When Vision Media Television first contacted Leslie Richard, who runs The Öko Box (a small eco-fashion business) out of her home, she was interested.
“They said that their TV producer wanted me to be interviewed for a documentary on eco-fashion,” she says. “I talked to one of their producers, and she told me that 84 million people were going to see this. She said it would be on PBS, CNN, that it’s going to be aired all over Europe.”
Then came the kicker: VMT wanted $22,900 for production fees and $3,000 for airfare to do the program, according to Richard.
“I was shocked,” she says. “I didn’t know what to say; my store doesn’t have that kind of money.”
Richard began researching the media company and came to believe she was being scammed. She reported VMT to the Better Business Bureau and wrote about the situation on her store’s blog, referencing e-mails the company sent her and reports of what she believes are similar scams. On consumer Web sites like the Ripoff Report, various businesses have asserted that the scams follow a similar model: The company touts its connection with major networks or PBS and says it will feature the business in a segment. Later, they ask for money to defray production costs.
On July 17, VMT filed a lawsuit against Richard for defamation, trade libel and “tortious interference with business relationship.” The lawsuit claims that Richard’s blog has cost the company $5 million in lost business and seeks another $15 million in punitive damages. Filed in the Southern U.S. District of Florida, the lawsuit gave her 20 days to respond.
“Who has $20 million?” asks Richard, sitting on a couch in her home next to the computer she uses to conduct her business. “At $20 million, legal-aid organizations generally won’t help you. Since it’s filed in the Southern District of Florida, not a lot of lawyers here are licensed to practice there.”
She says she’s answered the summons, writing a motion herself to try to get the lawsuit dismissed or transferred to North Carolina. “I don’t have a car, I don’t have money, so we’re trying to get it transferred here so I can find someone to represent me pro bono,” Richard explains.
A disclaimer on the PBS Web site specifically includes VMT and its program National Report in a list of companies and programs that it’s not associated with in any way.
Although Vision’s Web site doesn’t mention CNN, the Web site of Matthew McMahon, the vice president for programming, describes the company’s purpose as making “documentary programs for Public Television and CNN.”
But CNN spokesperson Bridget Lieninger flatly denied that Vision makes documentaries for the network. “We don’t have a production agreement with them, nor would we enter into any such agreement,” she told Xpress.
According to news reports, similar companies based in Boca Raton have run into controversy before. In 2003, retired nenws anchor Walter Cronkite backed out of a contract hosting programs for WJMK Productions after he found out they were being used for commercial adverts. WJMK and Cronkite sued each other. In 2006, actor Michael Douglas sued two companies working out of the same building as WJMK for the same reason. Both Cronkite and Douglas said they’d been told the spots would be used for educational purposes. The two cases resulted in settlements, but the terms were not revealed.
VMT’s Web site says the company deals not with PBS but directly with individual public-television stations, and that its spots, mostly a few minutes long and touting a particular business, reach 96 million viewers daily. The site displays five video segments that the company claims were made for public television, all featuring former 20/20 anchor Hugh Downs.
“On the phone they’ll say PBS, but in the e-mail and Web site they just say ‘Public Television,’” Richard asserts.
At press time, Vision Media had not responded to requests for comment.
To see the lawsuit against Richard and The Oko Box, go to www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles.