Can Tampa infomercial king Anthony Sullivan continue Discovery Channel's Pitchmen without buddy Billy Mays?
He resists the idea -- partly because he is super sensitive about appearances on this issue, and partially because he still cares a lot about his old friend and rival.
But if Tampa infomercial king Anthony "Sully" Sullivan can successfully reboot discovery Channel's Pitchmen series tonight -- after the death of the show's biggest star, his friend and partner Billy Mays -- then the final transition may be complete.
Sullivan will, in a sense, have become the next Billy Mays.
Ask him about this, as I did during a brief video shoot for Pitchmen's second season in Sherman Oaks, Calif. a few weeks ago, and he will insist the "new Billy Mays" tag is an idea conjured mostly by media types like me -- looking for a convenient headline to draw in more readers and mouse clicks.
"The 'next Billy Mays' thing wore on me and wore on his family," he told me for a Floridian story that ran Sunday on Pitchmen's new season. "There's no replacing Billy Mays, and anyone who says that is reaching for a headline. I wanted to get away from that."
He's not wrong about the media end of this. But just like nature, the "direct response" TV selling game abhors a vacuum. And so Sullivan, who produced Mays' spots for years and has his own, urgently persuasive on camera pitching style, has picked up many pieces of Mays' empire -- including representing Mighty Brands products such as Mighty Putyy and Mighty Tape, along with OxyClean and Arm & Hammer.
Now his biggest task at hand is reinventing Pitchmen, a series which cruised to relative success on Discovery thanks to Mays cult hero status and the playful frinction between Mays and Sullivan. Decked out in trademark bluwe shirt and khaki pants, Mays became a symbol of infomercials' relentless pitching and growing pop culture profile.
Sullivan tackled that task by focusing more on the inventors and business people who create the products he and other pitchmen sell. There has always been a need in the infomercial world for new products, but Pitchmen created a high-profile platform to recruit new inventors and businesspeople -- a dynamic Sullivan has focused on even more in the show's second season.
He's also got a lot of local flavor on the show, from featuring a kid inventor from Pasco County to filming auditions of inventors at The Ritz nightclub in Ybor City last year and lighting himself on fire to demostrate a product while the Clearwater Fire Department looked on.
It's a growing trend, locally and nationally: Kevin Harrington, a co-star on ABC's Shark Tank, enlisted former WFLA-Ch. 8 anchor Gayle Guyardo to develop his Inventors Business Center in Clearwater. And Forbes Riley, a TV actor turned pitchwoman who sells her SpinGym exerciser on HSN, hopes to open a studio in St. Petersburg to make infomercials.
With Pitchmen's premiere tonight, we'll see if Sullivan and Discovery Channel can keep the trend going without the industry's biggest figure.
Here's a clip from tonight's episode, which debuts at 9 tonight on Discovery, and a sample of the stunt where he lights himself on fire: