QVC official denies any racism A suit contends Jack Comstock treated minorities badly. He told the jury about his criteria for hosts.

Posted: June 07, 2004

As a performance review, the comments could not be more subjective: uses too many filler words like you-knows; looks confused; appears to be uneasy.

In the high-pressure world of on-air hosts at the QVC cable-shopping channel, such words from Jack Comstock, vice president of television sales, could signal the sunset of a career.

What those criticisms were not, Comstock told a federal civil jury last week, was a pretext for racial discrimination.

Comstock, a former IBM executive and Air Force fighter pilot, has been consistently described by current and former QVC hosts as an exacting, critical and often brusque boss.

The federal lawsuit by former QVC host Gwen Owens contends that he is something more: architect of QVC's purported practice of treating minority hosts as "tokens," assigning them to the overnight "graveyard shift," and firing them when it is time for a fresh minority face.

Comstock spent about seven hours on the witness stand over two days trying to explain to 10 jurors his theories about what makes a successful QVC host and why Owens did not have it.

U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno has told the jurors that Owens' attorneys should complete their case today. QVC lawyers will then begin presenting their witnesses. The trial began May 13.

Comstock and QVC officials have denied that Owens' 1998 firing was racially motivated.

Rather, they say, Owens could not translate her news broadcast experience into that key quality of a QVC host: the ability to persuade viewers they need to buy Diamonique, NASCAR race collectibles, or any of the thousands of other items that have made QVC a $5 billion-a-year concern.

"When she first joined QVC, she did well as a trainee," Comstock said of Owens. "But she didn't really progress very well after that."

Owens, 42, joined QVC in 1994 from a TV news anchor job in Lancaster. After 15 months as a QVC host, Owens was asked to anchor a spin-off channel, Q2-Pennsylvania, a move Owens said she reluctantly agreed to out of "team spirit."

Q2-Pennsylvania, like several other QVC pilots, failed and closed in July 1997, and Owens and others returned to QVC.

Owens testified that she returned to mostly night-shift duties at QVC and increasingly critical job reviews that ended in a "60-day performance plan" and her firing in November 1998.

Owens' attorney, Alan J. Rich, questioned Comstock about why there were no records of negative evaluations of Owens until she returned from ill-fated Q2, suggesting Comstock wanted to justify his arbitrary decision to fire Owens in favor of a new minority host.

Comstock said he did not keep written host critiques in Owens' first year at QVC but insisted he regularly gave her oral criticisms of her work.

"I didn't want her not to succeed, but I was obligated to be honest with her," Comstock testified. Comstock said that, unlike successful QVC hosts, Owens "presented" products rather than sold them and too often cut off or talked over viewers calling in testimonials.

Comstock testified that he was similarly critical of other former and current QVC hosts, and one current host, Lisa Mason, told the jury that she and Comstock "did not have a very good relationship."

By the end of 1998, Comstock said, "I felt that [Owens] stopped trying. I felt her demeanor had changed."

In earlier testimony, Owens acknowledged she was depressed but said it was because she felt she was being set up for firing by Comstock's arbitrary and ever-changing standards.

Owens and three other minority hosts who were fired or quit QVC filed the proposed class action in federal court in New York in 1998. The suit contends that, in addition to being given less-lucrative air shifts, minorities were told to "lighten up" their complexions with makeup, that they were paid less than whites, and that minority women were paid least of all.

To buttress Owens' contentions, Rich called two witnesses - Mason and former host Lynne Tucker - who described a QVC hosts meeting after television news reported Owens' lawsuit.

The witnesses said QVC host Dan Hughes quipped: "Why don't we all paint our faces black, sue the company, and make a lot of money?"

"I heard some nervous laughter from the hosts," testified Tucker, now a San Diego newscaster, who has a sex-discrimination suit pending against QVC.

"Did you report this to anyone in management?" Rich said.

"No, Jack [Comstock] was my direct supervisor," Tucker testified. "My boss laughed at the comment. There's no way I could report that."

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2658 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

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