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In fighting efforts by the Advertising Council and others to devote 60 seconds a night to old-fashion public service announcements, broadcasters are making a big mistake. They have picked a ridiculous fight that will win them no friends and could cost them dearly in Congress.

The background here is simple: Over the past dec-ade, the TV networks and local stations have beefed up heavily on their own on-air promotions at the cost of outside PSAs. To some extent they replaced these PSAs

with public service-type messages from their paying advertisers and began using generic pro-social messages featuring network TV stars, thereby promoting their own shows while claiming credit for "public service."

The upshot of all this, according to one recent report, is that even as the onslaught of network on-air promos has climbed to 12 minutes a night during prime time, the amount devoted to old-fashion PSAs has dropped to less than 30 prime-time seconds a night.

In a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters last month, Ad Council Chairman Alex Kroll begged broadcasters for just one minute a night for messages that focus on inspiring help for inner-city kids. He made his case altruistically, based on the long-term benefit to marketers of helping these kids, but he might have been more effective if he had framed his message in stark political terms.

The NAB, after all, is involved in intensive lobbying in Washington to keep hold of both its old analog spectrum and its gift from the public of new multi billion-dollar digital spectrum; to keep from having a family viewing hour established; to keep from having to give away lots of free time to political candidates and much more.

In the midst of all these delicate negotiations, how can the NAB seriously propose that broadcasters thumb their nose at running traditional, non-marketing-driven PSAs? Every viewer (and legislator) can see that prime-time is stuffed with self-serving promotions. Is there nowhere in this enormous clutter that an actual non-commercial public service announcement might fit?

Of course there is. This is just greed at work in an unusually obvious way. What's amazing is how much broadcasters are willing to risk in Congress over this. What other business would jeopardize its entire future just to avoid doing 60 seconds of charity work?

McCann-Erickson's chief crystal-ball gazer Bob Coen reported in our pages last week that U.S. ad spending grew by more than $12 billion in 1996 to $175.2 billion, the third consecutive year it significantly outpaced a healthy economy. Although growth in non-Olympic, non-election year 1997 is expected to be more modest, the recent trend is clear evidence that advertising remains a vital marketing tool.

As Mr. Coen, McCann's senior VP-director of forecasting, noted, "There is no evidence other marketing practices have replaced advertising's role." In fact, advertising as a percent of GDP is back where it was in the mid-'80s, he noted, before the gloom of the recession that followed led to all sorts of dark prophecies. "There was some feeling by 1990 that advertising was dead," he noted. "There was unbelievable hype."

Not only is advertising not dead, the marketers investing in it today are more skeptical, more demanding and more aware that their ad dollars must compete for budget with all the other selling tools-some old, some new-at their disposal. That they continue to choose advertising, and in record dollar amounts, says that ads and the brands they build pass the test of delivering value to the bottom line.

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