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Public service ads tilt to insomniacs

January 25, 2008|From the Associated Press

Television public service announcements, which convey beneficial messages and air for free, can be effective, but a new study says there aren't very many of them. And those that do make it to television are often broadcast at odd hours when few people are watching.

"There continues to be very little time available for ads on public service, and nearly half of them are aired after midnight," said Vicky Rideout, a coauthor of the study. "It's a really challenging environment for nonprofit [organizations] to get their messages out."

The study, titled "Shouting to be Heard," was released Thursday by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation at a forum attended by three of the five members of the Federal Communications Commission.

Researchers watched a full week of television on affiliates of 10 of the most popular cable and broadcast networks in seven U.S. markets in late 2005.

Overall, researchers determined the stations they reviewed aired 17 seconds of public service announcements per each hour of programming, or about 0.5% of all TV airtime on the channels.

Of the ads watched, 46% aired between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m., according to the study. On broadcast stations alone, the total was 60%.

"Maybe insomniacs are well informed, but humans are not nocturnal animals," Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat, said of the results.

The report updates a study released in 2002. Since then, time allotted to public service announcements increased to 15 seconds from 7 seconds per hour on cable networks, but there was no significant change among broadcast channels.

The study also found an increase in the rate of paid commercial advertising per hour to 12 minutes, 25 seconds from 11 minutes, 45 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 was appeals for contributions, and third was family and social concerns.

Unlike cable channels, broadcast networks have public interest obligations, but the government has never set an explicit standard regarding what they should be.

Public service announcements are "one way, if done properly, of serving the public interest," said Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps.

Both Democrats stopped short of supporting a specific standard for broadcasters and free air time but said public service obligations in general should be better defined.

Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate used her remarks to praise 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.

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