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The demise of a Wisconsin retailing empire

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Greg Peck
February 18, 2014

If you've lived in Wisconsin as long as I have, you remember the days of “Crazy TV Lenny.” Len Mattioli was the man behind those wildly creative and innovative commercials that pitched televisions and appliances from a Madison-based company whose reputation for good prices grew and spread throughout the state and beyond. American TV became a Wisconsin retail institution, a household name.

As a story by Paul Gores of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explains in today's Gazette, Mattioli was an engineer for Eastman Kodak who returned to Madison in 1970 to help his brother, Ferd, who had cancer, close down the TV store Ferd had started. Len learned he liked the retail business, and his familiar TV pitches included giving away bicycles with TVs and appliances.

I came to Janesville as Sunday editor when The Gazette unveiled its Sunday edition in January 1988. We were always on the prowl for unique, interesting stories, and I remember when my colleague Anna Marie Lux did what became a front-page story on “Crazy TV Lenny.” It seemed a little edgy, particularly when we were reaching outside our circulation area for a feature story.

I'll never forget being in my editor's office that Monday and a senior executive of The Gazette company came breezing in, Sunday paper in his hand, and I thought, “Oh, oh, we pushed the envelope too far.” Instead, he slapped the paper down on the desk and proclaimed, “I love this; I want this newspaper to be fiercely independent of advertising.”

For someone so new to the company, that scene left an indelible mark. Still, the story cost The Gazette a major advertiser for a year or more. A local businessman thought we crossed the line featuring what he believed to be a competitor so prominently, especially one from Madison.

In his column Feb. 9, Editor Scott Angus wrote that any good newspaper, one worth its price, must walk a careful line between advertising and news. Companies should advertise in a newspaper because they believe their ads will get results, not because they expect favoritism or “free ads” in our news columns. Readers should expect impartial news coverage, as well.

Len Mattioli slowly sold controlling interest in American TV & Appliance until current President and CEO Doug Reuhl took it over in 2001. My wife and I have shopped for appliances or furniture at American TV off the Beltline in Madison two or three times in the last 15 or so years. I don't remember buying anything, however; seems we always found better values elsewhere. Perhaps the days of the best deals under Len Mattioli were only memories.

Still, Monday's news that American TV is pulling the plug, closing its six Wisconsin stores and two in Illinois and two more in Iowa, came as a shock. About 1,000 people will lose their jobs. My wife and I guessed big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart, ShopKo and others likely led to the company's demise. Instead, I heard a news story on WCLO today in which a Madison retail expert suggested online purchases doomed American TV.

Too many people, it seems, go to retail stores to “window shop” and, when they find merchandise they like, buy the items online for less money. As online shopping forces stores such as American TV and smaller retailers out of business, that's something to consider. What happens when no more brick-and-mortar stores are left for such “window shopping," to pa property taxes or to employ local people?

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.



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