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CNBC's As Seen on TV an info-taining look at infomercials

Master baiter Billy Mays and the Today crew in Snuggies.

A down economy is an upper for infomercials, which supposedly have grown to a $150 billion industry lately spearheaded by the likes of product hawker Billy Mays and the Snuggie.

Networks and myriad local television stations, hard-pressed to sell ad time or even afford programming, increasingly turn to these 30-minute come-ons to cushion their bottom lines. The CNBC cable network's latest original documentary, As Seen on TV (Wednesday, 8 p.m. central), manages to be at least as entertaining and informative as sitting through one of Ron Popeil's pitches for the Showtime Rotisserie ("Set it and forget it!").

Popeil is interviewed, of course. As is Mays. Reporter Darren Rovell also talks to the CEOs of several "direct-response" companies, regulators who want to rein them in and a product tester who finds the ShamWow pretty impressive but the MXZ Pocket Saw a rip-off.

CNBC's review DVD is missing a few segments in order to "better make your deadlines." So wait, there's not more. But there's enough here to judge As Seen on TV both entertaining and informative, even if Rovell acts a little too impressed with Mays' ad libbed sales pitch for the reporter's cell phone.

The Snuggie, a blanket with arm holes, so far has generated $100 million in sales, with the demand so great that All Star Marketing Group had to cut back on its advertising, says CEO Scott Boilen. They're sold for the low, low price of $19.95 for a pair, plus two free book lights.

Boilen says the price has to be right: "If we marketed the Snuggie at 29 or 39 (dollars), I don't think it would've worked."

Throwing something of a wet blanket on all of this is the Electronic Retailing Self-Regulation Program, whose director, Peter C. Marinello tells Rovell, "At the end of the day, they've got to be able to back up what they're sayin' and what they're showin'."

(Note to consumers of this article: Never fully believe anyone who uses the term "at the end of the day." Also distrust people who say, "The fact of the matter is.")

Mays' wide range of products includes Oxy-Clean and Mighty Putty. Unlike Popeil, though, he doesn't invent 'em. He just sells 'em.

"Critics say he's screaming. He says it's about breaking through the clutter," Rovell says.

Mays, 50, says he turns down lots of offers, and spends some quality time with a product before deciding whether to bawl on its behalf. You wouldn't know it from his jet-black hair and beard, but "there's a lot of pressure put on me when people believe that I'm the only one that can take their product to the next level," Mays says.

Popeil, founding father of the Veg-o-Matic and pretty much the godfather of informercials, sold his company for a tidy $55 million in 2005. But he's still got a marvelous new turkey/chicken fryer in development, and hopes that people will remember him not as a salesman but as a guy who made products that actually work.

As a kid, I remember cutting my lip after turning a Sprite bottle into a decorative kitchen glass with Popeil's bottle and jug cutter. But that's a fond memory now, so no offense taken.

Popeil does seem to have at least one regret. His Inside the Shell Electronic Egg Scrambler didn't sell well, but he still considers it one of his master inventions.

Guess there weren't enough yo(l)kels out there for that one.