Inside HSN: How That Gadget Goes From the TV to Your Kitchen

There are many items I still want even after getting a mixer for Christmas. A portable induction burner with its own carrying case is one of them.

Celebrity chef Ming Tasi ensures me that my home — and life — is not complete without one. The chef is filming a segment for the on-air shopping giant Home Shopping Network (HSN).  

Its parent company, HSN Inc., is a publicly traded $4 billion retailer that allows people to shop 24 hours a day from the comfort of home. The company started in 1977 as the Home Shopping Club, selling can openers on the radio. In 1985, the company embraced cable television as Home Shopping Network, and a sensation was born.

Although the company has a robust interactive online presence, its bread and butter is cable television, where charismatic show hosts, paired with a product expert, push shoppers to buy. Together they play a modified game of good cop/bad cop — the expert lists the benefits of the gadget/garment/widget while the host provides a sense of immediacy by counting down minutes until the sale is over and taunting would-be consumers with dwindling stock numbers.

On a recent visit to headquarters in St. Petersburg, Tsai was paired with HSN veteran Alyce Caron. The handsome chef deftly cooked an entire meal on his signature induction burner, chopping vegetables with his knives, seasoning the meat with his branded pepper mill, and placing the proteins in his festive cookware. All items, of course, are sold on HSN. As the scent of surf and turf wafted through the studio, Tsai took the sizzling pan off the burner and implored Caron to place her hand directly on the burner. The host hesitated for a second before a tentative touch. She then placed her palm flat on the surface and exclaimed it was perfectly cool to the touch, while Tsai described the physics involved in induction cookery. Though the routine must have been rehearsed a dozen times, it looked spontaneous and candid. 

While the chef and host kibitzed and cooked, dozens of producers, food stylists, and cameramen busied themselves. These segments are slickly produced shows, treated no differently from a high-budget sitcom.

There is a twist, however. Though the average studio may produce one or two shows a day, the action doesn't stop at HSN. As Tsai's show ends with both chef and host enjoying his dish and a final decree to race to the phones, the HSN control room instantly switches to another studio where another celebrity awaits his or her cue to begin another on-air demonstration.

HSN is actually a multibuilding campus. Within it lie seven full HD studios, green rooms, prep kitchens, an employee store and cafeteria, and giant fulfillment warehouses that hold up to 155,000 items. 

The heartbeat of the operation is the 64,000-square-foot call center. Up to 1,500 employees are on duty to answer phones and complete customer transactions, although most now work from home.

Although HSN sells everything from luggage to computers to jewelry, its mainstay is kitchenware. The key to success is pairing with celebrity chefs who bring both entertainment value and cachet to the items they sell. Past and present toques who have hawked wares on the cable network include Geoffrey Zakarian, Donatella Arpaia, Lorena Garcia, Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, and Robert Irvine. How does the company snag these heavy hitters? 

Irvine explains that HSN allowed him to create a product line that meshed with his philosophy instead of asking him to endorse a premade product. "My whole philosophy on food is keeping it simple and keeping it as healthy as possible. I'm giving you the tools that I use at an affordable price." 

Irvine says the company allows him to come up with items he believes in, like a travel blender. "Food is supposed to be fun and delicious, but it's got to also be efficient." The brawny chef was positively glowing when describing his gadgets. "If you think I'm giddy, it's because I am. Nobody's ever thought of the person on the other side of the screen. But I do. I travel the country talking to people. Now I have a line that's really going to change the way you cook."

Irvine says he had full control over everything in his line. "Everything is me." The chef says it took about a year to develop about seven products for HSN. "When you're passionate about something and you really want to help someone, it shows."  

He points to another Robert Irvine for HSN item, a mandolin with an extremely sharp blade. "I'll teach you how to cook, how to make sure you don't cut your fingers, and how to cook restaurant-quality food at home. There are a thousand of these out there, but this mandolin is so compact, it's so easy to use, my 12-year-old daughter can use it, and she has. And she still has all her fingers."

With the release of the Jennifer Lawrence movie, Joy, there's renewed interest in cable shopping networks. The movie is based on the life of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, who went from rags to riches selling her floor-cleaning tool on rival network QVC. Mangano has since switched to HSN, selling everything from hangers to wallets on the Florida-based shopping channel. 

Much has changed since the network began selling wares — consumers now have myriad options like Amazon and eBay to shop at home. But HSN's blend of slick production values and familiar faces in the celebrity chef world blurs the line between entertainment and commerce so seamlessly that you might just find yourself reaching for the phone to order the induction burner you never thought you needed — until Ming Tsai showed you how much you did.

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