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Kaiser Family Foundation Study Takes Aim at PSAs

Broadcast and cable outlets devote approximately 17 seconds per hour to donated public-service announcements, with almost one-half of those airing after midnight. That's according to an update of a Kaiser Family Foundation study, “Shouting to Be Heard (2): Public Service Advertising in a Changing Television World.”

That 17-second figure increased to 27 seconds when PSAs that companies, nonprofits or the government paid for were added in.

For broadcasters, the figure was 60% for donated PSAs that ran after midnight, with only 13% airing in primetime (8 p.m.-11 p.m.).

The study was a follow-up to one done in 2002. Kaiser said that on balance, although donated cable PSA time increased from 7 seconds per hour to 15, there was no "statistically significant" change in the amount of donated PSA time when broadcasters were included. But there was an increase in paid ads per hour from 11:45 to 12:12.

PSAs averaged nine seconds per hour in primetime, the study found, and 32 seconds per hour from midnight-6 a.m.

“PSAs can be an important tool, but obviously, they have to be seen to be effective,” said Vicky Rideout, vice president and director of Kaiser’s program for the study of entertainment media and health, in announcing the study, which was to be the centerpiece of a forum in Washington, D.C., Thursday. “With so little airtime being made available, making sure PSAs get seen frequently by their target audience can be a daunting task.”

Federal Communications Commission members Michael Copps was not happy with the 60% figure for the broadcast PSA's airing after midnight, and far from prime time. "This subprime scheduling for so many PSAs tells me that subprime problems aren’t exclusive to the housing market," he said..

Dennis Wharton, executive VP of the National Association of Broadcasters ,said in a statement that NAB was "pleased with Kaiser's findings that there has been no decrease in public service advertising over the last five years." 

He added that  NAB's own surveys found that TV and radio stations "donate more than seven billion dollars in airtime for PSAs annually," adding "Our survey, which does not include the value of network PSAs, further reveals the donated time is spread fairly evenly throughout all dayparts."

He also suggested the spots don't tell the whole story. "Broadcasters' commitment to PSAs, coupled with our life-saving AMBER Alerts, emergency weather warnings, and the hundreds of millions of dollars raised for charity through on-air fundraising appeals, demonstrates that we indeed are dedicated to serving the public interest."

PSAs have had a recently elevated profile in Washington as a way of helping viewers to understand the digital transition. Broadcasters have been pushed by Hill Democrats to commit to quotas for primetime PSAs about the transition, but broadcasters, while committing to primetime PSAs, argued that they need the flexibility to tailor campaigns to specific markets rather than a government one-size-fits-all approach.

That Kaiser study comes as the FCC is deciding whether to mandate PSAs as part of a package of DTV-transition-education measures.

Kaiser described the study parameters this way: "The study examined a full week of television content on affiliates of 10 major broadcast and cable networks: the four major broadcast networks; five basic-cable channels that represent news, sports, music, children’s and general audience programming; and one Spanish-language network. The networks in the study are: ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, CNN, ESPN, MTV, Nickelodeon, TNT and Univision. For each network, programming was sampled on local affiliates or cable providers in seven different markets across the country: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, New York and Seattle. A total of 1,680 hours of television content was collected and analyzed for the study."

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.