NAB President-CEO Eddie Fritts, in a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt, said issue-oriented promotional efforts like Anheuser-Busch's "Know When to Say When" campaign should be counted as public service spots.
AD COUNCIL CRITICISMS
The letter came in response to recent criticism by Mr. Hundt and Ad Council Chairman Alex Kroll contending that TV networks are abandoning their traditional commitment to running PSAs. Mr. Hundt has endorsed Mr. Kroll's suggestion that the networks cut back their own promotional messages to devote 1 minute of prime time each night to traditional PSAs.
Mr. Fritts in his letter said that ads paid for by marketers that carry a public service message, like the "Know When to Say When" campaign, should be counted as part of broadcasters' public-service commitments because the networks usually heavily discount the cost of commercial time for such ads.
"You have suggested that you would not consider sponsored PSAs as contributing to broadcasters' public service activities," Mr. Fritts wrote. "This was surprising."
Mr. Fritts' letter infuriated the Ad Council, which has contended that the need for traditional PSAs is increasing.
"Anheuser-Busch does not run PSAs," said Ad Council President Ruth Wooden. "It is not a PSA. It's a part of [A-B's ad] campaign."
Referring to the purported discounted rates at which such ads are run, she added, "A lower price? Oh, please. I think it's part of a negotiation with an advertiser."
Mr. Kroll said PSA time had dropped to 5 seconds per network prime time hour, compared to 12 seconds three years ago.
NOT TRUE PSAS
Ms. Wooden said the network numbers look stronger than they actually are because PSA tracking data gathered by the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers include network ads with stars offering public service messages.
Those ads are not true public service ads and shouldn't be included in the PSA count, Ms. Wooden said.
"Their own definition of what qualifies for public service is the message has got to be non-commercial, non-sectarian, non-partisan," said Ms. Wooden. "What they are doing is cause-related marketing. It shouldn't displace community groups that have no other access to the media.
"Using Jimmy Smits [of ABC's "NYPD Blue"] to say something, I don't think should displace the American Cancer Society," she added.
The TV networks countered that the Ad Council's complaint is just sour grapes.
"They are playing fast and loose with the truth. It's very shocking," said Rosalyn Weiman, NBC's exec VP-broadcast standards. "They go out of their way to get celebrities to be spokesmen because role models get more attention, but [they] are upset when we do it."
Ms. Weiman said that by using its stars, NBC greatly increases the response the messages generate. She cited an ad from the Ad Council for new teachers that drew 2,000 responses, saying a similar one featuring a network TV star drew 55,000.
Janice Gretemeyer, ABC's VP-media relations, said using stars "adds credibility to the spots.
Ms. Wooden, however, warned that the networks are toying with the whole reason that PSAs work.
"PSAs are the most credible forms of advertising because they are non-commercial. That is where credibility comes from," she said.
Mr. Hundt last week, in a new letter responding to Mr. Fritts, expressed concern about the switch to network messages.
"The network promo/PSA hybrids have an obvious commercial purpose-brightening a network's brand identity and promoting a network's stars," he wrote, adding that such spots shouldn't displace PSAs.