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JANE GLENN HAAS: Shopping for a new approach to the homebound

A couple of weeks ago, 392 people showed up for an open audition to be QVC hosts.

The once-a-year open audition for the largest home shopping network offers us a window on how America shops -- and how it is persuaded to buy.

The nominal stars of QVC are the budget clothing and jewelry designers, according to The New York Times, but it takes the host to move the merchandise.

It takes a special personality -- a believable, likeable guy or gal -- to persuade people to buy stuff from faded celebrities touting exercise programs and famous chefs with specialty cookware.

Who watches and buys this stuff?

I'll admit I do. From time to time, I surf by the network shopping channels and find a bargain I can't resist, an item I never saw before, a piece of jewelry I must have.

But I'm not an addict.

It's the addicts that turn QVC into a $7 billion business. Home Shopping Network reportedly isn't far behind. And then there's ShopNBC and Jewelry Television.

I know a woman who shopped them all.

I'm going to call her "Gloria."

For 20 years, Gloria was homebound because of a stroke and its after-effects. When she was younger, and mobile, she entertained herself browsing antique shops. Now she watched home shopping channels.

Over the years, she sold her famed collection of antique dolls to fund her addiction. She took out a reverse mortgage on her home. Her daughter-in-law estimates she spent $30,000 a year, every year, for 20 years.

Yup. That's $600,000 for stuff sold on network shopping channels.

Little wonder the on-air hosts knew her by name and greeted her enthusiastically when she called in.

She couldn't walk, but she bought shoes. She couldn't cook but she bought six Jack LaLanne juice machines. She rarely left home but she had two 12-foot closets stuffed with still-tagged evening wear when she passed away.

And then there's the jewelry. Floor-standing chests full of the stuff. Semi-precious stones in every color set in everything from pins to earrings to bracelets.

"We can't sell it for anywhere near even its wholesale value," says Gloria's daughter-in-law. "People just won't pay for this stuff second hand."

Gloria's tale is tragic -- and not just for the lost money. It's sad to think that a homebound person can relate only to a super-salesman on television.

"She used to say they talked right to her," her daughter-in-law said. "She felt they knew her and cared about her. No one could tell her differently. She knew them all from the morning until late, late at night."

There's a lesson here, of course.

As more and more people are living longer and living at home, loneliness becomes a critical issue.

We can't all visit the homebound elderly as regularly as they might need to be visited. There isn't enough money to pay for the elder care these people will need just to offset loneliness.

But how about a local public television station that broadcasts just to the homebound? Maybe even a station sponsored by those insurance companies that depend on the monthly premiums from these elders?

I'm thinking about all kinds of programs, from book discussions to current events, from comedy to call-in, from game shows to "you-need-to-know-this" programs.

No, there's nothing like this on television today. Not for this specific audience.

But if we can have children's programming, why not elder programming?

Maybe some of these elders would even pay a small monthly fee to watch. Not too much, of course. Not enough to require tapping the home equity. It's an idea. Anyone interested in picking it up and running with it?

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