Don't Make Your Bath Water Too Hot and Keep Your Dogs Away
From the Antifreeze
by Doug Hill
Public service ads can run at the oddest times on the oddest subjects,
but do seem to have an impact.
The face of a clean-cut teen-age boy fills the screen. His eyes are
misty, and as he talks, tears begin rolling down his cheeks."My parents came back.
I think it was that night, or the next day.
And they told us that my brother had died. . . . I really felt lonely when
he died 'cause I felt I didn't have a friend in the world.. . . I was so
mad 'cause I just knew he had so much to live for, and I felt really guilty every time
we passed his grave... I loved my brother a lot."
That 30-second public-service announcement about drinking and driving
was aired by ABC (during a break in a TV special about the
same issue called "One Too Many") and it was about as powerful
a demonstration imaginable of how television can communicate the consequences
of a social problem. It was also a good example of the interplay between
altrusion and self-interest that characters public-service announcements
on TV today.
The public-serivce announcement(PSA) and the special on drunk driving
aired on the same day that the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications
held a hearing on a bill that would have required the networks and local
stations to balance their commercials for beer and wine by airing PSAs on
ABC's message was part of a massive campaign by the television
industry to demostrate that it was volunitarily educating the public on the
dangers of drinking, and thus, no mandatory laws forcing them to do so was necessary.
"Everybody's behind it now," said Andrew Ockershausen, chairman of the
National Association of Broadcasters' Alcohol and Drug Abuse Task Force
(a task force that didn't exist before the threat of legislation surfaced.)
"Five years ago, you couldn't find anyone (airing drinking and driving PSAs)
with a search warrant, he said."
The campaign worked; the bill was tabled. Ockershausen insists that
broadcasters will not now abandon their fight against alcohol abuse, but
Anne Seymour, former director of public affairs for Mothers Against Drunk
Driving (MADD), has her doubts. "They've already tapered off," she says.
Public service, when there isn't legistration to fight, occupies an
obscure little corner of the television world, one of the few arms of the
business that aren't dedicated directly to making money. "We've been
notorious stepchildren at the stations," says Erica Broman, public-affairs
director for WTXX in Waterbury, Conn.
That they are part of the family at all is largely due to the Government's
requirement that stations serve the public interest in return for
their exclusive licenses to use the public airwaves.
Many TV excutives are indeed dedicated to doing just that. Nonetheiess,
there is widespread concern among TV's public-service professionals that their
ranks may be thinning precisely because the Federal Communications Commission
no longer requires that station prove their public-service efforts as stringently
as they have have had in the past. "Since deregulation," says Rose Guilbault,
director of editorials and public affairs for KGO-TV in San Francisco,
"there's been a lot of Chicken Little stuff going on - We're all going to
lose our jobs."
As TV stepchildren, PSAs have always been accorded mostly leftovers.
The vast majority of PSAs run in off-hours, when advertising is difficult, if
not impossible to sell. CBS, for example, airs about twice as many PSAs per week
as ABC or NBC - about 365 a week on average - because it is the only network to
have an all-night news show, CBS News Nightwatch. Nightwatch is not sold out,
and therefore carries lots of PSAs.
The supply of available PSA time may be limited, but the demand is not.
Public-service professionals agree that there has been a virtual explosion in
the number of causes angling for TV exposure in the past few years. What had
largely been the province of such stalwarts as the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross
and the March of Dimes is now being invaded by such new contenders as MADD,
the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation and The American College of
Obstetricians and Gynecologists, to name just a few.
Many agencies that have had their Government funding cut back are turning
to private donations, and PSAs to generate support. Further, the availibility of
low-cost video production has helped open the door to a vast array of causes
hitherto unknown. A local hospital in one city produced a PSA warning people to
make sure their bath water wasn't too hot. A humane center in other city submitted
a spot urging viewers not to let their dogs drink antifreeze.
ABC and CBS, meanwhile, are developing more in-house PSA campaigns
to run in concert with their programs - usually TV-movies on subjects ranging
from AIDS to incest to suicide - so that the line between public service
and promotion is increasingly blurred.
One result of the growing competition exposure has been the appearance
of ever slicker, ever more expensive PSAs. Public service directors concede
that the better produced the spot, chance it has of getting on the air. Knowing
that, the big national organizations are spending more money on their PSAs,
sometimes pushing smaller, poorer groups aside.
Going for shock value has become another favorite technique "Someone,"
says KGO's Guilbault. "has put two and two together and said, 'Well, if shock value
increases ratings and sells newspapers, it will sell our cause'."
One example was the American Cancer Society's PSA that warned pregnant
women of the damage smoking could do to their unborn children. It showed
a strikingly lifelike animated fetus, in utero, smoking a cigarette. ABC
was the only network that accepted the spot, but the smoking fetus received
extensive exposure on news and talk shows around the country. "Our
people were very pleased," says lrving Rimer, a Cancer Society spokesman.
"They said they'd never seen so much coverage before."
The networks and stations don't like such spots because if there's one
thing they want to avoid in public service, it's controversy. All have
PSA guidelines that prohibit any spot dealing with a controversial issue
and most of the issues they do support are enemy-less. No one is speaking
out against voter registration, for example, and no one is advocating drinking
Despite the controversy and the competition, public service remains
a relatively genteel pursuit. Charities devote the bulk of their energies
toward actually producing their PSAs, not to promoting them to make sure
they get on the air. Thus, public service directors receive lots of follow-up
phone calls, some of them insistent, some angry, but they are generally
not subjected to the hard sell.
For similar reasons, it's difficult for nonprofit groups to document exactly
how effective their TV PSAs are. They can see in terms of blood units donated, contributions received, or volunteers
calling in the results of an entire campaign involving TV radio, newspapers,
local fund-raisers and a host of other elements, but they don't spend the
money to determine just how much television contributes to the mix.
Still, ample empirical evidence suggests that PSAs on television have
an enormous impact, regardless of how late at night they appear. Public-service
directors glow with pride about the emotional letters from parents that
came in after the spots on child abuse aired, thanking the station for
bringing the issue out in the open; the dozens of senior citizens who were
adopted as surrogate grandparents by local families after a "Family
Companion Program" PSA campaign; the missing child who was found after
his picture ran on TV; the center for battered wives that was rebuilt after
a fire, thanks to a station's PSA support.
Even the number of deaths attributed
to drinking and driving have declined in the U.S., and although TV can't
be singled out as the sole reason, few doubt that whatever the motive behind
it, the broadcasters' alcohol-awareness blitz was a factor.
Ask community affairs directors what motivates their stations in
public service - self-promotion or genuine concern - and most will answer:
both. But, they will add, what really matters is the result.
"It's good business to be involved in the community and to let people
know you're involved." concludes WTXX's Broman. "Yes, it's self-serving.
But in the long run everybody wins."