While public service advertisements can be effective educational tools, a public health group contends their usefulness is often undercut because they air infrequently and too late at night.
According to a new Kaiser Family Foundation study released Thursday, half of the ads aired early in the morning when the TV audience is smallest and that PSAs accounted for 0.5 percent of all TV airtime.
"PSAs can be an important tool, but obviously they have to be seen to be effective," said Kaiser vp Vicky Rideout at an event for the report's release. "With so little airtime being made available, making sure PSAs get seen frequently by their target audience can be a daunting task."
According to Kaiser, cable and broadcast stations ran 46 percent of all donated PSAs between midnight and 6 a.m. When only broadcast stations were counted, 60 percent of the ads ran in the early morning hours.
"Maybe insomniacs are well informed, but humans are not nocturnal animals," Democratic FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said of the results.
"Shouting to be Heard" updates a previous study released in 2002. Since then, time allotted to donated public service announcements increased from 7 seconds to 15 seconds per hour on cable networks, but there was no statistically significant change among broadcast channels.
Kaiser found an increase in the rate of paid commercial advertising per hour from 11 minutes, 45 seconds to 12 minutes, 25 seconds.
The report noted that Spanish-language network Univision donated an average of 29 seconds per hour to public service announcements, far more than the 17-second average.
The most common category for such announcements was health. Second-most popular were appeals for contributions and family and social concerns were third.
Unlike cable channels, broadcast networks have public interest obligations, but the government has never set an explicit standard regarding what they should be.
Fellow Democratic commissioner Michael Copps praised the creativity that went into many of the ads.
"Some, like 'Friends don't let friends drive drunk,' have become a part of the vernacular, and even saved lives," he said. "Others, like 'This is your brain on drugs,' was named by TV Guide as one of the top-100 ads of all time. So with enough creativity—and with sufficient repetition at times when people are watching—PSAs can have a real impact."
But he lamented that they are used so little.
"This subprime scheduling for so many PSAs tells me that subprime problems aren't exclusive to the housing market," he said.
Broadcasters aren't without their friends on the commission. Republican Deborah Taylor Tate praised the civic-mindedness of broadcasters in her home state of Tennessee and said the government should be "mindful of the risk" of mandating new requirements.
Martin Franks, CBS evp, said there was a "major flaw" in the report because it did not consider the audience the ads reached.
One ad that aired during CBS' Super Bowl telecast last year featuring Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, who mentored opposing Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, reached millions.
Franks said the Web site at Big Brothers and Big Sisters, a group that promotes mentoring, "blew up" following the airing.
Brooks Boliek, Adweek. January 25, 2008
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