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 broadcast time.

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 may be.

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 key parameters:

 Unduplicated markets  
 where PSAs aired  198
 # of stations using PSAs  299
 # of PSAs aired  15,178
 Optimum (9 AM - 10 PM)  
 dayparts where PSAs aired  56%
 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