The Networks

The Big Four chip in

With a public to woo and politicians to mollify, and just to be good corporate citizens, the Big Four broadcast networks have extensive public-service campaigns.

In broadcast, most efforts are at the local level. For example, NBC-owned KNBC Los Angeles is producing its own "register to vote" news special. Still, at the network level, NBC has produced its The More You Know public-service campaign for 15 seasons, with network stars talking about big issues like prejudice, violence and substance abuse.

At other networks, current campaigns stretch across network TV, cable TV and local affiliates. Some examples: ABC's A Better Community, Fox's initiative to keep parents informed about content ratings and the V-chip, which blocks racy programs; and CBS Cares, part of a bigger Viacom initiative to fight HIV/AIDS.

ABC's A Better Community addresses such issues as volunteering, the environment and childhood hunger. As some other networks are doing, ABC is integrating parts of the campaign into programs. On Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, for example, such groups as Habitat for Humanity have appeared to explain their agenda.

"The integration of public-service messaging into programs has to be organic," says Charissa Gilmore, director of ABC corporate initiatives. "One that plays naturally to the storyline and is complementary to the content of the show can have great impact."

That's for sure. "Our researchers tell us 64 million people see our spots every week," says Susan Haspel, executive producer of NBC's The More You Know series. "The messages resonate. All the messages have a call to action."

Meanwhile, Fox says its campaign to alert viewers to the V-chip and on-screen parental guidelines was launched months before Janet Jackson's Super Bowl stunt got the FCC riled up about indecent content. The Ad Council also has produced similar spots, in conjunction with all the networks. And NBC, too, has produced a V-chip PSA. Featuring Katie Couric, it is being seen widely on the network.

When Fox decided to focus on the TV-ratings theme, "there was nothing happening at the time on Capitol Hill as there is now, but we thought it was an important issue," says Maureen O'Connell, senior vice president of government relations at Fox. "Kaiser [Family Foundation] has been saying that parents aren't familiar with the system and don't know how to use the V-chip and don't know the ratings system."

At CBS, "we made a conscious decision to devote the most effort to the AIDS campaign," notes Martin Franks, executive vice president of CBS Television.

Know HIV/AIDS is a joint effort of CBS parent Viacom and the Kaiser Foundation. It kicked off its second year in February during a Super Bowl pregame show and this month launched new PSAs to coincide with National HIV Testing Day (June 27).

The campaign includes 34 PSAs and extends beyond TV to radio, outdoor and program content. In 2003, all Viacom properties, including cable and the billboard division, produced advertising that the company values at $120 million. Says Franks, "This is a way of addressing the needs of the nation through the network and its stations."