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“Can I Have Some Prime With Top Markets on the Side?”

March 13, 2010

Years ago I belonged to a great organization called the National Broadcast Association for Community Affairs – NBACA for short.  What made it such a terrific organization for anyone in the public service business was first, it was the only game in town…there were no other organizations representing TV public service directors.  Secondly, it gave all of us who were trying to engage these important gatekeepers a chance for serious face time, as compared to anonymously sending our PSAs through the mail, never to meet the person on the other end.  Finally, it gave us a chance to network with other folks in our business to exchange ideas and techniques. Alas, some radio people took over about 10 years ago and held the last national convention in of all places – Los Angeles, not exactly the center of public service thought – and the demise of the organization came shortly thereafter.

Very recently we had a client ask the important, but not very astute question:  “Why aren’t we getting more prime time with our TV PSAs…and while I am asking the question why not more top market exposure?”  Without being flip or smug when answering this question, my mind wandered back to the NBACA conference held in New York City when this same question was posed to the community affairs director for WABC TV.  The person from the non-profit stood up to ask a panel of TV public service directors why her organization was not getting more prime time PSA usage.  The woman from WABC looked at her with all due seriousness and said: “honey, when you ain’t buying the time, all time is good.”  The room shook with laughter, because never had so much truth been declared in so few words.

In looking back on this exchange, it might be appropriate to ask another corresponding question.  If stations gave away a lot of their prime time as public service, they would have very little to sell – and we all know that revenue is the lifeblood of their operations, just as it is for all the rest of us running a business.  If stations gave a lot of prime time away for free, then what would motivate the large advertisers to purchase it at top prices?

In thinking further about what raised this question in the first place, it shows a pretty deep naiveté among the non-profit community as far as what motivates broadcasters – and the media in general – to use public service materials.  Having attended 10 NBACA conferences in the past, where I learned so much from the broadcasters themselves about what is important to them, perhaps now is a good time to review some truths about what matters to the media, and broadcast TV stations in particular. 

At one of the NBACA conferences, I used to see a very quiet guy always standing off to the side of the room, looking like maybe he knew this stuff cold.  Having seen him at a number of their meetings, I decided one day to go up and introduce myself.  His name was Jerry Wishnow, and over time, we became very good friends and colleagues.  Jerry taught me some very, very valuable insights as to what matters most to broadcast community affairs folks, because he literally wrote the book on the subject titled: “Broadcast Public Affairs: The Activist Approach.”

One of the things Jerry taught me – and I use this all the time in my presentations – is something called The Four R’s of Broadcasting, as shown in this graphic.  All of us understand stations need revenue, but how do they get it…that brings up the next  “R” which is Ratings. 

We all have seen how TV stations put their best shows on the air during the sweeps periods when local station ratings are determined, and many stations will increase local advertising to try to build their audience.  Because ad rates (Revenue)  the stations can charge are based on those ratings, you can immediately see the relationship between these two R’s.

Now how about the other two…  Relevance and Recognition?  This is where public service programming comes into the discussion, along with all the other kinds of programming that broadcasters engage in to serve their audience.  Before going on with the discussion, we need to point out a very, very important fact.  TV stations are not mandated by the FCC to run a certain level of PSAs.  They never were mandated to do so – with the exception of the Children’s TV Act – and so if your notion is that stations have to run your spots, then you suffer from an illusion.   

That being the case, you need to provide materials to stations that are locally Relevant because why….?  That gets the station Recognition in the community.  Now you can see how these four R’s are all connected in a very meaningful way.  You provide engaging messages to the broadcaster…they air them because their local community cares about the issue or message, meaning more eyeballs tune into the station with the most enlighted community affairs approach, and bingo, that station gets better ratings and more advertising revenue.

Now we cannot say that this model works this way in every community, at all times. But, if you read any of the articles on the PSA Research Center dedicated to cause marketing at, you will see one example after another of how a non-profit developed win-win-win approaches with the media, because they all gained something from the relationship.

Now back to the woman who raised this question in the first place.  When we said that it was not realistic to expect much in the way of prime time PSA placements, that does not mean you are going to get “junk time” either (midnight to 7AM).  One of the great things about the A.C. Nielsen SpotTrac monitoring technology is that we get data from them showing daypart usage for 6 different times during the broadcast “day.”  This graph shows that as many as  two-thirds of all PSAs air in the best times of day and this usage data is fairly consistent among all campaigns.

Incidentally, if you don’t think anyone is home watching TV during the day then maybe Procter & Gamble should fire their ad agency from buying  so many commercials during this daypart.

Moreover, there are many things PSA producers can do to increase the chances their PSAs will even make it on the air, which length they will use and for how long.  In an attempt to keep this post as brief as possible, you may want to visit the FAQs on the PSA Research Center where these, and many other questions, are answered.

Interestingly, a reporter from China contacted us recently and indicated she was writing a story about the PSA world in her country, which I found to be fascinating because there – as one might expect – the government plays a more dominant role in the broadcasting industry.  We would all love local broadcasters to provide more prime time to important national issues and causes, but not sure if more government regulation would help in this particular case.  The National Association of Broadcasters tells us they provide something on the order of $10 billion annually in support of public causes.  The fact is the media do – and have done – a marvelous job in supporting the non-profit community, and permitting us to create a dialogue with their viewers, listeners and readers.

In workshops we have given, we often end the discussion with the question…”how many of you regularly thank the media in some formal way for the support they give to your organization?”  In a room of 40 people, typically three or four hands are raised.  It is sad that someone would stand up in a meeting and ask the media why they are not giving us more, when we have given them so little in return.  Think about that the next time you review your Nielsen reports and are not happy that most of your spots did not air during prime time in the largest markets.


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