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Networks Slow to Air Condom Ads : Television: Despite agreements to broadcast public service announcements advocating use of condoms to curb the spread of AIDS, there's reticence about airing spots during prime time.

January 27, 1994|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Federal health officials made front-page news this month with the unveiling of a new series of TV commercials that for the first time frankly advocate the use of latex condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS.

The announcement was significant because the government said all four major commercial broadcast networks had agreed to air the public-service spots, which are aimed at people from 18 to 25, who are considered a high-risk group for sexually transmitted diseases. ABC, CBS and NBC--fearful of criticism that they might be promoting sexual promiscuity--have not accepted paid commercials for condoms, and Fox only recently lifted its ban on such ads.

Yet three weeks later, only ABC has aired any of the government-sponsored condom commercials. Executives at CBS, NBC and Fox told The Times that they still plan to run the spots, but didn't know when they would begin.

And all four networks said they will be restricting the broadcast times--in many cases until after 11 p.m.--to reduce the chances of children seeing the ads, which also promote abstinence as a means of avoiding AIDS. ABC has been showing them several times a week in what it describes as adult-oriented programs at 9:30 p.m., 10 p.m. and after 11 p.m.

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"There's not some dark conspiracy among the networks not to run the government's PSAs (public-service announcements)," said Fox spokesman Jeff DeRome. "We were moved by this campaign, and we intend to support it, as we have run other spots on AIDS. It's just that it is one of literally hundreds of spots competing for PSA air time."

Victor Zonana, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which developed the ad campaign with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the agency was not discouraged by the delay in airing the spots.

"We have commitments from the networks that they will include the spots in their regular PSA inventory," he explained. "This campaign has broken the silence on the use of condoms (on TV). It's such a giant step that it's going to make it easier for subsequent campaigns" aimed at reducing AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

But Dr. Roy Schwarz, senior vice president for medical education and science at the American Medical Assn., criticized the networks for delaying the ads and for restricting most of the air time to late at night, when fewer people are watching television.

"These ads aren't doing anybody any good as long as they don't appear on television," he said. "A lot of money and creativity was put into making the ads, and they carry a very important health message."

As for the scheduling, Schwarz said, "I can understand not wanting to offend people with children watching, but I don't see why some of these PSAs cannot be run in prime time. Young people 18 to 25 are among the most vulnerable to AIDS today. It seems to me that, if you're going to reach them via TV, you ought to reach them when they're watching, in prime time."

The networks argue that they can reach the target audience later at night without exposing youngsters to the ads.

"We are likely to air them after 11:30 p.m. and at 10:58 p.m.," said Rosalin Weinman, vice president of standards and practices at NBC. "There are some affiliates who are not comfortable with running condom PSAs at an earlier time period, and they've told us so."

The networks apparently do not see any contradiction between their policy on these ads and their willingness to deal with sexual themes in programs and commercials that air during the first hour of prime time.

Broadcast executives say that they have previously run other AIDS public-service announcements that mention the use of condoms, and they say that the government's new campaign, however important, is one of numerous worthy causes competing for public-service time.

One network source suggested that economics had something to do with the government's condom ads being largely consigned to late-night time slots.

"A message such as this one about condom use needs repeated exposure to get through the media clutter," the source said. "But it's one of many messages from many organizations competing for PSA time, and you're just not likely to see a network run a PSA in one of its hit sitcoms because the commercial time is considered too valuable."

"We don't have a lot of time for PSAs in prime time," acknowledged Beth Waxman Bressan, the vice president in charge of program practices at CBS. But she rejected the suggestion that the network was wary of the AIDS issue, noting that CBS has been running other, more general public-service announcements about AIDS awareness during 8 p.m. shows.

"We want to schedule the (government's PSAs) at a time when they will reach their target audience," Bressan said. "We are committed to running them when we have available PSA inventory, and we plan to run them in late-night and news programming."

In contrast to its competitors, ABC lost no time in getting the government ads on the air. The first one ran during an episode of "NYPD Blue" on Jan. 4, the day the AIDS-education campaign was announced by Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.

"We have made a commitment to run these ads because we believe that AIDS is an important topic," said Janice Gretemeyer, spokeswoman for Capital Cities/ABC. But the network does not plan to run the spots during "Roseanne," "Home Improvement" or other sitcoms, she noted.

"These ads are not aimed at children--they're aimed at young people--and we do not believe it's appropriate to run them during our family sitcoms," Gretemeyer said. "We think we can reach the target audience with other shows."

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