What I learned from playing a doctor on TV

Zach Braff as JD Dorian, “Scrubs” — © ABC/Disney

I’m not a doctor, but I really did play one on TV.

25 years ago, I sold consumer products, mostly luggage, to HSN and QVC. I hired a “guest host” to appear on-air, to work with the network “show host” and to demonstrate our products. One day the guest host was delayed, and I ended up with make-up on my face, a microphone up my shirt and an IFB in my ear.

This may sting a bit…

There’s only so much you can say about luggage. After over 100 guest appearances, I got bored. My show producers and directors got bored. And, more important, my audience got bored.

“Try something new,” was suggested. Back in the day, I was a pre-med student, studying neuroscience. I spent a summer working in a hospital. I still had my lab jacket and a stethoscope. The “Luggage Doctor” was born.

Our engineering team sawed a suitcase in half, and stitched it back together loosely, with a few light threads. I placed the “stunt” luggage on a gurney, covered it with a sheet, and rolled it onto the set.

“Let me show you,” I would say, “the anatomy of a healthy suitcase.” I uncovered the suitcase, and proceeded to use a (dull) scalpel to peel back the outer skin, cut through the steel frame, reveal the components and lining, while describing the inner workings of luggage, rarely seen in public. These shows sold a lot of luggage. And, I got to play a doctor, on TV.

When you’re on-air with these extraordinary networks, a director is shouting instructions in your ear through your IFB. “Close-up on your right hand in 3, 2, 1… keep still.” Or, “don’t forget to mention the self-mending zippers.” Or, “Did you hear the one about…”

You have three, or more, large rolling cameras moving around you. Some are robotic, operated from the control room, some are handheld and move in for close-ups on your face, products or surgical technique.


And, there are monitors facing you, displaying a dizzying array of camera angles and, most important, graphs and statistics: customers online, callers on hold, available inventory, sold inventory, and more. This data is updated in real-time. This is an invaluable tool, and a great distraction.

  • Lesson One: Learn to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, or the camera. Imagine your customer is on set with you. Speak to this virtual customer, off camera, and to your show host, on camera. Make it real.
  • Lesson Two: You meet some very odd people in the green room. Sometimes, you’re the odd one. (And, theatrical make up looks really strange when you’re off-set.)
  • Lesson Three: It’s not about you. It’s about them. It’s about the audience, the customer, understanding their needs, solving their problems.
  • Lesson Four: Different times of day there are different show hosts, and these hosts have distinct audiences who loyally tune in. Each show host has a persona, and so does their fan base. Play to the unique attributes of the audience. It may be about function, or fashion, or whimsy, or family… It may be down home, or fast-paced, or educational.
  • Lesson Five: Use the monitors. The real-time stats are incredible tools. The Luggage Doctor had to find a balance between “entertaining” and “selling.” Some story-telling was great and captivating. I heard this from callers… and I also saw the immediate drop-off in orders. The audience was so enthralled, they didn’t call or click, they just watched. Some features I demonstrated lit up the incoming order stats, and others fell flat, all live, in real-time. (Well, almost live. There is a 6 second delay.) I adjusted my dialog, tempo and demonstrations to respond to the audience and the incoming data, to leverage the effect of “stimulus and response.”

These lessons have served me well as I work today with the world’s leading brands and retailers, in-stores and online… and occasionally on TV.

  • It’s about the customer, determining and satisfying their distinct needs. Customers are not segments, they’re people. Tune the brand, product and message to the customer.
  • Be entertaining, have fun. But not too much fun.
  • Different niches of consumers require unique targeted marketing.
  • Data is a valuable tool. Embrace information, make fast informed decisions.
  • When you wear a lab jacket, people pay attention. (I’m thinking about replacing my blazer.)
Former TV Doctors

(c) David J. Katz, New York City

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