There was a time when the search for missing children centered on milk cartons. Not anymore. The rash of child abductions this summer has sparked a move to faster-breaking media, and one cable operator's ad-sales unit is offering its help in the effort to solve such crimes.
Adelphia Media Services' Ontario, Calif.-based Western Region is using its clout as the largest MSO in Southern California to help broaden the reach of the now-famous "AMBER Alert," in which police spread descriptions and other pertinent information to the public via electronic traffic signs and radio stations.
Western Region vice president Mike Wilczynski first decided to use the resources of the MSO, which reaches 1.2 million subscriber homes, in July, when five-year-old Samantha Runnion was kidnapped in Orange County.
Last Wednesday, Adelphia began mounting its fourth such campaign with word that nine-year-old Nicholas Farber had been taken from his Palm Desert, Calif., home by two gunmen.
Despite suspicions at press time that this case may be tied to a parental custody battle, the spots will keep running. "There is no harm in trying to help," he said.
The operator limits its campaigns to those youngsters abducted by strangers, which he said rules out parental-custody battles.
"This is not an Adelphia publicity stunt," Wilczynski said. The father of five added that he was doing what he would want done if one of his own children were missing.
'LOST CHILD ALERT'
As soon as they get the word on a missing child, the operator's production staffers begin editing a 30-second spot that opens with, "This is a Lost Child Alert." The spot is a "donut," with 25 seconds containing new information inserted into a pretaped open and close, he said.
Adelphia inserts the spot "as quickly as possible, in less than 24 hours, " in unsold avails across the 44 cable networks it carries, plus those sold by Adlink, the Los Angeles interconnect.
On average, the spot will run for a day or two, Wilczynski said, which means "about 250 times a day per headend, and we're inserting at 40 different headends."
The AMBER Alert network is an acronym for America's Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response and takes its name from a nine-year-old Texas girl slain by her kidnaper in 1996.
Under the system, Adelphia receives the same electronic mail that the police transmit to transportation authorities and radio stations, Wilczynski said. Typically, that e-mail contains a basic description of the child — height, weight, what he or she was wearing when last seen — as well as information, when known, about the suspected abductor and the suspect's vehicle.
A photo of the child is also included and in some cases, like the Runnion abduction, a police sketch is included.
Adelphia also participated in the media blitz following the recent abduction of two teenaged girls in Palmdale, Calif., and a child taken from Riverside, he said. In those cases, the victims were found alive.
"We don't know how much help we were," Wilczynski said, but he felt it's important to be involved in the effort.
last Wednesday reported that AMBER Alerts were credited with saving seven children nationally in August alone. It also reported that the number of states with such statewide programs should double to 33 by year's end.
Wilczynski said he would like to see similar efforts implemented by other operators. Toward that end, he said he recently mailed letters to all MSOs, along with a copy of an Adelphia-produced missing-child spot.
He also has talked with a Court TV representative in hopes that that programmer might get involved too, perhaps by producing its own donut spot — but one with a recognized name and face to bolster viewer interest. He said he got that idea while watching Court TV's Catherine Crier reporting recently on a child abduction.
Such a spot, he suggested, could say something like, "This is a missing child alert, from your local cable system and Court TV."
(Court TV's recent 20-market Mobile Investigation Unit tour, which included fingerprinting youngsters, was linked with KlaasKids Foundation, an organization dealing with missing-child cases.)
Separately, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association recently sent out an e-mail to tell member MSOs how to participate in the AMBER plan.
"Even though the AMBER plan is broadcast-oriented, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children desires to include cable operators," the memo said
NCTA spokesman Jim Ewalt said at least two operators besides Adelphia already are participating in such alerts: Cox Communications Inc. in Las Vegas and Sjoberg Cable, a small Minnesota system.