Sold Documentaries On Public TV, Firms Get Ads Smaller firms and nonprofit organizations paid roughly $24,000 to Vision Media to produce short documentary films, hosted by former ABC anchor Hugh Downs, that they said would appear on public television stations. Yet the ensuing videos resemble infomercials — and they're unlikely to receive much airtime on public stations.

Sold Documentaries On Public TV, Firms Get Ads

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


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...


U: 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...


U: 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.

BLOCK: Hugh Downs, I know that name. We were, of course, pretty excited, pretty interested and pretty eager to cooperate.

FOLKENFLIK: What an opportunity.

BLOCK: 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.


BLOCK: 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.


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

FOLKENFLIK: 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.

BLOCK: 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.

BLOCK: They are selling something that they generally cannot deliver.

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

BLOCK: 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?


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

FOLKENFLIK: David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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