Sunday, February 15, 2015

After spending $25,000, Mobile Airport Authority learns 'Outlook' show hosted by Ben Kingsley doesn't exist

The Mobile Airport Authority paid thousands of dollars for videos to showcase the city's airports to TV viewers for a program to be hosted by Academy Award-winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley. But similar contracts have raised concerns among television stations around the US.

Two weeks ago, the Airport Authority rolled the videos out on YouTube. In a news release, officials said the five-minute mini-documentary and one-minute commercial were elements of series titled "21st Century Aviation: Cities in Motion." Both were produced by Outlook Television, at a cost of upwards of $25,000.

The videos have been "distributed to public television stations in all 50 states," and will be shown "continuously throughout the next year" as part of the Outlook series, according to the news release.

At least one local cable provider has confirmed that the 1-minute commercials have aired in Mobile. But there's scant evidence of when or where the mini-documentary will actually air on public television. And there's even less proof that the "Outlook" show exists.

Nationally, over the years, both businesses and nonprofits have reported questionable solicitations by video producers pitching opportunities to participate in mini-documentaries set for public television, usually connected to celebrity hosts. A number of these pitches turned out to be money-making ruses, according to news accounts.

According to information given to the Mobile Airport Authority, "Outlook" was set for hosting by Kingsley. Lawyers for the English actor say that the relationship with "Outlook" was terminated in the summer of 2013. That's around same the time, however, that Airport Authority officials were considering the deal, eventually signing a contract at the beginning of August.

"I don't know if it's a real show or not and I don't know if it's ever been broadcast, but I can tell you unequivocally that Ben Kingsley is not affiliated with that program or that show whatsoever," said Brian Wolf,  who represents the actor with the law firm Lavely and Singer in Los Angeles.

"There had been a preliminary agreement that had been entered into between Ben Kingsley and a company called Crown Media about two years ago in 2013. He was contemplating, perhaps, hosting one segment of this show called 'Outlook.'"

Spot checks with PBS stations turned up nothing about a show named "Outlook." For example, representatives of PBS affiliates in Houston, St. Louis, Kansas City and Nashville, each relatively large markets named in the news release, said they hadn't heard of "Outlook" and didn't air it.

Said Justin Harvey, the director of content at Tennessee Public Television in Nashville, "There are incarnations of shows like this where a producer gets a celebrity host and they charge organizations to produce the program and they make it available to public television stations, but I am not aware of any stations that airs it."

In fact, PBS posted a permanent statement on its website, clarifying that it does not have any business relationship with Outlook Television, the Outlook show or similar shows.

The end of the statement reads:  "It is important to note that producers of programs distributed by PBS do not solicit fees from individuals or organizations in return for inclusion in their programs."

PBS also offers links to news stories published by The New York Times, NPR and The Washington Post, which detail the solicitation tactics by another South Florida production company, Vision Media.   

Sometime in the middle of 2013, the Airport Authority first received a call from the firm. Reluctant at first, officials said they decided to move forward with the deal after doing some research of their own.  

"We had some questions at first," said Roger Wehner, the Airport Authority's executive director. "I'll be honest with you the conversations were just a little too slick." It helped, Wehner said, that the company was endorsed by someone they knew and vouched for them.

According to the contract, the base cost for the work was about $25,000. And there was an additional $3,000 for what was described as a "location fee." Crown Media, a Pompano Beach, Fla. company, was to produce both videos.

The Outlook series was supposed to delve into several topics. Its segments would discuss the latest developments in medicine, or the popularity of green products. Some public television stations air what's known as interstitials -- short videos that typically spotlight a local institution -- between major programs.

The Airport Authority's longer segment would have fallen into a similar category, presented as something "educational in nature." The contract also states that airing the interstitial segment is at each station's discretion.

Mark Miller, owner of Crown Media, said the longer TV spots have not yet been distributed to public television stations. He also said the company never named specific PBS affiliates in its negotiations with the Airport Authority.

He said the programming is provided free of charge and that Crown Media doesn't receive any fees from public television stations. He added that their clients also walk away with the rights to air the videos which could be used for marketing purposes.

Miller would not provide any information clarifying how the spots will be broadcast on public television stations. He also said Crown Media reached an agreement in October 2013 for Kingsley to leave the project sooner than expected.  

Early attempts to market the program identified the actor as the host, but it's unclear if the Airport Authority knew he had walked away from the hosting job. Miller says that they did, but the contract was never amended.

"We're not hiding anything, if we made a mistake," Wehner said. "I would like to believe that this transpired and changed after the Kingsley relationship, after we did our deal."

Kingsley's lawyer sees it a little different.  

"Even if they did (act) in good faith," Wolf said. "I would think they would have an obligation to go back to the airport and any of their other clients and say 'by the way: Ben Kingsley is not affiliated with this and we can't promote the show as Outlook with Ben Kingsley.'"

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