More Than A 'Toaster With Pictures'

Former Republican FCC Chairman Mark Fowler once famously referred to TV as a “toaster with pictures,” suggesting that the television business was no different than any other.

Fowler was famously wrong, a point local broadcasters demonstrate each year through public service initiatives that emphasize their special obligation to serve the common good. While B&C's editorial page has often pushed broadcasters to demand their freedom from those public interest obligations, the National Association of Broadcasters has consistently stopped short of that line and embraced its special relationship with its audience.

The reason may be partly due to the protections that special government status affords the industry—like not having to bid for licenses on the open market. However, the result is an industry awash in good deeds that stretch beyond public service announcements.

Broadcasters do plenty of that, with more coming this past year through ramping-up of DTV education. TV stations slotted 2 million PSAs in the first three quarters of 2008, according to The Ad Council, which monitors airtime and advertising creative. When local and network cable are added in, says the council, the value of donated airtime reaches $265 million for the time period.

There's arguably no industry with as much opportunity as broadcasting to volunteer its core business in service to others. For example, the following e-mail came last week from the high school of the author's daughter: “On Friday, December 19 at 8:00 p.m., ABC Channel 7 Anchor Leon Harris will broadcast a one hour primetime television special called Drive to Stay Alive. This special program will educate young people and their families about driving risks and about preventative measures to create safer roadways.”

Getting drunk drivers off the road is one of The Ad Council's major campaigns. Peggy Conlon, president of the council, says broadcasters have given “terrific support” to its “Buzzed Driving Is Drunk Driving” campaign—the PSAs received more than $71.8 million in airtime from TV and radio (click here to watch the ad). “In every market in the country, we have stations signed up for a separate campaign with the Television Bureau of Advertising,” Conlon says. Due to those efforts, Conlon adds, the proportion of young men in the target audience of 21-35 who have said they refrained from impaired driving has almost doubled, from 17% in January 2006 to 30% in January '08.

Has the economy hurt efforts to get the media to contribute? “The commitment to the community is as strong as ever,” Conlon says. “Unfortunately, there is more inventory. The good news is they know how to put it to good use.”

For many years, B&C produced an annual special devoted to local station service. The NAB collected the following examples from this year, which it does as an ongoing exercise in evaluating broadcasters' commitment, a way to demonstrate the value of local TV.

Ask the more than 30 children who found new homes through the “Are You My Family” program on KTVK Phoenix. Fifty-nine orphans were profiled on its Good Evening Arizona newscast; the station says this is more than double the typical adoption rate. The program may be expanded throughout the state.

KUSA Denver's “9Cares, Colorado Shares” campaign helped supply 450,000 pounds of food to low-income families as well as hundreds of toys, truckloads of clothing and $100,000 in cash.

WPDE Myrtle Beach, S.C., held a telethon to raise money to send 150 World War II veterans to Washington to visit the National World War II Memorial.

As part of a campaign by WNEP Moosic, Pa., called “Operation Save a Life,” the station teamed with local fire departments to pay for and install 15,000 smoke alarms in 2008 in homes of the elderly, lower-income families and families with small children.

And WAPT Jackson, Miss., has helped feed a million people with its “Food for Families Football Challenge.” The station tapped into the state's passion for high school football by picking a game each week and adding a food drive challenge to the competition. Cheerleaders appear on the newscast the night before the game to cheer on their schools, with food drive challenge winners announced at halftime by the station's meteorologist.

The same kind of cheers should be delivered to these and many other stations for their efforts.

John Eggerton

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.