Getting Credit for Doing Good
by Bill Goodwill
Two recent news developments could have important implications on the
way networks and local stations allocate public service air time in the
future, which in turn could impact all organizations soliciting unpaid
The government proposed a five-year, 1.75 billion-dollar media
effort to combat drug abuse, with the media picking up half of the cost.
The proposal appears to offer broadcasters the choice of creating additional
PSA air time during the most desirable dayparts, or giving anti-drug PSAs
more exposure at the expense of other PSAs. Many non-profits are concerned
that the latter may be the case.
Another presidential initiative is bound to have an even greater impact.
The president has established a panel to examine the public service obligations
of broadcasters seeking digital channels. At the same time, he called upon
the FCC to develop a policy which would require stations to give free time
to political candidates. FCC Chairman Reed Hundt has not decided if the
FCC would examine only the political candidate issue, or if it would undertake
a larger study of public service requirements.
It is beyond the purviews of this column to debate the merits of giving
free time to political candidates, but there is much to be said about the
PSA air time broadcasters donate to worthy causes and whether
it is adequate or not.
According to a study conducted by the American Association of Advertising
Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers, PSA air time dropped
substantially after 1993, and much of the decline was attributed to networks.
In rebuttal, the networks indicate that PSAs - particularly those dealing
with drug abuse - are a major part of their PSA commitment.
While all non-profits would love to get increased PSA commitments from
both networks and stations, it is unrealistic to expect broadcasters
to give away large blocks of premium time - time that commercial advertisers
are standing in line to pay for - regardless of how important the issue
And, unfortunately, unless broadcasters develop a better way to demonstrate
the amount of air time donated to worthy causes, they are likely to recieve
increased pressure from the FCC to allocate more air time.
As a PSA distributor and evaluator, it is rare when we obtain affidavits
from stations indicating the amount of PSAs that ran for a particular campaign.
And, since getting usage data is critical to measuring the success of our
campaigns, we - and most non-profits - employ electronic tracking systems
to provide usage feedback. This means that distributors and non-profits often
have better information about air time provided
to various causes than the stations themselves.
However, there is no mechanism for communicating this information back
to the stations and networks so that they can use it to demonstrate the
level of their PSA commitment.
Some time ago we developed an "industry" benchmark to determine
how a particular PSA compares to the benchmark. We compared this data obtained
from the A.C. Nielsen's SIGMA electronic tracking system for seven different
campaigns, and the following table shows averages for several different
| Unduplicated markets
| where PSAs aired
| # of stations using PSAs
| # of PSAs aired
| Optimum (9 AM - 10 PM)
| dayparts where PSAs aired
| Estimated dollar value
|| $2.544 M|
This benchmark data shows that on average, about a third of all US commercial
TV stations use a typical PSA, and we have seen examples of half of all
stations using a PSA. Other data indicates that all but 160
of 1,368 commercial stations regularly use national PSAs. And, as the daypart
information shows, most PSAs are not airing during "junk" time
when audience viewing levels are lowest.
It is our understanding that even the networks are uncertain exactly
how much PSA airtime they donate to worthy causes, because when they feed
a PSA to their affiliates, many of the PSAs are pre-empted by local
stations in favor of paid commercials. But this situation is about to change.
Beginning in June of this year, Nielsen will develop a new technology
that will permit organizations to determine how much PSA airtime is generated
as a result of network feeds. For the first time, we will be able to distinguish
network exposure from airtime generated through direct distribution of
tapes to stations.
Having this information at the national level is obviously beneficial,
but if there was a way for local stations and networks to get this data
for all the causes they are supporting in a given year, it would help them
demonstrate their contribution to important community causes.
For our part, we will examine the possibility of cumulating all
the PSA exposure that each TV station has provided in a given year for
a particular cause, and produce a report of that exposure for local stations.
The same procedure could be used for networks, once the new system is active.
If the broadcast industry does not take steps to substantiate
its contribution in very specific terms, the FCC could stiffen
its requirements for stations to prove they are broadcasting in the public
interest. While all of us in the non-profit community would welcome
more PSAs, it is also incumbent upon us to show broadcasters how much we
appreciate their long-standing commitment to some very important social
issues. Perhaps this subject could the focus of a workshop at the fall
National Broadcast American for Community Affairs conference, because
it is an issue that is not going to go away. If you have any thoughts on
the subject, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.