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Nonprofits raise the money to be profiled on Visionaries

Originally published in Current, Feb. 25, 2002
By Karen Everhart

Viewers of the public TV series The Visionaries can clearly see that Executive Producer Bill Mosher believes in the good works of the nonprofits he profiles. But they might be surprised to know how much those nonprofits must do to get episodes about them made.

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The series of half-hour documentaries, distributed by American Public Television's free program exchange since 1995, appears on 107 stations in markets reaching 30 percent of the population, according to PubTV Online, a national data provider. Only 10 percent of the broadcasts are in primetime.

Organizations profiled in Visionaries sometimes have ended up paying for their episodes when the nonprofits and producers failed to raise the money from third-party underwriters. Nonprofits have financed the production with up-front payments, then recouped the money by soliciting sponsorships for shows or by opening doors for Mosher to approach their own best donors.

The producer said he retains editorial control of all programs and he ended the "forward funding" practice last year. Though two programs in the works for Visionaries' next season were financed up front by the nonprofits being profiled, he pledged that they will not air until third-party sponsors are found.

Viewers don't learn from Mosher that his subjects raise money for episodes or pay for them themselves. In one case, he did not disclose that Exxon paid for a 1998 episode about its pet wildlife charity, the Save the Tiger Fund, because, he said, "Exxon did not want an underwriting credit."

Visionaries asks the selected nonprofits to help identify interested donors in much the way an opera program producer seeks aid from patrons of the opera, Mosher asserted.

Production of Visionaries has always "revolved around a very intimate relationship with the subjects of the shows," he told Current. The series doesn't strive for journalistic objectivity, he said, but to create compelling stories that help nonprofits do good works.

The close relationships clash with traditional viewers' expectations that public TV gives them an independent view of the world around them, and that program sponsors are clearly identified.

Representatives of seven nonprofits profiled by Visionaries confirmed that they carried the fundraising burden for programs in which their organizations were featured, and in at least two cases fronted the production costs without recouping their investments.

Both the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church and the Cooperative Housing Foundation committed six-figure sums to get production of their programs rolling for the 2002 season of Visionaries, which will be released to stations this spring.

APT's liaison to the series said he didn't know about the forward-funding practices. "I find these allegations troubling and it certainly is something that we will pay attention to," said Chris Funkhouser, v.p. of distribution services. He has looked into questions about Visionaries' funding in the past, and was satisfied that "everything is all as it should be." He declined to comment on specific cases documented by Current. [Two weeks later, APT dropped three episodes from distribution and said it would examine others.]

Defenders credit Mosher for working on the side of angels. "You have a program partnering with nonprofits who are doing amazing work and working together to find appropriate sponsors for the show," said Sherry Hope Culver of WYBE in Philadelphia, which has presented the series for APT distribution for about two years. Visionaries is operating within the sponsorship rules governing funding credits, she insisted. "We've had conversations with them. I know that they have the guidelines. We have discussed it."

Mosher gave his own interpretation of FCC sponsorship ID regs. "We don't have to list on the show every funder that we have," Mosher said, when asked about the Save the Tiger program. The funding was disclosed on Visionaries Inc.'s 990 federal tax form, he said. "We were told that as long as we have it on our records, it doesn't have to be disclosed on the air." However, he observed, "This may be a complete misreading of the rules."

Exxon exercised no control over the Save the Tiger show, Mosher asserted. Since there is no product being sold on the program, and it promotes the work of a nonprofit trying to save tigers, he questions how the program would diminish public broadcasting's editorial integrity. "How would a viewer say that that's not a good thing?"

Shades of gray

Broadcasters, both public and commercial, are on the hook legally to identify the sponsors of programs, including those they broadcast for free, according to communications lawyers.

Stations are "supposed to be reasonably diligent" in identifying the true sponsors of programs, said John Crigler, a communications attorney. If there's an indication that the real sponsors aren't identified, the broadcaster is obligated to look into it, he said, though the broadcaster "may not be in the best position to determine who the sponsor is."

The FCC can look beyond station license-holders to seek prosecution of program providers and others who obscure the true sponsors, according to commission sources, though Crigler said this only happens in blowups like the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s.

Like PBS, APT has rules that go beyond the FCC's to protect pubcasters' editorial integrity. APT looks for evidence that an underwriter might have exercised editorial control, whether the public might perceive that the underwriter exercised editorial control, and whether viewers might conclude that a program is aired because it promotes the underwriter's interests, according to standards posted on APT's website.

"This kind of activity--the vetting of funders and the judging of the editorial relationships of funders in content--we spend as much time on that as we do on content," said Funkhouser. Black-and-white cases of programs that are clearly outside or within APT's rules are "pretty easy, but there are lots of gray ones. We reject lots and lots of projects just for the kinds of reasons you're questioning."

News and public affairs programs are closely scrutinized for strict adherence to funding and editorial standards, but public TV gatekeepers are willing to be more flexible for how-to programs or those that deal with lifestyle topics, according to Funkhouser and other sources.

"Visionaries can't be held up to that higher journalistic standard," said Funkhouser. "They're celebrating people and organizations that are doing good things around the world."

Nonprofits featured in Visionaries view their selection for the series as both an honor and a marketing opportunity. The show not only highlights their good works but designates their leaders as "visionaries." Subjects also said they valued having the videotapes of their programs to present to donors and other constituents.

"Visionaries was interested in our agency because we had done some amazing work in social service delivery," said Anna Taylor Carter, president of the Lorain County Community Action Agency, which provides social services to low-income children and families in Ohio's rusting steel belt. After applying to be on the show, the agency was selected to be profiled with two other nonprofits in a half-hour episode.

"We had to identify a funder who would sponsor the cost of that kind of production," she said. The county government, which partly funds the agency, came through with $47,315.

The local paper questioned the ethics of using public funds for a paid promotion. An editorial in the Lorain Morning Journal asked whether it would be better to spend the money assisting poor families than buying "10 minutes of fame." Carter justified the promotional spending as a means to attract outside funding.

Alerted by the bad press in Ohio, Funkhouser determined that the county was an appropriate sponsor because it provides only a limited amount of funding to the agency.

Priced by the minute

To be featured in a full half-hour Visionaries episode, nonprofits have to demonstrate that they can raise $100,000 or more. Producers make clear that third-party funding must be secured for the program to be deemed "objective," according to several sources profiled on the series.

But there have been cases in which a nonprofit did not recoup its up-front outlay, and the program aired without identifying the subject as a funder.

"We pretty much had to come up with the bulk of the funding ourselves, and we didn't think that would be the case," said Cady Goldfield, media relations director for Elderhostel, a nonprofit that offers educational experiences for seniors. "We had been told that it would be very likely that we would find a subsidy, but with all the other challenges in fundraising, we were not able to raise the money."

She declined to say how much a 1999 program on Elderhostel cost the organization.

Elderhostel had no editorial input into the program, Goldfield added, but was interested in the show as a way of "getting word about Elderhostel out. After the fact, I'm not sure it was such an effective way. . . . We would rather have the media come in and honestly assess who we are."

The Women's American Organization for Rehabilitation through Training wanted national TV exposure and the videotapes to use after broadcast. The group fronted the cash, said Pepi Dunay, a former national president.

Alex Rosenberg, the group's Florida director of major gifts, was assigned to raise more than $100,000. The buy was "quite pricey," he said, and he was disappointed to learn the show would not be high-priority fare for most public TV stations. He tried but couldn't raise the money. "In fundraising," he said, "it's difficult to recoup costs like these, as opposed to things that are related to your mission." However, the program turned out "very nice" and useful for future marketing efforts, he said.

The fundraising is still ahead for the Cooperative Housing Foundation, an international development agency funded largely by the federal government. The group, soon to celebrate its 50th anniversary, hopes to raise up to $300,000 for its Visionaries program and some training videos, according to Linnea Betzler, an executive support officer. CHF has paid travel expenses for Visionaries producers to shoot its projects in Mexico, Jordan and Azerbaijan, and "committed to certain payment schedules" to initiate the production.

"It's very important to Visionaries that we don't use our own money to fund the show," she said. Yet CHF is finding it difficult to identify foundations willing to support a film project, and has been soliciting donors without much support from Visionaries.

"I mismanaged it"

Many of the programs with problematic funding arrangements were produced during a period of turmoil for Visionaries Inc., the nonprofit that produces the public TV series.

In the late 1990s, Mosher brought a lot of producers on board and required them to go out and raise the money for their own shows. "We were really just making it up as we went along, there was no management control."

Visionaries was "mismanaged, and I mismanaged it," he said. Last year he recruited an executive director and pared down the production staff on the advice of management consultants. He also gave up his half-interest in Emotion Pictures, a for-profit company that, according to 1999 tax forms, Visionaries Inc. paid $880,580 for production and technical services. The sum was half of Visionaries Inc.'s annual expenses.

The relationship created the appearance of a conflict of interest, consultants advised. Emotion continues to provide those services on a contract that expires in May and will not be renewed, he said.

"Have there been instances in which organizations advanced the money and it was not raised? The answer is 'Yes,'" said Mosher. "I don't want to diminish their programs by suggesting that they paid for it. We believed with absolute certainty that the money would come in when the programs went to air, and we instituted changes to ensure that it never happens again."

Orphans surround Mosher (right center) during a filming trip to the Philippines.






To Current's home page
Later article: American Public Television drops three Visionaries episodes from distribution.
Outside link: The Visionaries Inc. website.

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