Half-hour phone commercial posing as sitcom comes to Baltimore TV

Television, which brought us the sitcom and the "infomercial," is now bringing us the "sitcommercial."

This weekend in Baltimore, Bell Atlantic Corp. will launch the first episode of "The Ringers," a family comedy series with all the trappings of a traditional situation comedy -- including a laugh track and a crew of wacky but lovable characters.


The difference is that this sitcom is a 30-minute ad for phone company services like Call Waiting and Caller ID. The comic situations here are built around the family's use of the telephone.

Infomercial industry experts say that if it's successful, the concept could pop up all over.


"It's either brilliant or it's really stupid," said Charles Gelber, president of Troika Productions Inc. in New York, which produces infomercials. "If it's successful, I'll turn around and pitch it to my clients."

Infomercials, most using a talk show format, have been a booming industry on cable and broadcast stations since 1984, when the Federal Communications Commission deregulated the amount of time a station can devote to advertising.

Viewers who tune into this sitcommercial will meet the Ringers -- "America's funniest, PHONE-IEST family." There's Ralph Ringer, self-employed plumber; his perky wife Rhonda; boy-crazy daughter Rachel; and computer nerd son Ronnie. Most of the comedy revolves around Norman, Ralph's freeloading brother-in-law, and Roscoe, Ralph's eccentric inventor father.

"It's a complete program where all the characters are developed fully and interact with each other through the full 30 minutes," said Richard A. Alston, vice president of marketing of Bell Atlantic, the Philadelphia-based parent of Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. of Maryland.

The first installment of "The Ringers" is scheduled to make its debut Sunday afternoon on Channels 11, 13 and 45. It will run a total of 16 times between then and the following Sunday.

Ready or not, "The Ringers" will not air in prime time on Channels 11 and 13, both network affiliates, or on Fox affiliate Channel 45. It will, however, run at 9:30 p.m. this Sunday and 9 p.m. next Sunday on independent Channel 54.

Rob Moorman of the ad agency that created "The Ringers," New York's Jordan McGrath Case & Taylor, estimated the rate for purchasing a half-hour of non-prime television time in a market such as Baltimore at $5,000.

In a typical scene from the maiden episode, mother Rhonda (Diane Robin) is carrying a tray and can't answer one of the family's perpetually ringing phones. Daughter Rachel comes flying down the stairs, but the phone stops ringing, so she chides her mother for not picking it up.


Sorry, says Mom, but you don't want me answering the phone when it's your individualized ring. Besides, why don't you just push Star-69 for Return Call, she suggests.

"We're into high-tech, darling, not high panic," Rhonda chirps.

One virtue of the sitcommercial format is that it doesn't have to break away from the story for such downers as political attack ads.

Instead Ralph (Tim Haldeman) steps out of the action seven times in a half-hour to speak directly to the audience about "another wonderful Bell Atlantic IQ service" and to recite an 800 number -- much like Jerry Brown interrupting a political debate.

Mr. Alston said that if the tryout of "The Ringers" in Baltimore is successful, Bell Atlantic will roll out the show throughout the market it serves, including Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Va., and Norfolk.

So far, a single episode has been produced, but Bell Atlantic's hopes go much further than a 30-minute run in a middling television market.


"If this was very successful, we could offer to sell the concept or even the format to some of our sister Bell operating companies," Mr. Alston said.

Steve Dworman, publisher of Los Angeles-based Infomercial Marketing Report, said Bell Atlantic "should be applauded" for breaking "absolutely new ground."

But Douglas Gormley, a University of Maryland-College Park journalism professor, said the sitcommercial might actually be a throwback to the early days of television. In the 1950s, he said, performers such as Sid Caesar on "Your Show of Shows" would step out of character to hawk cigarettes and other products -- much as Ralph does.

If sitcoms prove successful as a selling device, Mr. Gormley expects infomercials to infiltrate other traditional TV formats -- "cop-mercials" or "soap-mercials," for instance.

Mr. Dworman said non-political infomercials have so far been relegated to less-watched time slots such as early morning and late night, but he predicts the medium will "crack prime time" on network TV.

"Within two years, you will see a prime-time infomercial from a Fortune 500 company" on the networks, he predicted.


To Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies at Johns Hopkins University, the fundamental problem with "The Ringers" is that its premise is not funny.

"Only the characters will be objects of derision, and never the enterprise of selling the product," he said. "Those things are sacred as the Torah in the temple or the Host in the church. And piety kills humor."

He said he would like to see the FCC under a Clinton administration move to re-regulate infomercials by requiring broadcasters to "balance every minute of it with programming that isn't advertising."