In November 1989, KCET's VideoFinders was established as the first drop-ship home video ordering program in the United States.
In the late 1980s, home video ordering was still a small business at the time, compared to the more dominant video rental market. Nevertheless, KCET received phone calls from viewers requesting how and where to purchase VHS videotapes of certain programs, such as the hit 1973 "Hollywood Television Theater" production, "Steambath."
Sensing a demand, and the possibilities of revenue generation for the station, KCET established a home video service where viewers can purchase tapes via mail order. The station had chosen the VideoFinders name and was about to trademark it. But the trademark was already owned by Baker & Taylor, an established business-to-business retailer specializing in selling books, home video, and software. So KCET settled the trademark conflict - by initiating a business deal with Baker & Taylor as a product fulfillment partner, which stored the actual products at its warehouses and shipped them directly to customers.
In the summer of 1991, VideoFinders was expanded to serve the entire PBS network, running a 13-hour operation from 6 a.m. (to serve East Coast customers) to 7 p.m. With around a dozen operators manning the phones, and the help of answering machines to take up the call overflow, the operation served public television viewers nationwide. Multi-tape sets usually cost around $60 and up, while single tapes usually cost around $25 each.
"If we could get on-air mention at end of a nationally-aired show, then that's where real money was," said Debbi Converse, KCET's Executive Director of Development Operations & Product Services, who started out her career with the station as a VideoFinders operator in 1991.
KCET had also opened a physical retail store, called the KCET Store, at its studio on 4401 Sunset Boulevard, where videotapes and KCET/PBS-branded merchandise could be purchased. It ran from 1992 to 1994, when it was effectively replaced by the KCET Store of Knowledge chain.
Some video titles sold themselves, such as the program, "Surviving The Big One," which naturally became a hot seller following the Northridge Earthquake in 1994, with orders coming from individuals, corporations and educational institutions.
Because VideoFinders served a national customer base, certain customers on the opposite end of the country, unfamiliar with how western broadcast station call letters are formatted, had no idea what a "KCET" was when they made out checks or when it showed up on their credit card statements.
"Some of them even thought 'KCET' stood for 'cassette,'" Converse laughed.
Because of that, KCET started a separate merchant account for VideoFinders to help avoid any confusion.
In mid-1994, the VideoFinders department moved out of the Sunset Boulevard studios and into a new KCET Communications office in Glendale, near Colorado and Jackson streets, which also housed KCET's Direct Marketing department. The office featured a 65-person call center, which functioned to serve VideoFinders, as well as KCET's Member Services, and Telemarketing needs for both the station and other clients. KCET Communications became a short-lived spin-off company through a joint venture with DIMAC Marketing.
Converse eventually became VideoFinders' Director in 1999 after returning from graduate school. While the VideoFinders operation was more streamlined via a computer database, the home video market was gradually changing. Internet commerce had already begun, and e-tailers like Amazon were already gaining a foothold on the market. In January 2002, the operation found an Internet presence in their VideoFinders.com website, but they were too late in the game. The VHS market was quickly giving way to DVDs, which were cheaper to manufacture and had an entirely different sales model.
By 2003, sales went down, and VideoFinders started to become a huge drain on resources. The VideoFinders.com website was shut down, and Converse shut down the entire operation in July of that year. Requests for orders from then on were referred to the PBS website.
In hindsight, KCET established an ordering program that was ahead of its time. The station's partnership with Baker & Taylor in drop-ship order fulfillment also became a business model the company would later embrace.
"My dream was to work in a video store in college. Didn't know how that would pan out," said Converse.