When Vision Media Television first contacted Leslie Richard, who runs The Oko Box, a small eco-fashion business out of her Asheville 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-report 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 they’ll feature the business in a segment. Later, they ask for money to defray production costs.
While no connection to CNN is mentioned on Vision’s Web site, the personal Web site for its Vice President of Programming, Matthew McMahon (the only VMT official listed on its site), touts the company’s purpose as “documentary programs for Public Television and CNN.”
Friday afternoon, 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.
On July 17, VMT filed a federal lawsuit against Richard for defamation, trade libel and “tortious interference with business relationship.” The lawsuit claims that Richard’s blog has lost the company $5 million in business and seeks another $15 million in punitive damages. Filed in the Southern U.S. District of Florida (the company is based in Boca Raton), the lawsuit gave her 20 days to respond. The lawsuit also confirms that the company does charge $22,900 for producing an “interstitial,” a short segment that runs between longer programs.
“Who has $20 million?” Richard says, sitting on a couch in her home, next to the computer she conducts her business from. “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’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,” she says.
A disclaimer on the PBS Web site specifically names VMT and its program, National Report, among companies and programs that it is not associated with in any way:
“A number of businesses have contacted PBS to ask us about our relationship with the producers of various television programs carrying titles such as Giving Back, Learning About, and The National Report Series. According to representatives of these businesses, the producers have offered to feature the representatives’ businesses in a television program and indicated that the program will be made available on national public television. Based upon representations made to them by the producers, the businesses were led to believe that the producers were associated with PBS and that PBS intended to distribute or otherwise endorsed their programming.
PBS wishes to clarify that it is not associated with and does not endorse, distribute programming for, review underwriting for or otherwise have any business relationship with the following production companies: VM Television, Vision Media Television, Paradigm Media Group, PMG, PMGTV, Infinity Media Group, Roadshow Productions, Family Television Studios, United Media Communications Group, American Review TV, Business Break TV, Event Media TV, or Global Television Studios. PBS does not oversee the production or distribution of any programs associated with any of these companies.”
A letter Richard received from PBS asked her to provide any information about Vision’s original call and noted “our legal department is currently trying to track these calls.”
“On the phone they’ll say PBS, but in the e-mail and Web site they just say ‘Public Television,’” Richard asserts.
VMT’s Web site claims that the company does not deal with PBS but with individual public-television stations directly, and that its spots, mostly 2-5 minute long “adverts” touting a business or industry, reach 96 million viewers daily. Five video segments that the company claims were made for public television, featuring former 20/20 anchor Hugh Downs, appear on the site.
VM Television’s Web site has essentially the same content as Vision’s, but with slightly different logo, copyright and graphics.
In a 2006, actor Michael Douglas sued two of the other companies on PBS’ list, Paradigm and Family Television Studios (also based in Boca Raton), claiming that he’d recorded spots for them on the assumption that would be educational and non-commercial, but that they were then used to attract sponsors. The case ended in a sealed settlement.
A similar case occurred in 2003, when retired anchor Walter Cronkite backed out of a contract hosting shorts for WJMK Productions, located in the same office as Paradigm and Family Television, also stating that he’d hosted the programs thinking they would be educational in nature, rather than touting a company’s products. WJMK sued Cronkite, who countersued. A judge refused to dismiss Cronkite’s countersuit. That case was also settled.
In both the Cronkite and Douglas cases, many of the segments never aired.
A 2005 article in the Florida South Business Journal notes that PBS named 11 companies that it was not associated with (Vision and VM Television were not on the list at that time) and that eight of those 11 were located in the same two office suites in Boca Raton.
Vision Media did not return requests for comment.
Click here to go to the Xpress Files and read the lawsuit.
— David Forbes, staff writer