Latest 'Pay To Be On 'Public' TV' Scam Involves Football Coach Jimmy Johnson
from the 'leading-edge' dept
A few years back, we wrote a series of articles about an operation called Vision Media TV (and a variety of other rapidly changing names, including WJMK, United Media, World Progress Report, and Great America HD, among many others). The basic “business” of this operation was to get a semi-famous TV personality to be the “host” of a TV show, then go around pitching gullible businesses that it was a legitimate TV show on “public broadcasting TV” or “national public television” and that they wanted to do a profile on that small business. The scam was you just had to pay a “small fee” (usually upwards of $20,000). Oh yeah, and the claims of being on TV were somewhat dubious as well. Among the “hosts” we had mentioned back then, there had been Joan Lunden, Walter Cronkite (!?!) and Hugh Downs — all three of whom backed away after they were called out for participating in a scam. You can see a legal filing from a few years ago that goes through this scam in rather great detail.
The scam continued to morph. A few years ago, under the name “In Focus,” it was “hosted” by Martin Sheen, until that got called out and was shut down. Then it was “Outlook with Ben Kingsley.” But the basics of the scam were the same. The semi-famous or famous “host” obviously just comes in for like a day of reading intros on a cheap TV set, and then they show a “profile” on the company who paid big bucks. The claims of being on “public TV” are massively exaggerated to downright bogus. The NY Times did a big expose on this scam back in 2008. NPR did a detailed takedown in 2010. PBS itself has put out a warning to people not to believe the claims from these ever-rotating operations about their shows being on “public television.” It notes that it has no association with any such show and PBS never solicits money from organizations to be on TV.
But it keeps morphing, as evidenced by the Martin Sheen and Ben Kingsley versions, both of which happened long after those stories.
The latest version uses the same basic playbook — and this time the “talent” is famed football coach Jimmy Johnson, and the show is called “Leading Edge with Jimmy Johnson.” The reason I know about this is because the somewhat clueless folks who work there decided to pitch Techdirt/Floor64 to be on the program (apparently unaware that we’d written about scammers like themselves before):
My name is Barbara Rock, I’m the assistant to Mr. Bill Thomas who is the Sr. Producer for Leading Edge on National Public Television. If you’re not familiar with the program, it’s an interstitial news break that airs prime time in the U.S. on National Public Television just after The Nightly Business Report.
The reason for my contact Mr. Thomas will be producing a few segments for our upcoming season highlighting innovative breakthroughs and solutions that are changing the way we live and work, and our research department has forwarded to Mr. Thomas a general profile on Floor64 as a possible invite to the program for this segment.
If you have a few minutes one day next week, Mr. Thomas would like to discuss this with you in more detail, to learn more about Floor64 and to see if the organization would be a good fit for this segment.
Note the careful word choice. “National Public Television,” not PBS (though, a neat attempt to confuse with National Public Radio). Also, whoever is behind “Leading Edge” also is doing some fairly dodgy SEO work. They’ve registered a ton of domain names like “leadingedgeseriespbs.com” (and .org and .biz and many more) trying to imply an association with PBS that isn’t really there. According to the Washington Post article linked above, they did the same with the Martin Sheen show, with numerous sites using combinations of “Martin Sheen” and “PBS” in the URLs, but with small disclaimers elsewhere saying they’re not associated with PBS. That article also notes that the actual contract terms say that the videos “will be distributed” to “public Television stations in all 50 states,” with potential “estimated viewership and reach for one year [of] 60 million households.”
Yes, again, carefully ambiguous language. By saying “distributed” it just means they’ll send them out — not that anyone will air them.
I sought more information from “Barbara Rock” and she was rather straightforward in admitting that we would have to pay — though she insisted that it wasn’t a fee to be on the show, even though it clearly was:
For starters this is not a ?pay-for-play? where we would be asking Floor64 to buy airtime. As a matter fact Public TV does not sell commercials. An interstitial news break is the 5 min. between programs on Public Television. The only costs associated is a pre-production/underwriting fee of $18,900 plus travel. In addition to being featured on The Leading Edge program Floor64 would also receive a fully produced 5 min. corp. demo and a fully produced 1 min. commercial that would air primetime on CNBC 50 times in the markets of your choice. All production and distribution is included in the fee.
Again, note the careful choice of words. You’re not “buying airtime” — just “pre-production, underwriting.” Real TV programs don’t do that. She also followed up on the claim about PBS/public television saying:
Our program airs across the country on Public Television, some of which are PBS affiliated, however our segments run on all Public TV stations not just the ones that are PBS affiliated. Our presenting station is KRCB in San Francisco.
So she claims they run on “all Public TV stations” which is clearly a bogus claim. Furthermore, if you click on that KRCB link, the URL suggests it was once about “Leading Edge” but now takes you to a “page not found” link, so if KRCB ever did show Leading Edge, that appeared to have gone away. I asked Barbara about this missing link, and she apparently decided I was asking too many questions, refusing any further responses. I also reached out multiple times to KRCB’s senior executives, Nancy Dobbs and Larry Stratton, both of whom refused to respond to email and phone requests for comments. I’m not sure why, but that certainly seems fairly sketchy.
However, before Barbara stopped responding to me, she did offer two examples of companies that had participated in the Leading Edge series as enticements as to why I might be interested: GigaOm and DocuSign. Now, I know folks at GigaOm, and they’re not ones to be taken in by a scam like this. But, indeed, there they are, featured on the Leading Edge site.
No matter what, this seems like another version of the same old scam, tricking businesses into paying big bucks for questionable claims of being on “public television” on a show hosted by some celebrity. Indeed, if you do a search, you can find a bunch of businesses in press releases about how “Leading Edge with Jimmy Johnson” will “host an upcoming segment” on whatever it is that business is doing. Hopefully, with a bit more attention, Jimmy Johnson will back away from this, the same way Walter Cronkite, Hugh Downs, Joan Lunden, Martin Sheen and Ben Kingsley did in the past. But, of course, it seems likely the deal will just morph and be back with another semi-famous “host” soon after.
Filed Under: ben kingsley, company profiles, jimmy johnson, joan lunden, martin sheen, pay to play, public tv, walter cronkite
Companies: docusign, gigaom, great america hd, in focus, krcb, leading edge, outlook, pbs, vision media tv, wjmk, world progress report