NPR Takes Down Vision Media's Claims; Will Vision Media Sue NPR — Or Does It Only Sue Small Operations?
from the we-shall-see dept
Earlier this year, we wrote about Vision Media TV, a company that appeared to be participating in a questionable game of convincing non-profit organizations to pay tens of thousands of dollars to be featured in a television program with broadcaster Hugh Downs that would appear on “public television.” The implication is that these shows will air on PBS, but that’s not the case. In fact, PBS has a warning on its website telling people it’s not associated with these offerings at all. We’ve even been approached by similar offerings (though, not involving Hugh Downs — and the one where we were approached involved getting an “award” for “best small business” or something similar). About a year and a half ago, the NY Times wrote an article trashing Vision Media TV. The company insisted that the article was false and defamatory but, tellingly, chose not to sue.
Instead, it later sued the small site 800notes.com, because some people there had written negatively about Vision Media TV in explaining who was calling from Vision Media’s phone number. Paul Alan Levy, from Public Citizen, who is defending 800Notes, also found himself targeted, after Vision Media sought to bar him from posting public documents about the case on Public Citizen’s website — an attempt that failed. Of course, it did help Levy find more info about the company, including that similar pitches have come from differently named companies, using the same address as Vision Media TV, that pitched (instead of Hugh Downs), Walter Cronkite and Mike Douglas — both of whom ended up suing the company, claiming they were misled by the company.
Levy says he’s asked Vision Media why it never sued the NY Times over its article, and the company’s lawyer responded “I should have,” but supposedly the statute of limitations had already passed. Well, now Levy is pointing out that Vision Media has a second chance to sue a big media player, since NPR just did a devastating takedown of Vision Media TV and its practices:
“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.
To be fair, the article and Vision Media point out that the videos can be useful as marketing materials or infomercials even if they don’t appear on public television — but the whole pitch involving Hugh Downs is where things get questionable. His contract only lets him be involved if the stuff is on public television, and the marketing focuses on Downs involvement, even if that’s unlikely to happen for most organizations who pay up — which certainly suggests misleading marketing:
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.”
Others, who did buy into the videos, claim that the pitch about public television was what got them interested in the first place:
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.
So, if Vision Media’s lawyer said he wished he had sued the NY Times over a very similar article from a couple years ago, will he now sue NPR? Or is it easier to focus on small sites with much smaller budgets?