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Inside Houston tries to go inside your wallet

What business owner wouldn't like to be featured in a nice profile on a "news magazine" TV show whose on-air personalities include Jan Glenn, the relentlessly perky former Good Morning Houston anchor; ex-Astro catcher Alan Ashby and roving "reporter"-cum-socialite Carolyn Farb?

Unfortunately, on Inside Houston, you may find the price is a bit steep ... when you finally get told about it.

When Nancy Sims of Quantum Consultants got a call last fall from Inside Houston, she assumed it was just another request for an interview from a local TV station news reporter. "I came in and had a message labeled 'talk show from channel 11,'" she says. "I thought it was the usual talking head stuff."

When she returned the call the person at the other end told her, "We're a news show and we want to feature your business. We'd like to come out and meet with you." There was never any mention, Sims says, that she would be expected to pay for her feature.

When she met with the Inside Houston representative, Sims was shown tapes featuring other businesses. Then she was told she would have to ante up $12,800 for the costs of making her company's tape. In other words, the "news show" actually turned out to be one of those vanity "infomercial" programs.

Sims says she quickly told the Inside Houston representative that she couldn't afford that kind of money, eliciting an angry response. "The woman got up and called her office and said, 'Well, it happened again. They didn't tell them that there was a fee associated with it.' Which I figured was just an act on her part."

Similar stories are told by a woman who owns a construction company, a Montrose-area accountant and a publicist who represents a mid-size company. All say Inside Houston solicitors never volunteered the fact that in order to appear on the extended infomercial, which airs on Channel 11/KHOU TV on Sunday afternoons, they would be expected to pay a fee that for most small businesses equals a year's advertising budget. The publicist and the accountant extracted the information by aggressively questioning the Inside Houston sales rep. The construction company owner went through much the same scenario that Sims describes.

Other than paying for its broadcast slot on Channel 11, the program has no connection with the Belo-owned CBS affiliate. The company that produces Inside Houston is based in Houston but also produces Inside Dallas and is launching similar programs in San Antonio and Austin. Rick Keilty, Channel 11's vice president for sales, says the station has received four or five complaints about the way the show is marketed, but after following up on the complaints determined that in each instance there had been no misrepresentation on the part of the infomercial solicitor.

"What appears to be the situation is that with all due respect, some people don't listen," says Keilty. "In our investigation of each situation we have not really found a situation where they have been attempting to mislead people. If that was the case, they would need to find another television station to air their program on."

Keilty says it's his understanding that Inside Houston callers are required to discuss the fee required for an appearance on the show and the requirement that the prospect must pay a third down, roughly $4,200, when they sign up.

In addition to an appearance on the show, the client gets a corporate video out of the deal.

"The people we have spoken to after the fact, and some are clients of ours who have been approached, have been satisfied with the money that they've paid," says Keilty.

Mike Stewart, the general manager of Inside Houston, describes the production as "a news magazine show." He says when his talent coordinators call companies, they are supposed to follow a script that does not include any mention of Channel 11 and does contain a full disclosure of the fees involved. He says a Houston Post affiliation with Inside Houston also is discussed with would-be clients, indicating the fee guarantees exposure for companies and professionals in the paper.

Stewart says the organization has considerably tightened its supervision of its solicitors since last fall, when Sims was contacted.

"There is no doubt that every now and then someone comes in and for whatever reason decides to embellish what we offer or leave something out," says Stewart, "but as soon as it's brought to our attention that person's gone. We cannot tolerate that. We are much too high profile to do that, since we call only on businesses and only on decision makers.

 
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