Forget about cruising the car dealers' strip. Now you can shop for a truck or car from your living room couch. Sit back and turn on the television. Welcome to "Video Car Lot."
It figures that a show such as this would pop up in a metropolitan area where people spend more each year on their vehicles than on their food -- $6,081 per household for the automobile, versus $5,640 for restaurants and groceries, according to the Greater Washington Research Center.
And, no wonder, the show debuted on cable television in Fairfax County, where market research indicates that 45 percent of subscribers enjoy a "furs and station wagons" life style, defined by the researchers as "new money, living in expensive new neighborhood, well-educated, mobile professionals/managers, winners, big producers and big spenders."
Fairfax. It's a car and truck dealer's competitive wonderland. No one could survive for very long without wheels. Even the grocery store seems two traffic jams away.
Neighborhoods are described in terms of commutes, and highway intersections in terms of traffic backups. Last year, there were 30,852 accidents in Fairfax and, as police spokesman Warren Carmichael said, "A number of them were more than fender-benders."
When the need for a replacement vehicle strikes, there's no messing around, either; a regional Ford sales manager has estimated that Washingtonians are more likely than the average American to drive a car off the lot immediately. They like to comparison-shop, too.
So, now, there's "Video Car Lot." Said Keith Johnson, 36, the show's producer: "My slogan is, 'The show that brings the ads to life.' "
Last week's edition opened with the heavy beat of drums, a shot of a blonde in a sparkling red dress, and a twirling blue Ford sign. "So, grab a pen, sit back and fasten your seat belts, because here we go, with 'VIDEO . . . CAR . . . LOT,' " host Eric Carlson said.
First stop on the television tour was billed as the "Land of the Conversion Van."
A gray conversion van flashed on the screen, with a price of $22,395. "It's got EVERYTHING," Carlson said.
"Does it have a kitchen sink? Well, hey, if you've got the money, it's got a kitchen sink."
Already installed were a velour couch bed, tinted bay windows, interior "mood lighting," a color television, deep pile rugs and a six-speaker stereo system. "Led Zeppelin, here we come."
Another van featured interior teak, a visor vanity mirror, a magazine tray and a CB radio, among other amenities -- all for $21,995.
Why a CB radio? "If you don't have a telephone in your car," Carlson said, "a CB radio keeps you from being stranded, and when you're out on a long trip in your Lorain conversion van, you need everything you can get."
The program is less than a year old, and it plays on Sundays throughout the metropolitan area on Channel 50 at 11 a.m., after the "Glorious Ladies of Wrestling."
Same time, same station on Saturday. The shows attract at least 13,800 viewers each week, according to the Arbitron ratings, a station representative said. "It's not Johnny Carson," conceded Johnson, "but we're doing well."
Said Marlow Heights truck dealer Gene Solarczyk, who advertises on "Video Car Lot": "When it first started off, we were a little apprehensive. It was different, and we wondered how many people would actually watch this on a Saturday morning. And, to our surprise, there were quite a few.
"I guess it's the people who go out and party late on a Friday night, and on Saturday mornings, they want to lay in bed and watch a little TV."
The show also appears on Channel 8 of Fairfax's Media General Cable on Fridays, from 6:30 to 7 p.m.
For those who can't get enough of "Video Car Lot," Johnson, a former drummer with Washington's Starland Vocal Band, and his business partner, Ron Poland, two months ago initiated a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week suburban cable channel devoted to cars.
"The Auto Channel," which is broadcast in Fairfax on Channel 27, is more of a television bulletin board than a show, with a photo, say, of a Honda, background music by Elton John and a brief printed message.
The show's advertising rates ($50 to $62 per week for 84 viewings, as compared with $1,585 to $3,000 per 2.5 minutes of airtime for "Video Car Lot") make it attractive to private sellers. "I think it's a good idea," said Herndon real estate agent Clyde Coble, who recently listed his 1983 cypress-green Mercedes-Benz with "The Auto Channel," and hopes to find somebody willing to snap it up for a cool $23,500.
That shouldn't be a problem. In addition to the "furs and station wagons" set in Fairfax, research by Media General indicates that another 15 percent of the county's cable subscribers are "young influentials," defined as "young metropolitan sophisticates, high-tech, white-collar jobs, double incomes affording high spending and open life styles." The cable company also lists 8 percent of its subscribers as "blue blood estates," with one in eight classified as a millionaire.
Media General's research shows that cable households are 46 percent more likely to purchase an imported automobile than noncable households, and market statistics by R.L. Polk & Co. show that Washingtonians last year were more than 30 percent more likely than the average American to buy a Mercedes. Washingtonians don't just love their cars, they love their luxury cars.
Viewers who spot a car on either "Video Car Lot" or "The Auto Channel" contact the seller directly.