ST. PETERSBURG (FOX 13) - Before the Internet, before Amazon and before we could shop by smartphone, a quirky little television network pioneered shopping at home.
And 31 years later, it remains a cable powerhouse.
HSN, which prefers to be called HSN instead of Home Shopping Network, pumps products of all sorts into 95 million homes 24 hours a day.
"It's the CNN of shopping," said Home Shopping Bill Brand, HSN's chief marketing and business development officer. "It's a non-stop machine."
According to its financial reports, HSN's sales can top $10 million per day during the holidays. And, so, its studios are part Hollywood back lot, part assembly line.
About 2,500 people are charged with myriad tasks – the vast majority behind the camera.
"They make it look effortless," said Jennifer Cotter, senior vice president for television and content. "It's a lot of work."
The campus is a maze of hallways. And each is lined with products in order of appearance. Cotter says the items that appear on TV today have had their moment of fame scheduled for roughly eight weeks.
But the process of putting a product on national television begins far, far earlier.
"We buy our products at least a year in advance," Brand said.
Case in point: Keith Urban.
"We are making an affordable guitar," he said. "You just want to play it."
The country heartthrob's new guitar line has just joined the HSN family of products. In making the announcement, Urban participated in a long-awaited photo-op at Mid-Florida Amphitheater.
"It took years," said Joy Mangano, an HSN executive who scouts new product for the network.
Mangano is herself a bit of an HSN legend. She invented the Huggable Hanger and sold 250 million of them via HSN. Today, she's in charge of finding the newest of the new to hawk on live television for an audience of millions.
"For me, behind the scenes begins with a concept," Mangano said.
And each of those concepts is thoroughly tested in a massive on-campus laboratory.
"We test 2,600 new products every month," said Matthew Demers, HSN's vice president of quality assurance and product information.
Workers clads in lab coats utilize a wide array of instruments, including microscopes, microwaves ovens, washing machines, and other test equipment, to scrutinize each product.
An egg is cooked in a non-stick pan. If it sticks, it fails. A swatch of fabric is washed. If it fades, it fails. A cake is defrosted. If the frosting sags, it fails.
The most eye-catching test examines a product's ability to withstand home delivery by truck.
One machine violently bounces boxes to simulate a ride in a tractor-trailer truck; the other instrument drops the box.
"We want her to receive it in perfect condition," Demers said.
Notice Demers choice of pronoun. HSN associates are trained to use just two pronouns.
"She and her," Brand said.
Why? Brand explains that 90 percent of HSN customers are women.
"And we have a special relationship with her."
HSN's many on-air hosts help build that bond– at all hours.
"We are totally unscripted," Cotter said.
Unlike new anchors, who read copy from screen in front of the lens, HSN's hosts make it up as they go along. But they aren't going at it blindly.
HSN's control room is constantly monitoring sales trends and inventory. The on-air producer then manipulates the sales pitch. Each host wears an earpiece by which the producer can convey what's working – and what's not.
That data is also available to the host.
Just off screen, and right next to the camera, stands a bank of monitors. One of them features real-time bar charts and sales statistics. HSN declined to go into detail about the specifics of what the screens reveal.
With as much as $10 million a day on the line, it's not surprisingly that HSN wants to keep at least some of its secrets secret.
"It's amazing," Cotter said.
HSN did grant us access to one more of-limits locale: The Emplorium.
New items are opened and demonstrated on-camera every hour.
"We sell those at the Emplorium," Cotter said.
Prices are slashed. We saw signed offering as much as 66 percent. The catch is: this employee emporium is only open to HSN associates.
"Lucky for us," Demers added.