Tough Competition for Free Television Time Leads Charities
to Weigh Paid Commercials
by Elizabeth Klein
Stiff competition for donations of public service advertising on television
has prompted many of the nation's major charities to consider paying for
broadcast time and to explore other ways to get their messages on the air.
If charities such as the Boy Scouts of America go ahead with their plans
to pay for TV time, that would mark a major shift in public service advertising.
Traditionally, charities have asked television stations to donate such
time; last year cable and broadcast stations gave about $532 million worth
of time for public service advertising. Although a few charities, such
as Save the Children, have paid for advertising, the practice is not widespread.
Precedent for Payment Could Be Set
The possibility of such a shift has some charity officials and other
experts on public service advertising worried. They fear that the tradition
of donated time could be threatened if large charities begin paying for
advertisements. And that once such a precedent is set, only those groups
that can afford to buy broadcast time - or persuade a corporation to buy
it for them - will get it.
For many large charities, public service announcements are a critical
vehicle for fund raising, volunteer recruitment, and public education.
Officials say they are willing to try paid broadcast time, even at the
risk of losing free time, because they feel the free time they are getting
is too limited and increasingly regulated to hours of low viewership.
"It has been our policy not to buy air time because we were afraid
we would lose the free air time, " says Susan Islam, director of broadcasting
and advertising for the American Cancer Society. But she says the society
has organized a committee to examine its public service advertising guidelines
and is likely to seek corporate sponsorship of public service advertisements.
"PSA time is becoming less and less available", says Ms.
Islam. "The stakes are lower because there's not as much free time
around. The networks and stations have come to accept that non-profit organizations
can have people paying for commercials."
Here are some of the strategies charities are using to get greater access
to broadcast time:
Several groups - including the American Cancer Society, the American Red Cross,
and United Way of America - are looking into the possibility of getting
corporations to buy broadcast time for them. The American Heart Association
began getting corporate support for the distribution of public service
messages three years ago.
The Boy Scouts of America is considering buying broadcast time for its
public-service advertisements as part of a major marketing campaign to
attract new scouts.
Local affiliates of the United Way and Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America
are paying stations to broadcast public service advertisements and making
the cost of advertising a regular part of their annual budgets. Other charities
have persuaded corporations to underwrite their public service messages.
For example, United Way of Tri-State got the International Business Machines
Corporation to pay for its messages to be broadcast in New York City metropolitan
The National Easter Seal Society recently hired a communications consulting
company, Goodwill Communications, to distribute its public service advertisements
Many non-profit groups are reaching beyond the major national television
networks and distributing their PSAs to cable television networks, whose
broadcast schedules are comparatively less crowded with commercial advertisements.
Charity officials overwhelmingly blame the Federal Communications Commission
for the increased competition for free broadcast time. In 1984, the commission
dropped its guidelines for public service advertisements as part of its
efforts to deregulate the broadcast industry. It scrapped standards for
the content of PSAs and eliminated a requirement that broadcasters issue
reports detailing their daily broadcast schedules. Those changes have made
it difficult to monitor exactly where and when PSAs are aired, charity
"We used to get accurate [PSA] reports from the three networks,
but I don't anymore, " says Elaine Chapnick, director of creative
services for the American Lung Association. "We have great difficulty
getting an accurate count. The best we can do is with our own eyeballs,
and our sense is that we're not getting shown as much anymore."
Save the Children is one of a handful of national charities that has
been buying broadcast time for PSAs for years. Officials there view advertising
as a necessary fund raising cost. The charity buys "direct response"
advertising, which costs less than other commercial advertising because
it can be pre-empted if a commercial advertiser wants to buy the spot at
Save the Children spent $2.1 million on advertising in 1988, says its
director of advertising, Andrew Mollo, who played a key role in the charity's
decision to start paying for advertising in the late 1970s. The charity
made the switch when it was concerned about a drop in contributions.
He says the paid advertisements "are much more effective in terms
of volume of response," pointing out that 98 percent of the money
the charity raises through the PSAs is for paid advertisements, while
only 2 percent results form free PSAs.
Charities are not the only groups stepping up efforts to get out their
public-education messages. In the past year, several state governments
have begun to buy public service broadcast time to inform the public on
a number of health issues, such as AIDS, high blood pressure, high cholesterol,
Effect of 'Mega-Campaigns'
Aside from deregulation by the federal government and competition from
state agencies, other factors that are squeezing the availability of public service
time, say charity officials. These include economic pressures in the broadcasting
industry, which is losing viewers to cable television, and the presence
of "mega-campaigns" about AIDS prevention and illegal drugs that
are put together through collaboration of many non-profit groups and government
"Given the choice, the media is certainly going to go for the higher-visibility
issues, like AIDS and drugs," says Eleanor Hangley, executive vice-president
and director of operations for the Advertising Council. "Our figures
for public service advertising were up last year, but despite that, it's
an ever-more-competitive environment, due to the nature of the problems."
An Advertising Council study found the contributions of public service
advertising by all media had risen 22 percent between 1987 and 1988. Television
donations that year were up 5 percent.
At the local level, some charities have had trouble getting free broadcasts
of their messages because many stations are adopting a single public-service
campaign each season, and devoting the bulk of their donated time to one
Many charities are looking to cable television to broadcast their messages,
because cable networks typically sell fewer commercial spots than do the
broadcast networks, and therefore are more likely to have space to run
"The cable stations have much more white space available and are
very cooperative," says Ted Accas, director of marketing for the Boy
Scouts of America. "Of course, charities are going to them because
they are the point of least resistance."
But cable television officials say that as their channels become more
popular and gain subscribers, they will attract more commercial advertisers
and have less unsold time to give public service messages.
Says Ms. Chapnick of the American Lung Association, "We're all
looking for ways to get access to air time, because the PSA system as
it stands now is very hit or miss."
She adds, "The networks can say anything they want."
Although most public service directors at the major networks and cable
television companies say they have not reduced the amount of free air time
available, one network programming-standards official, who asked not to
be identified, said that the FCC's changes had squeezed donations of
"In a deregulatory environment the government isn't holding stations
to 'the public interest, convenience, and necessity' as the bottom line
for licensing renewal," he said, referring to phrases in the Communications
Act of 1934, which established the commission.
Traditionally, charities have distributed their PSAs to networks or,
at the local level, to individual stations. The broadcasters screen the
advertisements to insure that they comply with their PSA requirements,
which often call for the charity to have met the standards of the Better
Business Bureau's Philanthropic Advisory Service or the National Charities
Information Bureau, private groups that evaluate the fund raising and management
practices of charities.
Once approved, the PSAs typically are put on a "rotation schedule,"
along with scores of other messages, and are broadcast, without charge,
whenever there is empty broadcast time that has not been sold to commercial
Control Called an Advantage
Charities that are considering paid or sponsored PSAs say that the
main advantage of buying broadcast time is that the buyer can control where
and when the advertisements run. "We would be able to reach those
we want to reach, which is adults over 18 who are employed," says
Lucy Seal, director of advertising and promotion for the United Way of
America. Ms. Seal says that United Way has not decided whether to buy broadcast
time, but had developed a paper outlining the advantages and disadvantages
of doing so.
But some charity officials say they are worried about the high cost
of buying advertisements. The cost of broadcasting a 30-second ad on national
network television can range from $4,000 to over $300,000, depending on
the time of day and the popularity of the program in which it is aired.
Local ads range in price according to the size of the market, from a few
hundred dollars or less in a small market to $25,000 or more in a major
Charities also worry that if they buy time from one network or station,
other broadcast outlets might start demanding payment. Furthermore, some
network officials say they would suspend a charity's free PSAs while a
paid campaign is running, so that other groups could have access to broadcast
Some charity officials say they are also wary of corporate sponsorship
for public service advertisements because they might lose editorial control
of the advertisement. For example, some health charities say they would
probably not accept support from tobacco or alcohol companies. And United
Way of America has a policy of not aligning itself with corporations for
the purpose of advertising because competing corporations may react negatively.
"We have to be careful because we raise most of our funds in the
workplace, and to align ourselves with one corporation may cause their
competitors to reduce their support," says Ms. Seal, United Way's
national director of advertising and promotion. United Way does receive
announcements paid for by the National Football League during professional
Some charities have policies that bar them from buying broadcast time
because they feel it is an inappropriate use of donors' money. "The
public gives us money for research, public education, and other services,"
says Ms. Islam of the American Cancer Society.
Charities that have bought broadcast time say their PSAs have much
more impact because they are guaranteed to be broadcast and can be aimed
at programs with heavy viewership.
"Buying airtime has been incredibly effective," says Ellen
Krich, manager of marketing for United Way of Central Maryland, which began
buying television and radio advertisements last year at the urging of its
board. "We had a long-range goal of doubling our resources and our
board said the only way to do that was to get our message out. They were
very firm about buying air time."
She says that getting PSAs broadcast during hours when large numbers
of people were watching television was critical in generating support.
"Our backbone of support comes from working people, and at 2 am,"
she adds, "those people are usually in bed."
The Maryland United Way continued to get donations of free broadcast
time during its paid campaign. "The radio and television stations
gave us almost 100 percent more free time in addition" to the paid
time, says Ms. Krich.
"For the many years we were out there fighting for free air time,"
she recalls, but she says the goal of expansion made buying broadcast time
a necessity. "It's an absolutely worthy use of the money."
Pitfalls in Buying Time
But other charities have discovered pitfalls in buying broadcast time.
When a Big Brothers/Big Sisters agency in Fort Wayne, Ind., began buying
advertisements in a local newspaper, a television station in the area threatened
to stop giving the agency free broadcast time. "The TV broadcaster
figured if the agency could buy newspaper ads it could buy TV ads,"
says Colleen Watson, director of public relations for the Big Brothers/Big
States Pay to Assure That Public-Education Campaigns on AIDS Appear
Concern about the devastating impact AIDS could have on the American
population has prompted many state agencies to begin paying television
stations and broadcasters' associations to make sure that public service
messages about critical issues appear frequently on television.
Health officials in Florida and Mississippi have paid the broadcasters
association in those states to distribute public service advertisements
about AIDS to their members. In Mississippi, the broadcasters association
was paid $20,000 in 1988-89 to guarantee that its members would broadcast
$140,000 worth of AIDS advertisements, while the Florida group guaranteed
its members would broadcast $1 million worth of air time for the $250,00
the association was paid in 1988-89. In each state, broadcasters donated
more air time than was required under these arrangements.
The Michigan Department of Public Health paid $1 million in 1988-89
and the same amount in 1989-90 to advertising agencies to produce and distribute
radio, television, and print advertisements on health issues. Many stations
donated free time in addition to the paid broadcast time.
The Delaware Department of Health and Social Services hired advertising
firms to buy some commercial spots, then persuaded television stations
to donate more air time.
The states' public-education campaigns on AIDS are often versions of
the Centers for Disease Control's nationwide effort, "America Responds
to AIDS." Many of them use public service advertisements produced
for the campaign by the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather.
State subsidies for public service AIDS advertisements had dramatically
improved the amount of broadcast time they have received; but some officials
worry that it will be costly to sustain the campaigns.
"On the pro side, the scientific evidence is that by paying for
ads you can assure placement and time slots to reach a specific audience,
and assure that the message is seen repeatedly," says Ken Williams,
program analyst with the National AIDS Information and Education Program
at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. But, he adds, "the
primary con is that it can be very, very, expensive, particularly if you're
talking about national advertising."
The issue of paid public service advertisements was debated this winter
when Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, proposed legislation
that contained a $45 million dollar budget to educate the public on how
to prevent AIDS. Part of that budget was to be used to pay for the production
and distribution of advertisements warning about the dangers of the disease.
'Not a Good Precedent'
Both the Advertising Council, an association through which the advertising
and media industries volunteer their time and resources to produce and
distribute public service advertisements, and the National Association
of Broadcasters opposed the bill's proposal to pay for advertisements.
They said they feared that the long-standing tradition of free public service
advertisements could be at risk.
Critics of paid public service advertisements point to the experience
of the armed forces - which began buying broadcast time several years ago
to reach audiences at peak times - as evidence of the danger of paid PSAs.
"It was shown with the armed forces that it was not a good precedent,"
says Rory Benson, vice-president of the National Association of Broadcasters.
Once the armed forces began buying air time, she says, "It really
made it difficult if not impossible to get armed-forces ads on the air
without paying for them."
Although Congress approved the idea of paying for AIDS public service
advertisements, it never provided money to pay for them. Now, at the urging
of Senator Kennedy and health officials, including James O. Mason, assistant
secretary of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control
will soon begin a seven-month study to determine how effective paid public service
advertising is in educating the public about AIDS.