I remember Hugh Downs as the former anchor of the ABC news program 20/20. In fact as I say his name in my head I can hear his deep voice announcing that he is Hugh Downs and telling me and the rest of America what was coming up on the program that night. The Museum of Broadcast Communications says this about Downs on its website:
Hugh Downs, a venerable and extremely affable television host, is known for telegraphing intelligence, patience, and decency. The Guinness Book of World Records reports that Downs, among the most familiar figures in the history of the medium, has clocked more hours on television (10,347 through May of 1994) than any other person in U.S. TV history.
He had one of those comforting anchorman voices that America relied upon in the early days of broadcasting, the ones that morphed over the years from genuine to the mock tones of Troy McClure from the Simpsons.
So this is why, when the “TV producer” from a show called Heroes of Hope appeared on my voice mail yesterday morning, telling me that he wanted to speak with my organization about people who make a difference for a documentary that has been featured on some major broadcast channels (he says Public Television and CNN) I was a little excited.
I’m a pessimist. At least that’s what my wife tells me. Whenever our 6-year old son starts exhibiting the same traits as dear old Dad, I laugh and she rolls her eyes in recognition of his future self—very similar to the person she married. I pride myself on my pessimist, which I lovingly correct my wife as “cynicism.” It’s similar to pessimism. It’s in the same family, but they’re not exactly the same. Let’s call them cousins.
At a time like this, my cynicism kicks into high gear. First, I’ve never heard of the program, “Heroes of Hope.” So I hit the Google search bar in Firefox. I get a slew of results but none of them look right. Listening to the message again, I jot down the correct url from the voice mail. A Flash based site comes up. It’s a little vague and some of the language on the description makes me even more cynical. The language talks about donors and marketing. Things you don’t expect to see on a documentary series homepage. Then there’s the fact that I see no direct links to any public television stations that have run the documentaries. In fact, I’m curious of the fact that no public television websites came up with urls for this supposedly fabulous series staring the legendary Hugh Downs and his buttery voice.
I check out their press release. In the “About Heroes of Hope” section they describe themselves as such:
Heroes of Hope is a series on the leading edge of documentary television industry distributed to Public Television nation-wide and is hosted by Mr. Hugh Downs. Utilizing global media outlets and distribution, Heroes of Hope reaches around the globe with stories that are documentary styled, and relevant to specific industries and organizations that are looking for educational information.
The website and this press release reads like a jargon laden sales pitch meant to impress but saying very little. They say “Heroes of Hope is a series on the leading edge of documentary television industry distributed to Public Television nation-wide” but no search results brought up any programming on ANY public television whatsoever. Not PBS not NPR not anything. No reviews, no references from outside sources, nothing but a list of press releases and a few blog entries. My BS antennae are way up now.
I decide to try one other route and look up Hugh Downs. I take Wikipedia entries with a huge grain of salt (cynic over here, remember) but in general I find that they’re extremely useful and mostly accurate. I triple verify everything I find on there and find the references and links to outside webpages immensely useful. Hugh Downs’ Wikipedia entry is pretty comprehensive. It also includes this tidbit:
Downs has made a cameo appearance on Family Guy.
Hey, that’s cool. I love Family Guy. But old establishment MSM guys on a hip cartoon series smacks a little of desperation. Perhaps he’s in need of extra cash? He probably spent all his MSM dough on scotch and betting the ponies. Or he was a big Madoff investor? Who knows?
Wikipedia goes on to explain:
Downs can currently be seen in infomercials for healthsecrets.com and another one for a personal coach. He did an infomercial for Where There's a Will There's an A in 2003. His infomercial work since then has aroused some controversy, with many arguing the products are scams. As of the summer of 2008, Downs can also be seen in regional public service announcements in Arizona, where he currently lives, for that state's motor vehicles division, as well as in many Public TV short form programs as the Host of educational interstitials.
OK. That’s very suspicious. He’s retired but he still wants work. Some guy gets in touch with him after seeing his infomercial work with a get-in-on-the-ground-floor proposition. I can hear the elevator pitch in my head as some guy tries to sell Downs on the idea of using his fame and reputation to sell charities on very highly produced documentaries about their causes. They can then buy time and broadcast the documentaries on major network for one low fee. You can see how charities would love to get this kind of exposure and professional video work done for them, especially with the super famous and sufficiently vanilla Hugh Downs as a backer.
It’s leaning toward a total scam but vague enough that I’m still not sure. Nobody wants to tell his boss not to take a phone call when the potential upside is huge if it’s legit. I go to my secondary source and most reliable resource, Twitter.
@obilon: Anyone ever hear of "Heroes of Hope" hosted by Hugh Downs? What is this about? I can't tell if it's legit or not? Anyone? Thx.
Immediately I got two very good responses:
@bonnerj: I'm not familiar with Heroes of Hope, but it sounds like "pay for play." I'd stay away. More here: http://bit.ly/RaKhi
@angelb123: If it's similiar to group that approached me once (program also hosted by Hugh Downs), then not legit. Will ask you for tons of $.
@angelb123: NYT article about the operation here: http://tinyurl.com/cq2ev8 Be very careful.
The two articles revealed to me without a doubt that this was a scam operation.
Now, selling a charity the ability to produce a documentary about their cause is not in and of itself a scam. There are many, may production companies out there that will do a high quality job of filming a story about your organization for a variety of uses, including for your website, presentations and mailers to potential donors and many other venues. It’s a legitimate business, I’m sure.
But the way “Heroes of Hope” was first presented to my organization and how the production company’s website positions itself as a legitimate media source rather than a pay service is blatant enough that I’m calling BS here. The phone call I received was vague and misleading. I first thought that I was being contacted by a legitimate production company for a news organization.