American civilization, some people believe, is heading in this direction: Eventually, virtually everybody will be able to do practically everything by television. As it is now, you can plant yourself in front of the box and order products, worship, go to night school, see movies and, of course, generally be entertained beyond your mildest dreams.
This is only the beginning.
Now comes a tiny next step: a TV program that lets you shop for a new home without leaving your own. "The Sunday Showcase of Homes," which premiered recently on WJLA-TV, parades 35 to 40 houses now on the market past the viewer while male and female voices describe them in ecstatic, glowing terms. If you see something you like, you phone the sponsoring real estate agency the next day. Eventually, if you're really interested, you probably will have to leave your own home in order to make a first-hand inspection of the premises you perused on TV; the homes are open from 1 to 5 on Sunday afternoons.
The program is seen Sunday afternoons at 12:30 on Channel 7. But WJLA does not produce it. Each show is produced, for a reported $9,000, by Long & Foster Realtors, a firm that managed to sell 30,000 houses last year in this area even without a TV show. The format was created by an independent outfit in Rochester, N.Y., that has had success with the gimmick in other markets.
After each of the first two "Showcase" shows aired, Long & Foster reported that five of the 35 houses pictured were sold that afternoon to buyers who said they saw the homes on the show. "We're trying to generate an emotional response" from would-be home buyers to go out and buy, said Rebecca Cox, Long & Foster's marketing director.
Certainly there have been livelier formats in television history than this crowded slide show. Homes are viewed in still pictures only -- exterior views and a few interior shots. On a recent program, there were mentions and pictures of bathrooms in only three or four of the homes displayed, leading one to wonder if the others had, perhaps, a little something missing.
The male and female voices accompany the pictures with the usual flossy-glossy realty adjectives. One home was "immaculate" and another "super-immaculate." Another had a "tremendous" family room and still another a "unique gourmet kitchen."
In addition, the homes displayed were also, by turns, "gorgeous," "gracious," "alluring," "fabulous," "stately," "stunning," "cozy," "quaint," "super-improved," "casually elegant," "casual-but-elegant" and "picture-perfect."
Rooms tended to be "ample," "huge," "massive," "expansive," "enormous," and, as if that weren't enough, a few were "sun-drenched." Lots tended to be "lovely" and in "prestigious" locations.
Mostly the script held to that kind of blabby impersonal approach. Now and then the narrators got specific, not always invitingly. During the slide tour of a $450,000 home in McLean, the narrator extolled the family room as a place to "show off your oriental rugs." The dining room of a $189,300 Alexandria home would be "the perfect place for your treasured antiques." An L-shaped kitchen offered "room to display a beautiful plate collection."
Least tantalizing were the $399,900 McLean digs that would, said the narrator, be "perfect for a large family with in-laws." Heaven help the home-seeking large families whose in-laws were also watching this show.
Jim Griffin, director of broadcast operations for WJLA, gets a little testy when one refers to this half-hour commercial as a half-hour commercial. "I don't consider it a commercial," he says. "It offers useful, necessary information for viewers as opposed to a continuous pitch for a product."
If the show is but a long commercial for Long & Foster, however, it is a commercial interrupted for other commercials -- on one recent edition, an ad for Woodies and another for White Cloud toilet paper. Griffin says these commercials already had been sold for the time period, regardless of what show happened to be in it.
Thursa Thomas, WJLA's program director, says it's too early to gauge ratings for the show but that they haven't been bad. According to Arbitron, the most recent broadcast got a 2.8 rating and an 8 percent share, which for a Sunday when hardly anybody is watching TV is okay. Long & Foster estimates that 45,000 to 48,000 people saw each of the first two programs.
The station is committed to the show for a 13-week trial period. "The numbers are probably going to pick up," Thomas predicts. "I just have that feeling." But the station isn't looking for "Dynasty" here, and it gets the revenue from selling the time anyway.
Now, is the program diverting for anybody who is not in the market for a new home? Absolutely. Even though the slides are frigid and static (you never see a human being in any of these houses), the program helps satisfy the universal human craving to peer into thy neighbor's domicile.
It could go much further in that direction, of course. If the house tours were on videotape instead of just slides, the camera could pry into closets and open dresser drawers. "The Showcase of Homes" is meant to be just illustrated classified ads of the air, but with a few diabolical alterations, it also could serve as mass electronic eavesdropping. Then there'd be another thing you could do without leaving your house: spy on the neighbors.