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How to become a retail television talent

Monday,Apr 14,2014

I sat down yesterday with a young woman who had made a great living in the world of financial sales.  She was vibrant, attractive, well spoken, warm and ambitious…perfect material to be an on-air spokesperson with the right intuition and talent.  She wanted to know how to get her shot.  The problem is that there is no good formula.  Each person I work closely with and has made it on air has their own unique story to tell about how they got there…as do I.  It rarely follows the same path, unless you are one of the few who has gotten the gig through their agent.  Good luck with that!  You’ll pay 15% for years for the favor of finding you that job!
When I began working in television retail, I was in the “backstage” department.  I set-up the items that were seen on air, refreshed batteries in the products and made sure everything worked properly before it was seen by the country.  I was quickly singled out by several of the show hosts who began mentoring me toward the other side of the lens.  They were 3 that took a very active role in helping me envision my future as talent and develop my presentation sales ability.  One male host tried to get me on-air to co-host with him for a 3 hour show because another host called in sick.   He ran around the building looking for a shirt for me to wear before the network talent department told him “no.” That host was told that unlike community television, we are a national network and do not let just anyone go on air.  Talent must be approved by several people.  I was not.
I made VHS tapes of myself selling cookware, women’s shoes…whatever.  I even had my 2 year old daughter run around the house on camera and find me anything smaller than a loaf of bread.  She handed a wooden chess piece to me and then without turning the camera off, I put it on a tripod, stood in front of it and sold the chess piece for 10 minutes, stating “there’s lots more where that came from,” before turning the camera off. That tape caught the attention of a network VP and landed me my first invitation to audition for show host.  That VP told me to give him 6 months and he would have me on air, although at the time, I was just an audio operator and he said it was going to cause waves taking someone from that position and moving them to talent!  A month later, he left the company for another opportunity…I had lost my connection.  However, I still had the audition!
On the day of the audition, I was herded into a room with other potential candidates from all over the country.  There was a long table full of items to sell.  We each had to pick 2 items and make notes on a note card.  In 10 minutes, they would take the first person into a studio and give them a chance to sell on camera. Most of the auditionees picked items easy to sell…luggage, cookware, appliances.  I grabbed the ugliest watch I had ever seen and an Elvis telephone…the 2 most unlikely choices I could find.  Knowing that the first person would have the least amount of time to prepare and wanting to show what I could do, I volunteered as the first person to audition.  I didn’t even have time to write any notes.  The audition director stepped back into the room of auditionees and my hand shot up before they could ask.  After it was over, I was told that I was in the top 10 best auditions they had ever seen, but I looked like a kid in his dad’s jacket.  Apparently my young face is both a blessing and a curse.  At the time, the network was looking for the older distinguished gentlemen.  That tide has certainly turned in recent years, but back at the time of my first audition, I looked to young.
It took me 6 years of continual effort to finally get my shot in front of a live television audience.  I auditioned 2 more times, once for a host position and once as a guest.  When I did the guest audition, I had just spent 2 years as a stay-at-home dad.  My lines had deepened a bit along with my maturity and the network’s branding had been reborn.  Now, it was interested in younger, more vibrant talent.  I was told by the director, stage manager, talent manager and producer that I was the best audition they had seen in 3 days and dozens of auditionees.  A recording of my audition was sent to the network merchandising team and I was recommended as a product presenter.
My first product was a household cleaner that had never been seen before.  It sold out in the first airing, doubling network projections.  I was on cloud nine and the product manufacturer could not stop high-fiving me!  From that point forward, I began building a pipeline of vendors and products to represent.  It took 2 1/2 years to support my family on my talent income.  In the meantime, I freelanced as a director, videographer, stage manager, audio engineer…every position in television production.  By this time, I had more than a decade of experience in all those positions and had even managed a crew, being ultimately responsible for the execution of the daily broadcast.  I had worked prime-time shifts for years and was trusted with the most demanding shows.  It was easy for me to step into anyone’s seat and take over.  It was also a convenient arrangement.  I picked up shifts behind the camera in-between my on-air appearances.  What a juggling act!  I even freelanced as a carpenter (my life-long hobby) building furniture and set walls for the television studios.  It was no uncommon for me to start my day in the wood shop, then run to a local gym to shower and change, go on-air to sell a product, only to change my shirt and drop into the director’s chair the following hour!  Whatever I could do to make ends meet.  The makeup artists gave me such a hard time for the nicks, scratches and wood glue all over my hands and arms from building all morning! They had to powder me from the elbows down!
I am self-made.  I didn’t have an “in.”  I didn’t grow up next door to some senior executive.  I came from a Pennsylvania family that nailed plastic sheeting over the windows in the winter to keep the cold out. But, I grew up with tight relationships and a strong ethic.  It kept me working hard to achieve my goals and taught me how to nurture healthy relationships.
I knew that going on air would be the culmination of my abilities.  Everything that I knew from a behind-the-camera production standpoint, everything I knew about being a Mr. Fix-it family man and all my live-audience experience from being a cruise director and corporate host in college would come into play.  It has paid off.
So, when I am asked, what does it take to get on-air to sell items, I smile.  Some people see the prestige of the job.  Others dream of big paychecks and a way out of their current career into something more glamorous.  Both of these reasons are dead ends.  You need to want it because you have a hunger to do something you know you would be exceptional at and were born to do.  You need to feel the ability in your blood and know that it just needs a chance to astound the world.  Most of all, you need to be hungry and willing to work hard.  What is the formula?  How do you get on air?  I can’t tell you.  Everyone has a different story.  Mine is unique to me.  Some will tell you that there are steps to take.  I agree with that.  However, you will soon find that those steps are like the Hogwarts staircase (my family loves Harry Potter).  They are constantly shifting under your feet!


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