Getting your PSAs used by broadcast and cable networks can add hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of airtime.  The current reality is that the “big four” (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) use very few externally produced PSAs, preferring instead to create their own “branded” messages, using actors and personalities identified with their networks to deliver PSA messages.

The good news is that there has been an explosion in national cable networks as smart programming executives tap into serving very specific lifestyles of their audiences, sometimes referred to as “niche networks.” We currently work with more than 200 of these national cable networks.

In this article, we address some of the Do’s and Don’ts of dealing with the networks. Every TV PSA producer should review these tips at the risk of getting less exposure than they could have gotten, or worse yet, no usage at all because they don’t know the rules of getting on the air.

Do Your Homework

If you are launching your first TV PSA, or you have something unique to convey, consider calling network clearance directors. Be advised, however, they are busy people and receive hundreds of PSA submissions for consideration, so you should respect their time demands.

As an alternative, send a letter with your PSA concepts (draft copy and storyboards), to the networks, and then follow-up with personal phone calls.  Provide them with facts on your issue and why it is important to national audiences.

To ensure that your PSAs will be cleared by the networks, your producer needs to know a few of the network rules regarding what you can and cannot say or show in your PSAs:

  • The sponsoring organization must be national in scope and dedicated to public service or charitable activities.
  • PSAs cannot, directly or indirectly, promote the sale of commercial products or services, including showing any logos or any other visual references.
  • The campaign cannot deal with sectarian, politically partisan or controversial subjects, nor can it be designed to influence legislation or government actions.
  • You should avoid direct appeals for funds in your message. CBS Network policy, for example, says a direct appeal for funds such as “send your check to…or please make a donation…” is not acceptable, whereas statements such as “please help…please support” may be acceptable. When in doubt, contact the networks and your distributor should be able to provide you with names and phone numbers.

If you adhere to the formal review procedures required by networks, there are four basic steps to follow for network approval:

  1. Ad-ID Code: This code is the industry standard for identifying digital assets across all media platforms, and most media outlets will not use your PSA without the code. Your distributor cannot obtain the code for your organization; it is something that the non-profit must do. For more information, go to
  2. Organizational Clearance: if you are a new organization or have not produced PSAs previously – get registered with either the Better Business Bureau, or the National Charities Information Bureau. The networks might ask you for proof of your registration, and you should also submit a copy of your (IRS 501C-3) tax-free certificate.
  3. Digital Download Platform: You or your distributor need to post your PSAs to a platform where they can be downloaded by the media, and you need to let the media know the URL for the platform.
  4. Technical Requirements: All PSAs submitted to TV networks or stations have stringent technical specifications, but your distributor will know the correct specs.

Typically, unless there is a problem, networks will simply schedule the PSAs to air and your PSA distributor should be able to share network usage data with you.  If they reject your campaign, they may or may not tell you the reason why it was not accepted, and thus the best way to handle networks is to call each of them after submission of your PSAs.

They may tell you they need substantiation for claims or statistics used in the PSAs, which should be easily handled, and then PSAs can be re-submitted.

While all of this sounds like a lot of work, it can pay off in a big way.  For one of our clients, network usage accounted for two-thirds of all usage which could run into the millions of dollars of equivalent ad time. For that kind of money, it seems prudent to follow the rules, get to know what networks want, and monitor their usage.

Finally, if they did use your PSAs, send them a letter of appreciation signed by one of the top officials of your organization, which will help the next time you come to them asking for free airtime.

Bill Goodwill is founder of Goodwill Communications, a firm which specializes in the distribution and evaluation of national PSA campaigns.