The American television networks usually rake in their biggest haul of money from corporate advertisers right about now. Winter keeps people inside, watching television, so audience sizes are at their peak. Early in the year is also the time that automakers, banks, financial investment firms and drug companies introduce new products and pay top dollar for prime-time, weekday-evening placement of their commercials.
But not so much this year. Many big corporations, struggling just to survive, have slashed their advertising budgets. Some have stopped buying expensive TV ads altogether.
And an unlikely kind of advertiser is taking their place. It's one whose products are relatively cheap - often $19.95 - and one that's paying a lot less for the television time.
These companies produce what are called infomercials. You usually see them overnight or in the middle of day: demonstrations of the kinds of products one doesn't always find in a store and would probably never think to buy if they weren't shown on TV. Products like pet toenail clippers, dishrags that hold many times their own weight in water, miracle ovens, unbelievably sharp steak knives and muscle massagers.
These are sometimes called direct response ads, because customers who see the infomercial and want to buy the product pick up the phone and call a toll-free number to order it.
Broadcasters are loath to allow these ads to appear, one industry expert told The Washington Post. But what are they going to do? They need the money.
So this year, you'll see infomercials all over network TV in prime time - except on the championship Super Bowl football game on Sunday. On that broadcast, familiar ads for products like Budweiser beer will appear as usual. And for the privilege, their makers will pay the NBC network about $3 million dollars for 30 seconds of air time.
Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.