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Service with an $8B smile

Broadcasters tooted their own horn to the tune of $8.1 billion last week. That's how much public service they contributed to their local communities between August 1998 and July 1999, according to a study commissioned by the National Association of Broadcasters.

"This number is honest, conservative and unassailable," said NAB President Eddie Fritts. Several groups assailed anyway.

The study-performed by Alexandria, Va., polling firm Public Opinion Strategies-derived the figure by counting responses from 5,677 radio and television stations. That's more than half of the 11,147 stations who received surveys; Public Opinion Strategies then projected that number over the entire population.

The $8.1 billion includes $5.6 billion donated to run public service announcements, $2.3 billion raised from TV and radio charity events (but not donated directly from broadcasters) and $187 million raised by radio and TV disaster relief. It does not include time donated to political campaigns, on-air telethons and their production costs or volunteer time from on-air personalities.

Bill McInturff, partner at Public Opinion Strategies, said the polling firm made some changes in the way it conducted this year's study. The "census," which is an exhaustive count of each piece of information from every respondent instead of a random sampling, counted PSAs of all different lengths instead of just 30-second spots. It also sent out surveys to 2,000 stations that are not members of NAB, which helped increase this year's response rate by almost 1,900 stations.

Those changes may account for at least some of the jump from 1998's $6.8 billion to this year's $8.1 billion.

Some public interest groups were skeptical about the NAB's tally then and remain so now. Several groups say broadcasters should be providing more local news and public affairs programming as well as free airtime for political campaigns, rather than focusing on public service announcements and charity work.

"PSAs alone do not fulfill the broadcasters'responsibility to serve the civic, educational and cultural needs of their communities," said Larry Kirkman, president of the Benton Foundation.

The Benton Foundation has released a report finding that 24 TV stations over a two-week period dedicated only 0.3% of their programming time to local public affairs programming. The report clearly differentiates "public affairs programming" from news, but many public interest advocates complain that stations do not do enough local news and scarcely touch political issues within those programs.

Last month, a study by the Alliance for Better Campaigns and the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that ABC, CBS and NBC were airing an average of 36 seconds each night of candidate-centered discourse in the weeks between the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary and the March 7 Super Tuesday primary. The networks did average close to five minutes a night of political coverage, the study found, but most of it was focused on campaign strategy and the "horse race" between presidential candidates.

The Alliance for Better Campaigns has been pushing broadcasters to air five minutes of candidate-centered discourse each night in the 30 nights leading up to an election.

"What the broadcasters are not doing is much more important than the self-serving campaigns they are doing," complained Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Washington law firm Media Access Project. "Broadcasters are not doing local news and public affairs programming. They are sucking up to charities and doing self-serving public service campaigns rather than providing serious local news and information that citizens need."

Said Jeff Chester, executive director for the Washington-based Center for Media Education, "They clearly don't provide the kind of public interest service that is necessary for an informed and healthy democracy, and that's why the FCC has to put some teeth in the new rules." The FCC is reviewing a proposal to institute new public interest rules for broadcasters to follow once they make the transition to digital broadcasting.

Fritts personally took the report to FCC commissioners last week, and it was also sent to Capitol Hill and the White House.

Meanwhile, many major charity groups as well as government organizations appeared at a press conference last week to back the NAB's findings.

"Sometimes information is just as important as food, shelter and water," said Michael Armstrong of the Federal Emergency Management Association, which delivers disaster information to communities through broadcasters.

By running $128 million worth of PSAs for the National Crime Prevention Council last year, said Jack Calhoun, NCPC's executive director, "broadcasters have helped drive crime rates to their lowest levels in 30 years."