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Company Pitches a Television Production, and Nonprofit Groups Are Wary

Published: August 15, 2008

Community foundations and universities around the country are raising questions about a sales pitch being directed their way this summer.

Representatives of Vision Media Television, a production company based in Boca Raton, Fla., have been calling leaders of such organizations over the last few months with an offer to be part of a television program with Hugh Downs, the retired broadcaster, as its host.

The caller suggests that the production will be shown on public television and major cable news stations. But the initial pitch, foundation representatives said, does not mention that the production would cost the university or foundation $20,000 or more.

PBS, the national public broadcasting program provider, has had a warning on its Web site for the last three years that it “is not associated with and does not endorse, distribute programming for, review underwriting for or otherwise have any business relationship” with a list of productions companies that includes Vision Media Television.

Lea Sloan, vice president for communications at PBS, said this week, “PBS has no actual knowledge of carriage of any Vision Media programming by any PBS member station.”

The Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina is one of the nonprofits that has been approached by Vision Media. Christine Beddia, the foundation’s director of marketing and communications, said she had spoken a couple of times with a producer at Vision Media named Tom Roach.

“He said they were doing a regional segment about organizations that make a difference that would be part of their National Business Series hosted by Hugh Downs,” Ms. Beddia said. “They might be interested in our story — at a price of $22,000 for a two-minute spot, which is a high price tag for a community foundation of our size.”

She said she had been wary and then began seeing other community foundations express concerns about similar calls on a Council of Foundations Web site.

Mark Miller, an executive producer at Vision Media, wrote in an e-mail message that the company distributed the series it produced to public television affiliates, which had the right to show them “at their discretion.”

“The average person commonly makes the mistake of assuming that PBS and public television are one and the same, because they view PBS programs on public television stations,” Mr. Miller wrote.

Ms. Sloan, however, said that “the significant number of persons and companies that have contacted us because they mistakenly believe that we are affiliated with Vision Media suggests to us that Vision Media is not making a sufficient distinction between ‘public television’ and PBS.”

Mr. Miller also said the organizations seemed to be confusing Vision Media’s educational and commercial offerings.

“Hugh Downs has never been part of any commercial product that we provide to our clients,” he wrote. “His participation with our company is strictly limited to the educational segments that we provide to public television. Furthermore, there is no inclusion of commercial and/or promotional content in the programs that we provide to the public television affiliates.”

But community foundation executives said the company’s representatives did not make that distinction clear.

C. Matthew McMahon, the vice president for programming for Vision Media, did not respond to a voice mail message and an e-mail message seeking an interview. In response to a request to speak to Mr. Downs, however, Dr. McMahon wrote, “Per Mr. Downs’s agent, Mr. Downs is not available for an interview.”

Efforts to reach Mr. Downs independently were unsuccessful.

The California Community Foundation was first contacted by Vision Media representatives in May about participating in its National Business Series programs. “It seemed like they were trying to sell us an advertorial,” said Namju Cho, the foundation’s director of communications.

Two months later, another executive at the foundation was contacted by a Vision Media representative pitching what the company calls its “Giving Back” programs. This month, the foundation was again contacted by a Vision Media representative pitching the same programs, “hosted by Hugh Downs.”

When Ms. Cho returned that call, she was told the cost of the offer was $22,900. “I told him not to call or contact any of our staff again,” she said.

The New York Community Trust, the Arizona Community Foundation, the Greater Cincinnati Community Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, the Community Foundation of Broward and the Norfolk Foundation in Virginia all reported receiving similar calls.

One nonprofit that did business with Vision Media is the Citadel, the military college in South Carolina. The college paid the company about $10,000 in 2001 and got an airing on the E! channel at about 6 a.m. and some scenes it used on its own for various purposes, said Jeff Perez, its vice president for external affairs.

“These are pay-to-play propositions where they say you give us $15,000 to $20,000 and we’ll include you in our programs,” Mr. Perez said. “What they’re offering is something you can produce in-house or far more cost effectively through other vendors.”