The independent WMCN-TV station in Atlantic City sells infomercials to churches, auto dealers, doctors, and even a pet-bird store, charging them $75 to $500 to distribute a commercial - or a spiritually soothing message - not only to the local residents around Casino Town but to about 2.5 million homes in the Philadelphia region on cable or satellite.
The antithesis of star-driven Hollywood, WMCN's programming costs are minimal and about 90 percent of its viewers are channel flippers - couch potatoes looking for something interesting to watch. One WMCN advertiser, plastic surgeon David Watts, is so popular he has developed his own following in his Wednesday night slot.
But can an infomercial-dependent TV station survive at a time of DVRs, Netflix, Hulu, and a rapidly expanding universe of HD channels?
Lenfest Broadcasting L.L.C., the TV station's owner, based in West Conshohocken, thinks maybe not. It now has plans to transform WMCN into more of a local "destination station," using as its model Comcast Corp.'s now-defunct CN8.
H. Chase Lenfest, the chairman of the company who also is the son of philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, hired former Comcast executive Jon Gorchow this year to recast the TV station's programming.
WMCN's first content deal: televising Philadelphia Soul Arena Football League games. Chase Lenfest said he was considering an additional 30 programming options that range from college sports to local features on the Jersey Shore, putting a camera on South Street, celebrity boxing, and shows targeting elderly viewers. There also could be call-in shows.
"Everything will be local and nonfiction," Lenfest said.
Gorchow, who ran CN8 between 2001 and 2009, said the Philadelphia-area market is ready for a new CN8-type channel. "When you look at local programming, this is a hole you can drive a truck through," said Gorchow, a former Comcast vice president. Comcast announced in 2008 that it was eliminating the CN8 name and rebranded it as the Comcast Network. Gorchow left the cable giant in early 2010 to manage a professional tennis team.
Lenfest, whose other investments include real estate and a company that makes software for cable networks' advertising sales and billing, has TV in his blood.
His father founded Suburban Cable and then sold it to Comcast. The younger Lenfest bought the Atlantic City station in 2000, and his original idea was to expand Market Connect Network, a channel of photo-classified advertising and infomercials on Suburban Cable's fiber network.
WMCN is still profitable, although revenue trends seem troubling. The TV station has about $4 million in revenue, down from $6 million several years ago. The variation in advertising rates for infomercials correlates to the time of day the infomercial appears.
WMCN is adapting to the changes in the TV business. Along with a proliferation of new entertainment choices, DVRs allow people to record their favorite shows and may be diminishing the ranks of channel flippers.
HD also has been an issue. As Comcast, the dominant provider of cable TV in the Philadelphia area, has added HD channels, TV viewers seem to have migrated to higher-numbered channels - on the Comcast system, high-definition channels appear between Channels 785 and 899. WMCN is typically located below Channel 50 on the Comcast system.
A major WMCN asset is its wide distribution in one of the nation's largest TV markets. With this potential viewership, local shows with broad appeal could draw a regular audience that advertisers would pay for.
Lenfest said he believed he could contain programming costs by, in part, seeking organizations that will pay him to televise content - such as the indoor-football-playing Soul - for the TV exposure. The organizations can then sell advertisements and recoup the cost of TV time.
The transformation will take a year or two, and WMCN still expects to televise some informercials when it is over. Said Gorchow: "We are only limited by our own imagination."