With many colleges and universities eager (if not desperate) for a leg up in the competition to recruit students, the promise of national visibility is alluring, and institutions are constantly hunting for new ways to reach students.
Beware the offer that sounds too good to be true -- it probably is.
Take the call, for instance, that comes in to a college president’s office or to a dean of a school, indicating that a production company has deemed some aspect of the college or program as worthy of a documentary video feature. There's talk of placement on national television -- CNN, CNBC -- and of reaching large audiences of potential students. The names of high-profile hosts like Hugh Downs or Terry Bradshaw may get thrown around.
Only after enthusiasm and excitement has built, in many cases, does it become clear that this isn't a news program and that the college or university will have to pay -- on the order of tens of thousands of dollars -- to have the video made.
College public relations officers say that scenario has played out on scores of campuses in recent years, pushed by at least two unrelated Florida-based production companies. No one is accusing the companies, Platinum Broadcasting Company and Vision Media Television, of engaging in purposeful deception, and a few colleges that have worked with the companies say they were satisfied, ultimately, with the quality of the promotional videos that were produced, even if the companies may not have delivered on all their grand promises of high-profile national visibility.
But many college public relations officers say they are disturbed by some of the companies’ tactics. As they describe it, the companies' marketers typically approach presidents or deans directly, enticing them with the prospect of national visibility for their programs. The producers’ representatives often, they say, lace their sales pitches with language that makes the videos they hope to produce for the colleges sound like news programs, when in fact they are essentially advertorials. (Company officials say they produce both commercials and "educational programming.") Most troublingly, the campus officials say, the companies' sales reps sometimes neglect to mention, until well into the discussions, that the colleges will be expected to cough up hefty sums to cover the production and distribution costs.
“They present it as a news program, and they initially talk like you’ve been selected and vetted because they think you’re a terrific story, so you almost think it's a documentary,” says Karl Luntta, director of media relations at the State University of New York at Albany. “But what they produce for you is more like a commercial, a mini-infomercial. And it’s only when you drill down that you find out that they want you to ‘help’ with the production costs, and that it’s going to be $20,000 to 30,000.”
Adds Tysen Kendig, associate vice chancellor for university relations at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville: “I need to give them credit -- they’re very savvy with their approach. Whether it’s savvy or a scheme, I’m not quite sure. But either way, it’s a tricky approach that they’re taking.”
Officials of the two companies insist that they are upfront from the beginning about the nature of the programs and the fact that colleges will be expected to pay for them. "No one here who works for us as associate producer ever has a conversation without saying in that first conversation that there’s a fee involved," says Mark Miller, executive producer for Vision Media. "If there was anybody who said otherwise, I would like to know who didn't do that, and they would probably be dismissed immediately." College officials did not identify individual salespeople, and said to a person that the initial discussions all took place on the telephone, without documentation that might prove that the products were pitched without prices attached.
Those colleges that have done business with Vision Media and Platinum -- which tend to be small institutions without the expertise or budgets to produce high-quality promotional video footage in-house -- cite a differing set of issues. Most focus on whether the companies lived up to their promises in how the programs were distributed, especially whether they were seen on the sorts of high-profile networks or in the sorts of "prime-time" slots that they expected.
Most of them say, though, that the companies gave them material they could use, and that they "got what we paid for," says Anne Forsyth, director of college relations at California's Thomas Aquinas College, which features its "Today's Family" segment from Platinum Television on its Web site. "But we had to keep working to ultimately get what we were promised."
The Companies' Offerings
Officials at the two companies in question, Vision Media Television and Platinum Broadcasting Co. (also known as PTG Studios and Platinum Television Group), vociferously dispute the characterization that they are doing anything remotely wrong. They describe their organizations as independent production companies that serve dual purposes: providing television networks (commercial and public) with educational and promotional programming to fill their air time, and helping organizations -- companies, colleges, and other entities -- get the word out about their operations.
Mark Miller, executive producer at Vision Media, says his company produces two types of programming about colleges and other clients. Its primary line of business is a series of programs that are provided to individual public television affiliates for use as "interstitial programs" -- in other words, to fill the 2-5 minute gaps that appear between longer programs. Vision Media, Miller says, is one of hundreds of small entities that provide such programming, as opposed to much larger entities like PBS. The video spots, which have titles such as "National Medical Report" and "National Education Report" (in which most colleges appear), are "told from an educational angle, and it's educational content," Miller says. "We have a research department that tries to locate and find schools or advances in medicine, topics of interest that might be something we see as valuable content."
Adds C. Matthew McMahon, vice president for programming at Vision Media: "We will highlight a certain angle, and make a kind of news story around them or about them. It has to be something unique, so they can shine in talking about their aspect of higher education."
Vision Media also produces 1-2 minute "commercials" for its clients for which it buys time on CNN, CNBC and other national networks, Miller and McMahon say. "You might be watching Lou Dobbs and he would cut to break," says McMahon, "and at that particular break, we buy that time and will place the National Education Report as a segment inside that time slot." Both companies say they give clients a full schedule of when and where their segment will appear.
A college or university that wanted just the educational video would pay $12,000 to $14,000 to cover production costs, while a package including the commercial and a share of the costs of buying the airtime would be about $23,000, says Miller.
Platinum Television features colleges and universities in the mix of entities that it features on shows, like "Today's Family" and "Business & Beyond," that appear on ABC Family, Oxygen, and other national cable networks, says Gary Baris, the company's media director. It tends to identify themes for a show -- say, one on the environment, for a "greening America" show -- and then find colleges or other organizations to feature, adds Kira Burton, a company spokeswoman. College clients have a heavy hand in the screenwriting (signing off on the script, for instance) and in addition to whatever airs on television, they receive and can use all of the footage that is shot.
"They get not only on-air exposure, but a quality product they can use from here to kingdom come," says Baris, adding that for a fee in the $20,000 range, the company provides "value’s anywhere you slice the deal."
Truth in Marketing
Companies such as Vision Media and Platinum Television have been the topic of periodic bursts of discussion on listservs of campus public information officers like PIOnet, where most of the concern revolves around how the companies approach colleges.
Many describe their presidents and other campus leaders as getting barraged by such inquiries and offers, and perceive that the companies are purposefully targeting those at the institution who are (a) most likely to be drawn to the idea of national publicity and (b) less likely to be savvy about how television works. "They tend to go outside of PR to those they know don't understand the media and who might be drawn to an appeal to ego," says Roger S. Johnson, president of Newswise, an information service used by journalists and college PR officers. One university public relations official went so far as to warn all her deans to be prepared for inquiries from video providers.
Kendig, the Arkansas-Fayetteville university relations chief, says he received an inquiry not long ago forwarded by the law school. Its officials had been approached about making a documentary about the fact that it had its first African American dean, and "there was a lot of excitement and buzz generated by the call," Kendig says. In some cases, officials are attracted by network names like MSNBC, and in others, by the suggestion that the produced videos might appear on "public television," bringing visions of a time slot in "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer."
Although the video companies go out of their way now to avoid any suggestion that they are affiliated with PBS, PBS's own FAQ specifically notes that confusion has reigned and that it is not affiliated with Vision Media or other such production companies. ("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," PBS writes. "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.")
Ultimately, the nature of the sales pitch concerns campus officials more than who it's aimed at. When Arkansas-Fayetteville named its new chancellor last winter, the call came directly to Kendig himself, he says. "It sounded like a news pitch, but as I pressed for details, the tougher it got to get information out of them. You really have to ask the question two-three times: Is there a dollar figure attached?" (Before Kendig arrived there, Arkansas contracted with Vision Media for its "National Education Report" report series, which he calls "not badly done.")
Another campus PR official, who asked not to be identified, said her president's office got a call from one of the companies, and that it was only after she called the company back, "to do some more investigating," that she found out that "they wanted $20,000 for a licensing fee."
The same thing happened to Luntta at SUNY-Albany, he says. A conversation between officials in the president's office there and one of the video producers "went on for a few days," he says, before the public affairs office was asked to find out more. "I drilled down with the producer, and at some point, she said, 'Now, we do ask you to help with the production costs,' " Luntta says. "But they kept insisting that it was not advertising, but a documentary."
Representatives of Vision Media and Platinum insist that they are upfront both about the nature of the programming and the fact that institutions must "pay to play," as one campus official called it. "In no way are we producing news, and we're clear about that," says Baris of Platinum Television. And Vision Media's Miller vehemently challenges the idea that it might take campus officials multiple conversations to find out that they might have to pay his company to produce video material. "We might leave a message for someone that doesn't mention that, but in the first call back, they will always be informed. I can assure you that the cost is always discussed in that first conversation," he says. "That is fact."
Most of the couple dozen or more colleges that have contracted with Platinum Television or Vision Media to promote their institutions say they were never in doubt about the (paid) nature of their arrangements with the companies. "It didn't take an advanced course in law to figure out what they were getting from this," says Forsyth of Thomas Aquinas.. "They were fairly straightforward in how they proposed it to us." Added another campus PR officer, who requested anonymity: "It came down very quickly that this [arrangement with Vision Media] was pay for placement. We never felt duped."
That official and others said that they had straightforward goals in working with the companies. Patricia McArver, now a visiting professor of business at the Citadel, was vice president for community relations at the South Carolina institution earlier this decade when it was approached by Vision Media. "We were interested in getting some footage we could get on our Web site, and we had no capability in house," says McArver. "This seemed to offer us a way to get that, and they also said we could get some visibility on E! Television, with 90 million viewers."
McArver says Citadel officials were not wowed by Vision Media's final product, which like many such spots are available on Youtube and other video channels. "The actual program they put together would be appropriate for 99 out of 100 colleges in the U.S., but it didn't really work for us," given the military college's unusual "blend of styles," she says. "It wasn't objectionable; we just weren't able to take the clip and use it as is on the Web site." But "we also had all the raw footage, and that turned out to be very good, and we've used that in lots of ways."
Citadel officials also were less than impressed by when and where the video was broadcast. "One of our alumni who was deployed saw it at 6 a.m. on a Tuesday morning," says McArver. "But in terms of reaching a college audience of college parents, we did question that."
Forsyth says that Thomas Aquinas's video appeared, as promised, on ABC Family, the Hallmark Channel, and Pax TV, among others. "They were at odd hours, not the hours you would necessarily choose, but they did appear," she says. Forsyth was also impressed by the amount of editorial control that Platinum Television officials gave the college. "We were content with it. Would we do it again?" she says. "Maybe in 10 years."
Kate Reagan of Lincoln Memorial University wouldn't. Like some of her peers, she says the Tennessee institution was looking for a "clear, concise documentary video that told our story," as well as publicity. When Vision Media called her -- "we get cold called all the time" -- "it seemed like something we were willing to try." The university "found the budget dollars to do it," and its experiences working with the company in the last year have been mixed.
Delays in the filming (for which the university was partially responsible) the company's failure to make edits in subsequent versions pushed back the planned airing of the videos from March and April, when Lincoln Memorial hoped to reach students, until this summer. "It misses our entire window," Reagan says.
More troubling than anything else, though, Reagan says, was a phone call she got not long ago, when Lincoln Memorial was still in the final stages of working with Vision Media on getting its videos finished and aired. The call was from the same producer who had initially pitched the institution on doing its "National Education Report" segment, and she tried to sell Lincoln Memorial's admissions office on a new program. The producer seemed to have no recollection, Reagan says, of ever having dealt with the university before. "That just made me very uncomfortable about our experience, because it seems more about the sale than about producing a TV program. If you asked me whether I'd do it again, I would say no."
As a former television producer, Polly Burtch, director of news and information at Webster University, in St. Louis, knows the tricks of the trade. Like many of her colleagues, she gets promotional calls, and she almost seems to relish them. "I now ask them immediately what they charge, and what other universities they have produced these for," Burtch says. "I'll ask them for the specific flight [the schedule for when the show will air], and ask how many gross rating points they guarantee producing. Once the person knows that you can't be persuaded or fooled, they often back down."
She adds that, in her opinion, "They aren't total scams, but they are not a good value for our university."