10 Minutes With: The Video Professor

John W. Scherer may be the "Video Professor" on infomercials that are a ubiquitous part of cable television. In real life, he was an indifferent student.

"I would get bored easily," said the 62-year-old born entrepreneur, whose first venture as a child was selling Christmas cards. "I was more inclined toward sports than being a good student."

Scherer has never worked for anyone else, fearing his ideas would get lost in a big corporation. In the late 1980s, he ran a company that made IBM PC clones. By 1987, customers were returning the machines to retailers because they grew frustrated trying to figure out how to work them. After failing to find instructional videos to help out the stressed-out neophytes, Scherer decided to produce his own content. His company's first lesson was on DOS and was distributed on VHS.

Over the next few years, Scherer and his executives tried different advertising strategies. One 30-minute spot in 1991 featured Scherer and actor Jeff Conaway, best known for his role on the classic 70's TV comedy "Taxi" and more recently "Celebrity Rehab." Eventually, Scherer and his team realized that he was the best spokesman the company could have.

"I knew the most about the product -- and I was free."

The low-key Scherer is the opposite of fellow pitchman and acquaintance Billy Mays who screams his pitches as if the audience was deaf. Most of the Video Professor commercials are produced at the company's in-house studios at its headquarters near Denver. Many of the company's top executives have worked for Scherer for decades. Scripts are notional at best.

"I can't read a teleprompter," Scherer said, adding the commercials are "what I feel."

But they are pervasive. In February and March, Video Professor averaged 3,000 to 4,000 spots per week on cable and network TV. Perhaps his best-known spot is the one on buying and selling on eBay. When he first read the script, he hated it.

"Every other word was 'eBay.' I was angry," he said. "I was truly angry."

Scherer, though, soon found out that his staff was right and he was wrong. The eBay lesson, one of more than 60 the company offers, is among its biggest sellers. Video Professor, which is privately held, is benefiting from the growing interest from people needing training in new skills because they've been laid-off or are worried about losing their jobs.

The company, which offers its first lesson for free, estimates that it has more than 500,000 transactions in the first quarter, compared to 900,000 for all of last year. Some people have complained about getting unexpected charges for additional lessons. Video Professor said these complaints, which are mostly anonymous, are without merit. Customers who want just the free lesson (with a shipping and handling fee) mentioned in the commercial are able to do just that.

Video Professor has a "C" rating from its local Better Business Bureau, according to the group's Web site. Scherer said he has a good relationship with the BBB and is confident its grade will improve. A spokesman for the group could not be reached for comment.

Video Professor says its complaints equal less than one-tenth of one percent of its transactions. Moreover, Scherer said, it tries to resolve all of them amicably. That's why he finds the anonymous Web critics so infuriating. He said the company has filed suit to find out who these people are so he could resolve any legitimate complaints that they might have.

As TV celebrities go, Scherer is about as low-key as they come. He is an avid golfer who prefers to spotlight his charity work instead of himself. Among his passions are cars. Scherer is trying to convince the U.S. government to provide a $10,000 tax credit for anyone buying a new car.

"You need sales to generate revenue," said Scherer, who has no background in the car business.

For now, Scherer is happy to be the Video Professor and is more than willing to spread the gospel. The company is spending about four times on advertising than what it did last year. And media companies are happy for Scherer's business at a time when bigger advertisers have cut back. Still, Scherer does not seem the type to let fame go to his head.

When I first asked him how often his commercials appear on TV, he replied ,"some people say too much."
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