By Vicki McCash, Sun-Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News

FORT LAUDERDALE FLA--Apr. 3--Channel surfers know infomercials like they know the characters on Roseanne or Seinfeld.

They see those 30-minute commercials over and over - with celebrities such as Erik Estrada, Susan Powter and Suzanne Somers touting products such as spot removers, weight-loss programs and exercise machines. us100 But South Florida has a different breed of infomercial - one with a soft sell on the air, but a hard sell to potential advertisers. In South Florida, at least 10 companies - many of them copycats of each other - are making the magazine-style commercial programs. Typically, they feature several products in a half-hour show with a theme, like Big Boys' Toys or Inside Technology.

Advertisers pay $10,000 to $20,000 to get a three- to five-minute segment on a show, but some have ended up in litigation with the infomercial companies about whether the shows were aired enough times and on the promised networks or cable channels. Despite the problems, some experts say prices are reasonable when the work is done.

Questions surrounding this niche of the infomercial industry could tarnish South Florida's reputation in its attempts to join the big leagues of film and television production. ``When I'm out trying to market my company and South Florida as a place to (edit) and shoot, it can be really hard,'' said Paul Remo, owner of Nitelite Studios, which worked on three of the top-10 long-form infomercials running today. ``I get people who say, 'South Florida, ooh, I don't think so. I got screwed by a company down there.' It has affected us.''

Bill Petersen, a commercial television director who has made commercials in South Florida for 10 years, said, ``It's hard for me to tell who's legitimate and who's not. Some of (the infomercial companies) are just boiler rooms. The segments and program titles change according to who they can get to pay for it.''

Steve Dworman, publisher of the Los Angeles-based Infomercial Marketing Report, said he has gotten calls from people all over the country who have been asked to buy one of these programs. ``For some bizarre reason, most of them are coming out of Florida.''

It may not be so bizarre. Of 10 current and former companies in the same business in South Florida, all can trace their roots back to three companies - WJMK in Boca Raton, and Brookstone Productions and Worldwide Target Demographic Television (WTDT), both in Deerfield Beach. And those three lead to one: WJMK, the oldest company of its kind in South Florida. The president of WTDT started at WJMK, and Brookstone has hired several people who worked there.

The shows produced at WJMK and WTDT seem like regular programs, but are paid broadcasts. Brookstone Productions in Deerfield Beach also has made dozens of paid programs.

Some smaller companies in the business are using the same program format and telemarketing sales: Media World in Fort Lauderdale; Tricom Pictures in Fort Lauderdale, and Hastings Group in Fort Lauderdale.

``It's like hitting mercury with a hammer sometimes. These people scatter far and wide,'' said Tony Interdonato, director of communications at Five Star Productions, which makes a similar kind of program and also traces roots to WJMK.

Five Star said it has tried to set itself apart from the competition by finding a sponsor with no interest in the products advertised to underwrite the company's signature program, Today's Environment.

Formula for Profits: Usually infomercials have one secret to their success: repeat, repeat, repeat. Repeat the shows, and repeat the message throughout the broadcast. Without repetition, industry experts say the informational broadcasts have a slim chance of reaching their market, because of the late-night, dead-time nature of the industry.

But South Florida's version of infomercials only air one to four times and the client's message is only heard once during the broadcast. And infomercial experts say featuring many products in a half hour lessens the chances a product will sell successfully.

``How you know something works is when you see the program being repeated,'' said Dick Bruno, author of Infoquick Guide to Infomercials. ``Then you know it has brought in enough money to buy more airtime.'' The producers of the multiproduct shows say their programs are not infomercials, but educational programs that spotlight the products that paid for the segment. The purpose, they say, is not to generate instant orders of zirconium rings, like on Home Shopping Club, but to convey information about the product, which might lead to sales.

One industry expert scoffs at the idea that a 30-minute paid program isn't an infomercial.

``If it's paid programming, it's an infomercial. Whether it's two minutes, three minutes or a half hour, it's a commercial,'' said Jack Shember, editor- in-chief of ResponseTV, an industry trade publication.

In South Florida, here is the soft-sell infomercial companies' pitch: For a $10,000 to $20,000 fee, a business can get a three- to five-minute segment on a show that features four to six products. The production company promises to air the show one to four times - far fewer times than a typical one- product infomercial would be shown.

The clients are promised their shows will be promoted through an advertisement in a magazine targeted to the same audience and they get a tape of their

contracts used by three of the companies and owners of three other companies.

Several infomercial company owners say they run a clean shop but their competitors cause problems by making promises in telemarketing calls that aren't delivered.

``There are boiler room tactics being used out there. It's what we call phone pollution. It makes it harder for us to get our message out,'' said Mark Keilar, owner of WJMK.

Suing Each Other: The larger and better-known of the companies, WTDT, Brookstone and WJMK, have been embroiled in lawsuits - sometimes suing each other.

The lawsuits by clients center onthe companies not delivering what they promised, particularly for not airing programs on national cable or not placing ads in targeted magazines. WTDT, Brookstone and WJMK deny the allegations.

Eleven lawsuits - eight since last May - were filed against WTDT in Dade and Broward counties by clients or contractors, including South Florida clients such as GameTek, Europa Time, Krieger Watches, and Nick's Italian Fishery. Many of the suits have been settled.

WTDT chief Dan Dailey said the number of lawsuits is not out of line for a company that he says has more than 600 customers.

Brookstone has been involved in 16 lawsuits since the beginning of 1992, and has been the defendant in most of them. Of those, about half were settled or dismissed.

WJMK has been involved in 32 lawsuits since 1987, with most of them filed in the early 1990s. Keilar said most of the cases were settled. At least two are pending.

WTDT and Brookstone have something else in common: both are run by former stockbrokers who have been censured by the National Association of Securities Dealers.

Brookstone owner Marc Minkoff lost his broker's license in February 1993 for falsifying records and failing to provide a customer with the required paperwork. Minkoff said he was misled by the client and left the business rather than pay the fine.

WTDT's Dailey, who was censured in 1993 for unauthorized trading in a customer's account, said he did not defraud his brokerage customer but chose not to contest the censure. Dailey said he was no longer interested in being a broker.

In March, Brookstone Productions bowed out of the business of selling infomercials and says it plans to make corporate videos.

``Those programs paid for the equipment, but I don't think I need to be in that business any more,'' Minkoff said.

Bang for the buck? The profitability of the business keeps the camera rolling. WTDT claimed $10 million in revenue in 1994, and its president said the company hopes to go public later this year. Five Star said it made $7 million in 1994. WJMK said it makes $5 million to $10 million yearly.

Some experts say the companies offer a decent package for $15,000, when the deal gets done.

``That's a fair price to pay for three airings,'' said Donna Rude, media director for Williams Television Time of Santa Monica, Calif., which helps companies buy commercial time.

But advertising and infomercial experts question whether the money is well spent.

``To my knowledge, no one has ever been successful with that kind of program,'' the Infomercial Report's Dworman said. ``Anyone who buys one of those programs is not getting their money's worth.''

The companies' owners respond that the total package - the production, the airtime, the magazine advertisement, the tape of the show - makes it worth the fee.

``I cannot for the life of me figure out why anyone would say no to this when they understand what they're getting,'' WJMK's Keilar said. END!K&3?FL-INFOMERCIALS

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