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Sean Dix's American Dream goes south 

An inventor goes after Ted Turner and CNN

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It occurred to him that other people might want rings like these -- sufferers of eczema or arthritis, maybe. He applied for a patent and got it. It was 1994. His father had passed away earlier that year. Being able to invent something, to bring anything new into the world, felt good -- felt like life.

He sunk his father's life insurance settlement into manufacturing more of the rings -- it cost him $20,000 through a small plant in Michigan. He sent out information packets about the floss rings. Positive reviews came in from Forbes' FYI edition and on Bloomberg's product review. The popular press followed. His floss rings were praised in Essence, The Boston Globe, The New York Times. He landed a $9,000 contract with CVS, which sold the rings for $1.99 a pair. Investors started sniffing around.

He'd also settled into a long-term relationship with an Adelphi University coed. He was looking at houses and checking out mortgage rates in preparation for marriage.

Sean Dix's American Dream was taking shape.

CNN was supposed to be the icing on the cake. His info packet made its way to Jeanne Moos, a reporter there. Sean had never seen Moos' work. He didn't know that it's her job to ridicule strange new products. He didn't see the one about the "popcorn fork" or the one about the "3-legged pantyhose." Coverage from CNN could only be good, he thought. After all, his product was a dental aid for people with sensitive hands. How funny could that be?

He spent a day with a CNN news crew. They filmed him waving goodbye to his old office. They said Sean was "putting his money where his mouth is." They tracked the floss ring invention from its inception to Sean's patent to his courtship of Johnson & Johnson -- which, according to the segment, ended with a polite rejection letter from J&J.

What CNN missed, he says, was J&J's courtship of him. J&J had offered to purchase his entire inventory as well as his patent, he says, but not at a price that was acceptable to him. Manufacturing the rings had cost $20,000. CVS brought in $9,000 -- he needed more money just to break even. He'd been back to the table several times with J&J, but when he didn't accept their offer, they said they were no longer interested. A letter from Brian Bootel, a former director of acquisitions for J&J, estimated Sean's invention was worth at least $50 million.

Before production of the piece had finished, Sean sent Moos and her team several pairs of sterling silver floss rings as a "thank you" in advance. (She returned them; most reporters can't accept pricey gratuities.)

The CNN segment aired on June 12, 1996. Sean encouraged his potential investors to watch. At first, he didn't notice anything terribly wrong. But he was puzzled that the two dentists who were asked to try out the rings were fumbling with them so much. He watched the piece a second time, and he saw that one of the dentists was using 18 inches of floss -- the length dentists recommend you use without rings so you'll have enough to wrap around your fingers. The rings' package clearly explains that you must use about five inches of floss. One of the dentists did use five inches but didn't actually floss, complaining that he couldn't get to his back molars -- before, it appears, he'd really tried to do so. At the end of the segment, CNN reporter/producer Linda Djerjian says to the dentists: "So, you don't see this sweeping the nation." Over their tangles of floss, the dentists say, "No."

After the piece had run its course, Sean's potential investors seemed to lose interest.

One investor, Peter Lusk Jr., wrote that before the CNN segment, "I was willing to invest approximately $100,000 personally, and to attempt to raise an additional +$1,000,000 for the 'Floss Rings' product. Due to the embarrassingly negative and trivializing tone of the CNN article, I found it difficult to approach my contacts and my family's contacts for potential investment."

Sean began his quest for restitution by politely requesting a meeting with CNN, so that they could discuss how Moos' show might run a correction of some sort. No one agreed to meet with him. No one returned his calls.

A month after the segment aired, George Reskakis, one of the dentists featured, said he felt it "only fair" to explain that CNN had not allowed him time to look at the rings' instructions. Dix sent a copy to Moos along with a letter about how his business had been affected by the piece.

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