUT IT’S WORTH IT.  

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Those who can successfully juggle the demands of home-shopping traffic control and endear themselves to viewers are rewarded. While QVC maintains hosts receive no commissions, popular personalities can earn upwards of $500,000 a year for being well-versed in cookware.

7. MARLON BRANDO WANTED A JOB THERE.

According to Brando’s secretary, Alice Marchak, the actor was in dire financial straits in 2001 and was looking for any opportunity to become solvent again. He began suggesting that he appear on QVC, though his ideas—like an earthquake-proof house—weren’t practical for the channel. Instead, Marchak told him to consider selling a DVD instructional on acting. Brando took to the idea and invested $50,000 in filming his (increasingly bizarre) seminars on the craft. The footage was so unwieldy that Brando never wound up on QVC. He died in 2004.

8. THE SALES PITCH IS REALLY A “BACKYARD FENCE” CHAT.

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Unlike HSN’s aggressive personalities, Segel wanted QVC to take a more tempered approach to sales. Hosts and guests are given educations in “backyard fence” conversation, making the viewer feel like they’re simply listening to two friends talk rather than getting drilled by a sales pitch. (When callers stray too far off-message, they're corralled back into discussing the product.)

9. THEY HAVE OUTLET STORES.

Ever wonder what happens to unsold merchandise? It’s all gotta go! The company maintains a small number of retail outlet stores, including two outside the Philadelphia area, where customers can browse in person. Fans can also take a studio tour of the company's facilities in West Chester, Penn.  

10. THEY GOT SCAMMED.

According to NBC, QVC’s web presence got taken for over 1,800 items in 2005 thanks to a glitch in their programming. A Greensboro, North Carolina woman named Quantina Moore-Perry discovered she could order items from the site, request a refund, and still get her shipment. She pled guilty to wire fraud and forfeited the profits from her deed, which totaled over $400,000.  

11. THIS HOST IS THE SAME GUY FROM EVIL DEAD II.

YouTube (L), Lionsgate (R)

Rick Domeier got his QVC hosting gig by pretending to be his own agent, telling executives that “this Domeier guy” was talented. He’s still with the channel, 21 years later. While QVC’s audience has gotten used to him, horror fans probably do double-takes: an experienced actor, Domeier portrayed Ed Gotley, a hapless victim of the Deadite curse in 1987’s Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. Groovy. 

12. GUESTS NEED TO TAKE A CLASS.

While hosts do much of the heavy lifting, QVC’s guests—the inventors, owners, or experts that appear alongside them—don’t necessarily have broadcast experience. To make sure they don’t come off as overly stiff, the channel sends them to a kind of broadcast boot camp: guests are asked to discuss a product, chat conversationally into the camera, and not melt into a sweaty mess on live television. If a vendor can’t accomplish that, some services offer on-air talent for hire.

13. THE HOSTS RELEASED A CHRISTMAS ALBUM.

Further proving that QVC hosts have developed a familial relationship with viewers, the company released a holiday album with recordings from several on-air personalities. Holiday Favorites from the QVC Family featured popular hosts like David Venable and Lisa Robertson covering hits like “Silent Night.” It might be the channel’s concession to skipping just one day of programming a year: Christmas is the only day nothing airs live.

14. FAINTING WON’T STOP THEM FROM SELLING.

Host Cassie Slane was pushing the FunTab Pro tablet in October 2012 when she began feeling light-headed. As she keeled over, co-host Dan Hughes continued to discuss the product, seemingly oblivious to Slane’s sudden lack of vertical ability. (Slane, said to be victimized by low blood sugar, insisted she was fine the following day.)

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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