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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Our next story is about a production company that's been reaching out to small non-profits and startups, offering them the chance to be featured in short TV documentaries. They're told the show will be hosted by a network anchor Hugh Downs and that it will reach some 60 million households on public television stations across the U.S.

But as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, the programs are not documentaries at all, they are marketing segments, and you are unlikely to find them on local PBS stations.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Let's say you run a small firm. You check your voicemail and you hear something like this...

(Soundbite of voicemail)

Unidentified Woman: I'm calling on behalf of television producer Dwayne Merchant(ph). He is producing a national educational television series...

FOLKENFLIK: Wow. An educational series featuring my firm? Better yet...

(Soundbite of voicemail)

Unidentified Woman: It airs on public television, CNBC, with our host, Hugh Downs. However, he had a few questions that he wanted to ask, so if you could call me back...

FOLKENFLIK: Yes, Hugh Downs, the former host for NBC's "Today Show," PBS' "Live from Lincoln Center" and ABC's "20/20." Jean Hoffman is CEO of Putney, a Portland, Maine firm that develops medication for pets. She got a similar message.

Ms. JEAN HOFFMAN (CEO, Putney, Inc.): Hugh Downs, I know that name. We were, of course, pretty excited, pretty interested and pretty eager to cooperate.

FOLKENFLIK: What an opportunity.

Ms. HOFFMAN: They send the signal that they're doing a story, but then they try to sell us what under questioning was revealed to be advertising.

FOLKENFLIK: Firms have to pay roughly $25,000 to be featured by Vision Media TV Group of Boca Raton, Florida. And what do they get? First and foremost, a several-minute piece offered to PBS member stations.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Mr. HUGH DOWNS (Host): Hello, I'm Hugh Downs. Abraham Lincoln once said, always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.

FOLKENFLIK: That leads into a piece on a residential development involving pro golfer Greg Norman.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Mr. DOWNS: In fact, more people now tune in to watch professional golf tournaments than any other sport on TV.

FOLKENFLIK: It's not mentioned that the developer paid for the privilege of being featured and that's par for the course. Mark Miller is one of the owners of Vision Media. He wouldn't be interviewed by NPR, but agreed to answer some questions by email.

He says Vision Media doesn't mislead clients about its relationship to public television and that it provides valuable services at a reasonable price. Vision Media makes versions of the videos for use on some local cable systems as paid infomercials. They appear on CNBC and other stations in those markets.

Among the subjects of its reports are an Ohio county's visitor center, a prep school in Dover Foxcroft, Maine and the National Funeral Directors Association. Robert Biggins owns a funeral home in Rockland, Massachusetts and is past president of the trade group. Biggins says the presence on public television and the involvement of Hugh Downs were crucial in his decision to buy the videos.

Mr. ROBERT BIGGINS (Business Owner): He brings a credibility in reporting that he has always been on the high road. You know, 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.

FOLKENFLIK: Warm and gracious they may be, but I couldn't verify anybody saw the paid TV spots on public television.

Mr. GARY DENNY (Program Director, Wisconsin Public Television): They are selling something that they generally cannot deliver.

FOLKENFLIK: Gary Denny is the program director of Wisconsin Public Television.

Mr. DENNY: They do, in a way, say that these programs or these interstitials will be carried on public television stations around the country, when in fact, they are probably not carried by any public television station around the country.

FOLKENFLIK: PBS stations have adopted guidelines banning programming paid for by their subjects. I spoke to officials at PBS and at individual PBS stations across the country. None knew of any instance in which such a segment was carried by a PBS station. None of the customers I spoke to were able to identify any either. So, remember those generic Hugh Downs introductions?

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Mr. DOWNS: The quest to combat disease and improve the quality of human life has led to great advances in health care.

FOLKENFLIK: Such footage appears to live on Vision Media's websites and nowhere else. Downs is now 89 years old. He's 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 TV studio in Phoenix. Hersh says PBS' strict standards ensure the integrity of anything aired and that Downs' contract limits his participation to public TV.

Vision Media owner Mark Miller and Patrick Wilson, his distributor, said many stations had shown interest in the videos but wouldn't say how many had aired them. Miller said clients valued the infomercials and marketing materials. He's also taken aim at critics. Vision Media sued a blogger for $20 million for calling its business model a scam.

Some clients may well be pleased, but as for funeral director Bob Biggins, he says the only reason he got involved was the association with Hugh Downs. If those spots didn't appear on PBS stations after all, he says, that's a serious problem.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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