As local television reports go, it was a knockout.
On Tuesday, Nov. 24, WKOW-TV in Madison (Ch. 27) aired a report by consumer/investigative reporter Dan Cassuto on an outfit called A Great American Balloon Company, which sells and purports to offer hot-air balloon rides out of Token Creek.
Cassuto found several residents who've been waiting years for the flights they purchased (at about $200 a pop). He noted that the company, which denies refund requests, claims that weather conditions make flights impossible, even on days when other balloon companies are in the air. He tracked a month of cancelled flights, as well as messages telling prospective ticket buyers they can expect to be in the air within days.
There's more. Cassuto learned that more than two dozen people have filed complaints with state consumer protection officials, who don't plan to do a thing about it. He pointed out that the signature of the company's operations manager, Ron Lake, appears to change from letter to letter. And he tracked down a company official who literally took off running when approached with a camera and questions.
This is the kind of report television stations live for. It might even get picked up by journalism and consumer-protection websites on the prowl for standout stories.
And yet a search of Ch. 27's website shows no trace of it no archived report, no written account, as is done for virtually all other stories. Says Cassuto in an email, "We chose to make it a television exclusive."
Yeah, who wants all of that web traffic and all the buzz it generates?
Cassuto offered to send the segment on a DVD but did not respond to an email from Isthmus suggesting there was something fishy about this explanation. So Isthmus called Perry Boxx, the station's news director.
"We did it as an on-air exclusive," said Boxx this morning. "We have to drive people to the TV screen just like we drive them to the website."
Really? Then why isn't this done for other stories? Said Boxx, "We just started doing it, for sweeps week."
Boxx became irritated and refused to provide additional information when asked about running TV exclusives. From yesterday alone, Ch. 27 posted web video links and written articles for the following barnburners: "Shopping new addition to Thanksgiving traditions," "Portion sizes key to warding off extra weight gain during holiday," and "Crews installing fencing on I-90-39."
Yeah, you wouldn't want to distract the public's attention from stories like these by posting major investigative reports.
Chas Stephens, a salesperson at A Great American Balloon Co., in an office he says is "near Chicago," was at the company when Ch. 27 "barged in" with its camera. He calls the station's approach "extremely inappropriate." He and other company officials have looked for the report on Ch. 27's website, without success.
Isthmus has independently looked into complaints against A Great American Balloon Co. Madison resident Shaun Rushton says he brought two tickets in August 2008 and had been waiting for his balloon ride since. At one point, he says a company rep suggested, "you're going to have to go to [the outlet's operation in] Arizona to get your ride in."
Rushton has complained to state officials, U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold and the Better Business Bureau. He provided emails from A Great American Balloon Co. denying his requests for a refund. In a recent email reply to the company, Rushton unloaded:
"I believe your company is engaged in fraud and theft," he wrote, noting that it was continuing to sell tickets while putting customers like him off. "There is statistically no way for you to ever deliver on all of the promised rides."
Rushton contacted Isthmus and Ch. 27 (which he says did not respond) in part to protect others. "I feel the public needs to be aware," he says. "This is a borderline fraudulent business model."
Stephens, of A Great American Balloon Company, disagrees. He says "Safety is our number one concern. Because of that, the weather determines whether we fly or not." As for the company's policy of not giving refunds, he says "no one does that" in the hot-air balloon-ride business.
Why is that? Stephens says it's because "We're pretty much busting our butt to get them up."