Public-Service Ads Getting Short Shrift


Washington— Broadcast and cable networks devote just 15 seconds of air time per hour to public-service announcements, most of which run in the middle of the night, the Kaiser Family Foundation said on Thursday.

The organization released the results of a public-service advertising study at a forum here. And one top broadcast executive in attendance warned that the number of PSAs on television will dwindle further, unless the Federal Communications Commission forces stations to run a set amount of PSAs in exchange for free digital broadcast spectrum.

"We are in a very crucial time — probably the most crucial in broadcasting history as it relates to the future of public-service advertising," said Capitol Broadcasting Co. CEO Jim Goodmon. "If you want public-service time, you better start fighting for it," Goodmon added, encouraging an audience of officials from non-profit groups such as March of Dimes to press the FCC on the issue.

The FCC is conducting a rulemaking with respect to digital broadcasters' public-service requirements.

Asked if she thought MTV: Music Television should also be required to run PSAs, MTV Group chairman Judy McGrath said, "I think it's a good idea."

"What constitutes being in the public good makes me a little nervous," McGrath added, noting that she wouldn't want regulators to dictate the content for particular PSAs.

Three FCC commissioners who spoke on a separate panel said broadcasters should devote more time to PSAs, but they didn't say that cable outlets should be forced to run such spots.

"I haven't seen an indication that that type of role for cable is necessary at this time," said FCC commissioner Kathleen Abernathy.

Noting that the government has given broadcasters tens of billions of dollars worth of spectrum for free, FCC commissioner Michael Copps said broadcasters have room for improvement in terms of PSAs.

"Of those to whom much is given, much is expected," said Copps, quoting Franklin Roosevelt.

The Kaiser study found that 43 percent of all PSAs run from midnight to 6 a.m., while 21 percent are broadcast from 6 a.m. to noon. It found that 18 percent of public-service spots run from 6 p.m. to midnight, including 9 percent in primetime.

The study was based on 1,680 hours of programming that ran from February through July of 2000. The Big Four broadcasters were included in the study, but only five cable networks — Cable News Network, ESPN, MTV, Nickelodeon and Turner Network Television — were included.

Cable networks donated an average of 7 seconds per hour to PSAs. MTV led the cable category, averaging 16 seconds of PSAs per hour. The network has a public-service campaign partnership with the Kaiser Foundation, officials from the group noted.

Broadcast networks donate an average of 17 seconds of PSAs per hour, but only five seconds in primetime, the study said.

Kaiser officials said nonprofit groups have a much better chance of landing a primetime PSA broadcast if they pay for the spot, noting that 36 percent of spots that have public-service messages are paid for by corporations or nonprofits.