There are many ways we track and remember our history. Recently, while cleaning out and reorganizing the pantry, I discovered that much of my past life can be tracked in the mugs that I owned and used.

Bill Fenton

One of the finest men I have ever known. He created what I always call “The Fenton Protocol.”

In the early days of QVC, many vendors were leery about working with us. Some were concerned about our solvency and that we might not be able to pay for their goods. Many others thought that selling their merchandise on television would have a negative impact on the relationship they had with their brick-and-mortar stores.

In the early 1990’s, Fenton Art Glass was a huge line of collectibles. Most of their business came from the thousands of gift and card stores around the country. When Bill came to speak with us, our buyers were ready for the “we’re afraid it will hurt our conventional retail business” argument.

Bill had the genius idea to sell an exclusive line of Fenton Art Glass on QVC, one that would only be available on our show. He also said that his “bread and butter” stores would have pieces exclusive to them. He said he’d be delighted to make an exclusive line of Fenton for QVC if he could promote the exclusivity of products at both outlets.

It worked like a champ. Fenton sales soared on QVC and at conventional retail. The Fenton factory in Williamstown, West Virginia, was operating 24/7 to meet the new demand. It was win/win! The “Bill Fenton Protocol” worked with many other vendors who were concerned about damaging their conventional retail business. He created a brilliant strategy.

It was my pleasure to host most of the Fenton shows. Bill and I formed a real friendship. At the big annual Fenton convention held in several huge circus tents on the Fenton property, I was impressed that Bill knew the name of all the vendors and collectors who were there. He even knew their families and what was happening in their lives. He was the consummate professional and salesperson. I learned a lot about sales and life from him.

I made the Bill Fenton mug to help sell a camera we were presenting on QVC and to promote an upcoming Fenton show. ABS, always be selling, is one of my mantras. Bill and I had a blast on the air. He was funny and amazingly quick. He often hit me with a funny zinger. I was asked why I didn’t come back at him with zingers of my own. I always explained the shows were entertaining and extremely successful. Who cared who got the laughs? Many shows ended early because everything sold out. I was the perfect foil for Bill’s “dad jokes.”

Bill was a very generous man. I once admired a piece of Southwestern Fenton Glass on his desk. He said it was the only one made and they didn’t add it to their line because the desert-colored glass was too fragile to mass produce. He insisted that I take it. As the only piece ever made, it’s probably very valuable. The fact that he just gave it to me means more than any dollar amount.

May he Rest in Peace!

Phyllis George

Again, a mug I made to help sell a camera and promote an upcoming show on QVC with Phyllis George.

A former Miss America, sportscaster, news anchor and entrepreneur, I met Phyllis when she was the wife of the Kentucky Governor and representing Kentucky Crafts on QVC. She eventually expanded the line to American Crafts. Those shows helped a lot of struggling entrepreneurs grow their businesses.

Phyllis and I became friends. She even invited me to the Kentucky Derby one year. It was an incredible experience. We arrived in a limo and sat in the Governor’s box. She would call me sometimes and talk about her life and her problems.

QVC did an American Crafts show from the Governor’s Mansion in Kentucky. Before the program, I was sitting under a tree in her front yard, playing my banjo. One of the servants asked if I wanted anything to drink. I asked for a mint julip. It was great, so great, in fact that I had a couple more. By the time of the show, I was a little tipsy. But everything sold out and Phyllis noted how much fun I had been. (I have no memory of what I did during the show.)

A few years later, QVC was going to do a show called “The Big Top (or Time, I can’t remember which),” which would feature American inventors selling their latest creations. Our amazing sets and props people created a set that looked like a huge circus tent. I was chosen as the host for the show. We worked and rehearsed for a few weeks. It was going great.

One day I was called into my supervisor’s office. He told me that the executives had decided that the show needed a celebrity as a host. They had selected Phyllis George and said that she would not need a co-host. I was livid! We had worked for weeks to make the show great. I heard many rumors about why Phyllis George had been chosen. I didn’t care why; I just lost an opportunity and was pissed.

The show debuted to less than spectacular numbers. Subsequent shows had even worse sales. Finally, after a few months, the show was cancelled. As good as Phyllis was on-air, she was not a salesperson.

I never called Phyllis to ask her about being chosen as host of the show. And she never called me, even though she knew she had replaced me as the host. My cook shows most always outsold our ersatz chef, but my show, Jammin’ In the Kitchen, was cancelled because he complained that his should be the only “named” cook show. The loss of the show to Phyllis was the last straw.

I had months of sick and vacation time that I never used. After the Big Top incident, I called in sick every time I was scheduled to work with her. Not the most mature response, but I was really pissed at the Q and Phyllis. Today, at 71, I would probably handle it differently. After this we lost touch. I hope her life was great and that she, like Bill Fenton, Rests in Peace.

The Grand Ol’ Opry

I haven’t played there (yet) and I never worked for them. I bought this mug from Shop at Home during one of our Opry shows. It’s so thick, it keeps coffee blazing hot for a long time.

The Grand Ol’ Opry has 2 homes, The Ryman Auditorium (the original) and The Grand Ol’ Opry Theater, which has a larger capacity and is located at the Opryland Mall, which has hundreds of shops.

When I worked at Shop at Home, we had the opportunity to bid against QVC for the Opry’s 75th anniversary shows. QVC had a much larger audience and touted their ability to sell huge quantities of merchandise. I had an extensive knowledge of the Opry and country music that the Q couldn’t match. We won the bid.

Our first show didn’t do that well. I realized it was because our host, who was the host of the Opry national TV show, had reminisced with the guest (Pam Tillis) and had forgotten to sell the products. In a very unpopular move, I replaced her on the next show with myself. Amazing songwriter and guitarist Steve Wariner was my guest. We talked about the Opry and country music but I didn’t forget to sell the items. The show did great, so did the subsequent shows, all of which I hosted.

Removing the regular country host wasn’t like Phyllis George replacing me on QVC. It was a business move, made to maximize the sales. Replacing me with Phyllis on The Big Top did just the opposite.

Shop at Home

When I retired from QVC after 15 years, I thought I was done with TV Shopping for good. About a year later, the Shop at Home Network contacted me about coming to Nashville and helping their network to succeed. Shop at Home had just been purchased by Scripps Networks. They had been one of those channels where the hosts yell at you, quoting the price and time payment programs over and over until you, hopefully, succumb to the high pressure.

They wanted me to be the Executive Vice President of Talent and Programming. My job would be to stop the screaming and high pressure. It sounded like a great challenge so I said yes.

I did meet some great people, including my assistant Mel and chef Carl Conway, the latter taught me more about food and cooking than anyone else. Ron Popeil is a close second.

The hosts on Shop at Home had been left to their own devices so long it was very difficult to get them to change their styles. It was a constant battle. The President had no retail experience and that made my job ever more difficult. I was able to substantially increase sales and introduce them to tried and true marketing strategies that resulted in the biggest sales days in company history.

By the time we got a new President who understood retail, it was too late. Scripps sold us to a company that wanted to return to the “good old days” of selling sports memorabilia, knives and swords. When I decided to leave the new company, they brought me into the conference room and wheeled in a table of swords, informing me that they could sell those 20 swords for under $100.

“Twenty swords,” I replied. “Is there a dragon epidemic I don’t know anything about?” They never bothered me to stay again. The new company failed in a few months. So much for the good old days.

QVC

QVC had these mugs made so hosts could have water, coffee or tea on the set without cluttering it with water bottles and styrofoam cups. Once the viewers saw the mugs, we had to make them available for sale. They sold very well.

I was a senior program host on QVC for 15 years. During my time there, I set a sales record that has yet-to-be-broken. $11,000,000 in one hour. They had 75 million homes back then. They have a lot more homes now. That presentation, a computer, took weeks to plan and rehearse. It was my finest hour on QVC.

The company’s been through lots of good and bad times since I left. Their last few sales quarters were not good. Competition from Amazon and other online retailers is big factor in that.

I continue to believe that if they made their shows more entertaining, they could fight back. Sadly, most of their newer hosts are good-looking talking heads. They follow instructions very well, but that’s about it. The show is a shadow of its former self. Nothing is forever and this could change. It will be interesting to watch.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my mug diatribe. I wonder what my next mug purchase will be and what memories it will create?

© 2022 Steve Bryant – No portion of this or any blog can be reproduced or copied and posted on any online site or read aloud on any audio or video media without the express permission of the author.

TV Shopping Host and Coach, Musician, Author, Teacher.

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