In recent months, American not-for-profit organizations and start-up firms have been receiving calls from a Florida production company saying they can be the focus of short TV documentaries hosted by former network news anchor Hugh Downs.
They are promised the shows will be educational in nature and reach an estimated 60 million American households on public television stations across the country.
But the programs aren't documentaries; they're marketing segments that will cost the firms that are their subjects roughly $25,000 apiece. And the spots, created by Vision Media of Boca Raton, Fla., are likely to receive little airtime, if any, on local PBS member stations.
"They are selling something that they generally cannot deliver," says Garry Denny, program director of Wisconsin Public Television and a past president of the professional association of programming officials for PBS member stations. "In fact, they are probably not carried by any public television station around the country."
Officials at PBS and at PBS member stations in California, Colorado, Kentucky, New York, South Carolina and Virginia were all aware of the Hugh Downs spots. Yet not one knew of a concrete instance in which the spots featuring Downs appeared on their stations or those of others. PBS and its member stations say they adhere to guidelines banning marketing programming paid for by subjects of the programs.
Mark Miller, one of Vision Media's owners, would not agree to an interview with NPR but responded to some questions by e-mail. He said his firm was not deceiving its clients but instead providing valuable services at a reasonable price. Stations in approximately 100 markets have signed program request forms allowing them to air the spots featuring Downs, Miller wrote, though he would not identify any of those markets. Nor would he say where any spots have appeared.
As Vision Media points out, the public television spots aren't the only thing clients receive. They can use the professionally produced videos as marketing materials. And they also become infomercials, which appear on cable channels in some markets through some local cable providers. In those instances they are clearly marked as paid programming.
But Downs doesn't appear on the cable infomercials or in the marketing videos. According to both Downs' agent and Vision Media's Miller, the retired anchor's contract limits his involvement to public television. Yet for many people approached by Vision Media's cold-calling pitchmen, he's by far the strongest selling point.
One of the firms recently pitched is Portland, Maine-based Putney Inc., which develops generic drugs for pets. "Hugh Downs! I know that name," said Jean Hoffman, Putney's CEO. "We were of course pretty excited, pretty interested, and pretty eager to cooperate."
It seemed like a splendid opportunity, until Hoffman and her colleagues started to bore in on the details. "They send the signal that they're doing a story" as journalists, Hoffman said. "Then, they try to sell us what under questioning was revealed to be advertising."
Putney passed on the opportunity. Hoffman said she thought it was deceptive and would have been a poor use of the small company's marketing budget.
Among the outfits that have purchased the Vision Media spots in the past couple of years are the Warren County, Ohio, convention and visitors center; Foxcroft Academy, a prep school in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine; and the National Funeral Directors Association, based outside Milwaukee.
Robert Biggins is past president of the funeral director trade group and owner of a funeral home in Rockland, Mass. He said Vision Media's promise of a presence on public television and the involvement of Downs were crucial.
"He brings a credibility in reporting," Biggins said. "I felt that dealing with an organization that he's so intimately involved in gave us the opportunity to share our message, and to do so in a warm and gracious manner."
If their spots did not air on public television, Biggins said, "That would be a serious concern."
The National Funeral Directors Association provided NPR with a copy of the contract it signed with Vision Media. The association paid $22,900 in 2007 for the production of different versions of the spot, plus an additional $3,000 as a "location fee" -- presumably for travel costs. The contract and additional material from Patrick Wilson of American Artists, the segments' distributor, stated the "estimated reach is over 40 million households" on public television stations. The brochure also suggests the spots will reach 84 million households nationwide on cable -- the overwhelming majority of all homes subscribing to cable television.
The price has gone up, and so have the claims for the audience reach. Vision Media marketing materials received this year by Washington Cash, a not-for-profit microlending firm based in Seattle, showed the production cost listed at $23,900. An enclosed letter from distributor Wilson estimated that 60 million households would be reached through public television stations. Washington Cash decided against pursuing the pitch.
Vision Media offers other benefits. It promises to upload the corporate videos to YouTube and, if given e-mail addresses of possible clients, to promote the appearance of those videos on public television and cable stations.
As the promotional materials put it, "When you e-mail someone about your service, product or organization, it's considered spam. When we e-mail someone about your service product or organization, it's considered an online documentary."
It's all very similar to an arrangement a few years back that initially boasted the late Walter Cronkite and Aaron Brown as hosts of similar paid spots created by another Boca Raton production company. The hosts backed out as media reports revealed the details of the deal.
The 89-year-old Downs is the former anchor of NBC's Today show, ABC's 20/20 and PBS's classical music show Live From Lincoln Center. The School of Human Communication is named for him at Arizona State University. He is on a two-month-long cruise and has been unreachable. But his agent, Rick Hersh, says Downs' involvement was limited to taping on a single day, two years ago, in a television studio in Phoenix. Hersh says PBS's strict standards ensure the integrity of anything aired on public television stations and that Downs' contract limits his participation to public TV.
Despite repeated requests, Miller of Vision Media and Wilson, his distributor, wouldn't say where the Downs spots have appeared. Instead, Miller bristled at questions about the videos. He said clients appreciate their distribution on cable and use his videos for marketing purposes. The company has taken tougher aim at other critics. Vision Media filed a $20 million lawsuit against a blogger who called its business model a scam.