SHERMAN OAKS, Calif. — Surrounded by a host of cooks scurrying through his kitchen to handle the start of the dinner rush, restaurateur Jamie Alba looked up from his cutting board to see a welcome surprise.
"I've got some good news for you, Jamie," thundered Tampa infomercial king Anthony "Sully" Sullivan, invading Alba's Sisley Italian Kitchen to film a segment for Season 2 of his series Pitchmen.
The happy tidings: Retailer Whole Foods was test-marketing Alba's product, a vegetable substitute for meat. Beaming and backslapping, the two turned to leave for a celebratory meal. A trio of cameras captured their movements.
"That's good!" shouted a producer, stopping the pair in their tracks.
Time to film it all again.
In the course of 20 minutes, Alba and Sullivan ran through the scene several times, slightly modifying the lines. Alba, a New York native and former actor with small parts in the films Mean Streets and Running Scared, looked as comfortable as Sullivan in the spotlight. Sullivan wasn't even sure if the footage, part of a feature story on Alba's line of meat substitutes, would make it into the series.
It's the peculiar rhythm of unscripted TV, where producers film "surprise" encounters many times to catch the right moment. And it has been Sullivan's reality for months, after the Discovery Channel agreed to air a second season of Pitchmen, the series he initially starred in with longtime friend and partner Billy Mays.
The two proved to be a surprise success for Discovery Channel, drawing an average of 1.5 million viewers in their first season, which concluded days after Mays' June 28, 2009, death from a heart attack in his sleep at his Tampa home.
Much of the series' energy came from the playful friction between Mays and Sullivan, an odd couple of former rivals working together to find new inventors for their infomercials. In a flash, the show's center vanished. Mays was a worldwide celebrity whose booming voice and in-your-face sales technique were legend.
Though producers announced a second Pitchmen season within two weeks of Mays' death, nobody really knew what kind of program they might create. Left hanging was a question as large as the $1 billion in sales Mays' infomercials reportedly generated:
Could any of it work without the show's biggest star?
"They gave us the order for the (next) 10 episodes, and I'm not entirely sure if anyone really thought we could pull it off," said Sullivan, 41, who spent eight months assembling the footage for this season, tackling stunts such as lighting himself on fire (to show off a fire suppression product) and dunking himself in the Gulf of Mexico wearing a suit made of sponges.
"I'm happy the network gave us a shot … (and) if I've learned one thing over the years, it's don't bet against anybody," he said. "I wanted to do it for Billy, because I think that's what he would have wanted."
Into the mainstream
Producers of direct-response ads — some industry folks bristle at the "infomercial" label — have always hungered for new products. And with shows like Pitchmen pulling the industry into the mainstream, a few other local direct-response stars have set up high-profile new ways to solicit inventors off the street.
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.
"We've become more high profile (as) the world has embraced direct response," said Riley, who appeared on Pitchmen's first season with the SpinGym, but balked at plans to sell the device at a low price and took back her product. "The economy shows nobody's job is as secure as they think it is. (People dream) of taking a mom-and-pop inventor and turning them into multimillionaires."
Still, the road to success by infomercial is uncertain. An inventor with an idea needs connections and capital for everything from making product prototypes to mailing purchased items to customers.
Because of rising fees for TV time, some experts say that just one in 30 direct-response commercials will be successful, leading some producers to ask for upfront fees. And even a short commercial can cost upward of $25,000 to create, Riley said.
Mays' death has made a tough business even tougher, as some companies that tried to keep airing the pitchman's commercials after his death found the public couldn't accept it.
"Half the people didn't like the fact that we were on air, and half the people didn't want to buy from someone who was no longer with us," said Bill McAlister, president and co-owner of Media Enterprises, which saw sales plummet after resuming Mays' commercials for its Mighty Putty and Mighty Tape a month after he died. "I believe the consumer felt it to be offensive. We got several phone calls to that effect."
So McAlister eventually hired Sullivan to take over Mays' pitches. "The consumer has taken to (Sullivan). He's really becoming the next Billy Mays," said McAlister. "I do believe there's a big void in the marketplace, and he does it better than anybody else."
Sullivan shrugged off any talk of replacing his old friend. "The 'next Billy Mays' thing wore on me and wore on his family," he said. "There's no replacing Billy Mays, and anyone who says that is reaching for a headline. I wanted to get away from that."
So when it came time to revamp Pitchmen, Sullivan decided to do something he'd always warned employees and colleagues to avoid: bonding closely with the inventors.
The search that netted Hunter Morera eventually convinced Sullivan that he could develop a second round of Pitchmen episodes.
Morera, now a 16-year-old from Pasco County, was one of the few to land a deal with Sullivan after a massive cattle call audition at the Ritz nightclub in Ybor City that drew hundreds of inventors pitching their products over 16 hours.
Pitchmen's second episode will tell Morera's story, outlining how the precocious Sunlake High School student cobbled together an invention featuring several wrench sizes in one handheld device the size of a large Swiss Army knife. (Born without a pulmonary valve in his heart, Morera has had several open-heart surgeries, adding to his backstory.)
When Sullivan saw the crowd that showed up to pitch products at the Ybor City "Inventorquest," organized by WFLZ-FM (93.3) morning personality Todd "MJ" Schnitt, he was convinced Pitchmen could survive by focusing more on the Cinderella stories of the inventors.
"You got hundreds of hopefuls wanting to be inventors, and you suddenly realize you're making the show for the people behind the product," he added. "I tell my team, 'Don't get too attached to the inventors. It's just business.' But I don't take my own advice."
Morera has been working since November 2009 with Sullivan, who asked the inventors behind his successful Swivel Sweeper to refine the teen's design. One tough moment came when the inventors told Morera it looked like someone had filed a patent on a similar tool. Eyes filled with tears, the teen assumed his time on Pitchmen was over.
Turns out they already had figured out a way to modify the design and get a different patent, but held off telling Morera for a few hours to capture his genuine reaction on video.
"Supposedly, it makes good TV to have an emotional breakdown," said Morera, laughing a little. "For hours, I sat there in tears, I was so upset … but when I heard (the patent) went through, the happiness took over."
Businessman Ray Giessler of Rockaway, N.J., found himself in the middle of Pitchmen's flashiest stunt, when Sullivan decided to demonstrate the effectiveness of Giessler's Cold Fire flame extinguisher by lighting himself on fire and using two cans of the product to put out the flames.
With the Clearwater Fire Department standing by, Sullivan donned layers of protective clothing and gel for the moment when his back was set on fire and quickly extinguished while he extolled the virtues of Cold Fire.
For Giessler, nervous as he was about the fire stunt, trying to behave naturally in front of cameras for daylong filming sessions proved the most difficult part of his Pitchmen experience. "It was hours upon hours," he said. "They could shoot for three hours just to get me saying it was great meeting Anthony Sullivan. It just added to the pressure of having the camera on you."
Rolling the dice
As Sullivan prepares for a private opening night party Thursday at the Tampa Museum of Art, he may be feeling the most pressure of all. Until the ratings for Season 2 roll in, he won't know whether he has been successful in moving on past his old friend's shadow while paying tribute to his legacy.
"My idea was to honor the man, honor my friend and continue the show," said Sullivan, who promised that flashes of Mays' presence will appear throughout the season. "Everyone just kind of saddled up and (thought) let's go for this. We're going to go down in flames, or it's going to be a hit."
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See the Feed blog at tampabay.com/blogs/media.