Technically, broadcast television stations are not “required” to run free public service announcements — known in the trade as PSAs.
But under an antiquated regulatory regime left over from pre-cable, pre-satellite days, radio and TV stations are still “licensed” by the federal government. Those licenses come up for renewal from time to time and — though it’s rare — the Federal Communications Commission has been known to seize a broadcast frequency away from an established station, awarding it to a competing applicant.
One of the grounds on which such matters are decided is the amount of effort a station can demonstrate having exerted to “serve the public interest.”
So massive folders are dutifully compiled, with evidence of local “public affairs” shows broadcast, as well as a log of 30-second public service announcements.
Of course, station managers aren’t fools. Airing such materials during prime time would not only sacrifice market share — “I don’t know, honey, would you rather watch the Mel Gibson movie or ‘Your Water Department on Parade’?” — but also use up valuable time that can be sold to paying sponsors.
Few will be surprised by the findings of a study of PSA airings recently conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Researchers watched a full week of television on affiliates of 10 of the nation’s most popular cable and broadcast networks in seven different markets in late 2005.
Once they’d recovered their coherence, researchers reported the stations aired 17 seconds of public service announcements per each hour of programming, or about 0.5 percent of all TV airtime.
Forty-six percent of the PSAs were aired between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m., according to the study, released Thursday at a forum attended by three of the five members of the Federal Communications Commission.
If you consider broadcast stations alone, the “graveyard shift” accounted for 60 percent of the PSAs.
“Maybe insomniacs are well-informed, but humans are not nocturnal animals,” Democratic FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said of the results.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this is heading.
“Both (FCC-member) Democrats stopped short of supporting a specific standard for broadcasters and free airtime, but said public service obligations in general should be better defined,” The Associated Press reports.
Should the FCC adopt minimum quotas for PSAs — perhaps on a sliding scale that gives more credit for spots aired at high-viewership times?
First, this is an uncompensated taking.
Yes, the FCC insists these broadcast frequencies aren’t the “property” of the broadcasters, but remain “public airwaves.” But the Mississippi River is public, too. Does that mean the federal government can require ships using the river to haul a certain amount of federal cargo free of charge? Shippers would respond by charging more to their paying customers — just as broadcasters would — thus shifting the burden of this hidden tax onto others.
But more important is the thoroughly warped definition of what is and is not “public service.”
There are high schools in this country that require students to put in a certain number of hours in “public service” before graduation. Starting up a profitable T-shirt business, creating paying jobs for fellow students, is not considered meeting this requirement — though clearly a public demand is being met.
No, no, to our government bureaucrats, “public service” means doing something boring or unpleasant, something assigned little value in the free-market economy, like emptying bedpans.
Similarly, “everyone knows” a television PSA should urge young people not to smoke or drink or do drugs, should urge parents to wear their seat belts and “get the kids their shots,” etc.
But what if some competing nonprofit group were to deliver a taped message arguing some childhood inoculations are dangerous or less-effective than advertised? Or that marijuana can be medically useful? Could stations get government “PSA credit” for airing those messages? Not likely.
What about airing political debates or discussions that prove so popular the stations find they can sell plenty of ads during the breaks? Want to bet those “wouldn’t count” because they’re “too profitable” — too popular with the very public the stations are supposed to serve?
Who decides what does and does not “serve the public”? The government? Are we supposed to believe they have no horse in this race?
Other than a minor police role, making sure broadcast stations stick to their assigned frequencies, it’s time for the FCC to be quietly put to sleep. We certainly don’t need to assign them new regulatory authority over broadcast stations — throwing yet another advantage to their non-airwave competitors.