by Paul Alan Levy
I have blogged before about a suit brought by "Vision Media Television," against the consumer-complaint website 800Notes.com, for allowing the posting of messages that criticize Vision Media's misleading telemarketing claims. The messages reported that Vision Media cold-calls non-profit organizations with an offer to include them in a documentary series for "public television" hosted by Hugh Downs, using that line as hook to sign them up to pay about $25,000 to make a video spot that will be run as paid advertising on commercial television. Readers of this blog will recall that Vision Media’s first response to my post about our summary-judgment motion was to seek a gag order.
We recently discovered, and have pointed out in our latest filing in the case, that Vision Media is just one of a series of different names used in a long-standing pattern of similar marketing claims. Jeff Cronin of the Center for Science in the Public Interest has stepped forward with an account of a disturbingly similar series of solicitations he has received for CSPI to get itself time on “public television.” The calls have come from companies with different names over time, including WJMK, United Media, Vision Media and Great America HD, and have claimed association with different news broadcasting personalities, but all are located at the same address and use the same marketing materials and phone numbers. According to Cronin’s affidavit, the groups change their name (and the broadcast personality) when the adverse publicity gets too great, and the newest version of the operation — Great America HD — has just begun its solicitations, perhaps responding to the fact that the public is onto "Vision Media TV."
According to Cronin, well-known broadcasters such as Walter Cronkite, Aaron Brown, Morley Safer, and Mike Douglas are among the names that this coterie of companies have used to solicit business. Cronkite and Douglas filed suit over being misled; it remains to be seen how Hugh Downs, the name these companies are currently bandying about in their marketing calls, will react.
Cronin explains that given the amount of experience he has in communications, he easily saw through the marketing claims, but he expresses concern that smaller non-profits might easily be taken in. He points to an admission on the web site of the newest version of the company that, when people are told that the company has a relationship with “public television,” they will likely assume that they have being promised exposure on PBS and its affiliates. Non-profits receiving calls from companies with any of these names — or any new names that may be adopted — should take Cronin's analysis into account and proceed with care.
Read the Cronin Affidavit here.
In a brief and affidavit addressed to this blog post Vision Media admits that Great America HD is "a product" of Vision Media, and insists that this fact is clearly disclosed - in the contract (I could not find Vision Media's name on the Great America HD web site). It claims, however, that it is separate from WJMK and United Media, and offers a variety of explanations for the shared address, phone numbers and personnel cited in Jeff Cronin's affidavit. The affidavit acknowledges it uses a different mailing address "down the street since the building we are in has a checkered past and the address has been ruined for all of the tenants affiliated with the television production industry because of WJMK's misconduct." Interesting, though, that it seems to have the same telemarketing M.O. as WJMK and that it uses identical written materials; no explanation is given for those similarities.
Vision Media also says that it gives its programming to a distributor which, in turn, “sends it out” to all 349 public television station. But although it proudly presents listings of the times when it has bought time on various commercial stations for its infomercials, it does not even claim that any of the programs are ever aired on public television stations. There is no indication that Vision Media shares this detail in its telemarketing calls.
Myself, I get two or three mailings a week from Capital One, and they all end up in the same circular file, unopened.