John M. Phelan, Ph. D., is Founding Director of the McGannon Communication Research Center and Professor of Communications and Media Studies, Fordham University, New York City. He came to Fordham as Chairman of the Communications Department to redesign the curriculum when Marshall McLuhan was Professor of Communications there. He is a media reform activist who works with many public interest groups. Phelan’s writings include: Communication Control (ed.) New York: Sheed & Ward, 1969. Readings on the structures and motives of censorship from psychoanalysis to Chinese thought reform to the First Amendment.
Mediaworld: Programming the Public. A Continuum Book. New York: Seabury, 1977. Essays about the effect of modernization and industrialization on politics, leisure, art and religion through the media.
Disenchantment: Meaning and Morality in the Media. New York; Hastings House, 1980. Essays on censorship, ethinic programming, pornography, popular religious practices, media criticism, effects research, ritual and transmission models of communication.
Commercial Television Campaigns and the Public Interest. New York: McGannon Communication Research, 1991. Monograph on the genesis and ethos of public service campaigns; principles and case studies.
This appeared originally in Research, 1991, monograph on the genesis and ethos of public service campaigns; principles and case studies. In yet different form appeared as “Selling Consent,” Communication and Citizenship. Eds. P. Dahlgren and C. Sparks. London: Routledge, 1991. The sociological and public policy implications of establishment information compliance campaigns.
The author examines the cultural significance of media campaigns. He concludes that The Electronic Marketplace, as it has come to be manipulated, is destroying the promise of technology to deliver honest truths to those without the sophistication to explore the more elite channels in print and film, and even of television itself, where they can still be found.
Unlike most advanced countries in the world, the United States does not have a ministry of culture. This may be because, as a nation of immigrants, America is a land of many cultures — and languages as well. The French may tolerate their Academy, which rules with authority on what can properly be said in French; but Americans, the masters of inventive slang, would never accept a Federal Correct Usage Department. Beyond mere language, the whole idea of some officials telling us what is American and what is un-American has overtones of fascism and McCarthyism.
But the downside of this freedom is that many Americans do feel at a loss as to the right thing to do or say. This in part explains the avalanche of authoritative guidebooks on every subject from running to “parenting.”
Into the great guidance gap has stepped the most powerful communication machine in the world: the American broadcasting industry. It is a complex and hugely varied industry, which now includes cable and other methods of signal distribution that are not over-the-air broadcasts. Cable, fiber-optics, point-to-point microwave, encoded satellite signal distribution – the mix of technical possibilities grows daily. So, too, do the legal arrangements. Stations must be licensed by the government and subject to regulations for the privilege of using the airwaves. But owners of groups of stations as such do not have to be so licensed. And licenses can be owned by private corporations, huge publicly traded conglomerates, churches, non-profit educational institutions, any imaginable legal person.
Nevertheless, despite the variety, there is a unity. Broadcasting in effect is the American Ministry of Culture. Whatever the form, radio and particularly television programming are the premier vehicles for American mass culture. Increasingly, this mass culture is not just a matrix for sports and entertainment; it has become the arena for much of politics and religion. Whereas there are legitimate concerns for people becoming passive couch potatoes who no longer go to church or vote, there can also be concern for people who all too eagerly follow calls to action and advice on how to care for their health from those who may not be qualified to lead or advise. The scandal of TV preachers is matched by the scandal of political dirty tricks and government by public relations.
In this welter of kaleidoscopic images and electronic screams for attention, some observers see nothing but a degradation of national character and a total propaganda machine to keep people in line as trusty employees, uncomplaining consumers, and meek taxpayers. From another perspective, many see a conspiracy of “the liberal press” and “the view from Sunset Boulevard” eroding the work ethic by turning Americans into credit junkies who demand instant gratification.
Straddling both these ideological assessments of American broadcasting are two working hypotheses which are poles apart in theory but which are often compelled to co-exist in practice.
The first is Broadcasting as Electronic Marketplace. In this view every tier of broadcast activity, from the selling of soap to a housewife through spot advertising all the way to the selling of packages of programs to networks, is ruled by the invisible hand of the market. High ratings, whether viewed as crude numbers or as sophisticated psychographics of narrowly calibrated market segments, rule the roost. Programming lives or dies by sales.
The second is Broadcasting as the Fifth Estate. In this view, enshrined in the Communications Act of 1934 and various court decisions, broadcasting is largely a service industry, serving the public interest, not consumer demand. Public interest was perhaps best defined by Walter Lippmann as what we would all want for ourselves and our children if we saw clearly and acted disinterestedly.
The principal forum where the two hypotheses meet is the public service/community campaign on commercial television.
Some aspects of these campaigns are familiar to every American: campaigns against drug abuse or drunken driving and campaigns for help and understanding for AIDS victims, among many other causes, are bombarding viewers and listeners 168 hours a week. Among these, the broadest cultural indicators, the campaigns that tell us most about ourselves, are those that are syndicated nationally; that is, packaged and sold as a whole collection of different programming elements, both on-air and off-air, to stations all over the country. The pioneer syndicator is the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, more widely known as Group W.
Group W would be a logical choice even if it were not for years the exclusive packager, since it has a long history of public service campaigns and activities, and since, despite its evident independence, it is wholly owned by a large corporation with major interests in defense, public utilities, nuclear energy, railroads, and consumer products. In other words, Group W is as deeply establishment as most of the major market players in the broadcast game. Its stations are affiliates of all three major networks and the clients for its campaigns are in every region of the country in virtually every size of market.
Group W has written the book on converting good causes into goods, on how to integrate community services and volunteer work — mainstream activism — into sellable media commodities. It stands clear as the exemplar of media adaptation of even the best intentions to the mediaworld environment of communication marketing.
A close look at the major campaigns marketed by Group W, especially their controversial AIDS Lifeline, provides a special window on how our mass society has become a crafted environment of industrialized exhortation almost without our realizing it. To this end the writer spent the better part of 1988 traveling around the country and interviewing the people who make, sell, and buy these campaigns as well as those who observe and watch over the broadcast industry as a whole.
To understand how this environment happened and how it both shapes and serves Group W’s efforts, we have to look first at the genesis of the modern mass media campaign and then at its principal vehicle: the television marketplace.
Once this multifaceted environment has been laid out, the gestation, system-fit, avowed purposes, real consequences, and, finally, cultural significance of commercial public service/community campaigns — the most sophisticated marshaling of mass media persuasion yet devised — assume a clear and challenging shape.
If campaigns did not exist in other media prior to the existence of modern media like film and broadcasting, they would certainly have been invented precisely for these media.
Originally derived from the focussed direction of a variety of forces on one clear objective in military warfare, political campaigns mobilized voters as soldiers in the army of the party. Advertisers, who saw the advantage of focussing attention on specific sales events, subsequently mobilized messages to take the objective of a specific target (a favorite marketing term that is shared with the military) to be persuaded to buy a specific product, often at a specific time. As we have recently seen, the advertising industry’s sophisticated embellishments of techniques originally borrowed from politicians have come back full cycle to election campaigns.
For the last fifty years, a significant part of the study of communications has been the study of campaigns. Communication campaigns have been employed in three principal areas: (1) politics, (2) public health, safety and welfare, and (3) product promotion and corporate image enhancement.
An overwhelming amount of specific case study has been commissioned by the customers for product promotion and corporate image enhancement and is in fact the bulk of what is known as market research. Media advisers and political pollsters are performing an increasing amount of research on elections and referenda.
Although government and varied public service agencies, from the New York Public Library to the United States Army, have commissioned research into effects as well as other research called “formative” [=analysis of the needs and vulnerabilities of the target before designing the campaign], for the most part research into American public or community service campaigns has not been nearly as abundant. It is nowhere near as thorough, for instance, as the research commissioned by India into the effectiveness of its population control campaigns. The reason for this may be that in many instances the campaign involves a so-called “preventive innovation” such as not taking drugs or not starting to smoke. How does one count the number of dogs who do not bark in the night? In other instances it may be that the agents of the campaign are not that concerned with the obvious explicit intent of the campaign, but rather with other effects on intermediate targets, as we shall see.
In any event it is the public or community service communication campaign that is now moving toward center stage for on-air broadcasters who wish to maintain and even expand their share of audience in a fragmenting market. These community campaigns require some analysis within the historical context of the development of the communication campaign.
Communication campaigns have been variously defined. Traditionally, they have been planned to take place within a definite time frame; they are focussed toward some measurable change in the target, either of attitude (knowledge of the United Nations’ value, for instance) or of behavior (using seat belts while driving). Although the mass media are primary vehicles for distributing the exhortative messages of the campaign, the media usually are orchestrated together with more focussed and direct methods, such as public meetings, individual interviews, event attendance.
This deployment of a variety of means excludes a number of common public service activities that are restricted just to on-air programming, whether it be in the form of short announcements, special news segments, thematic content of already scheduled magazine, audience-participation, or talk-interview formats. Because broadcast media are so often used for exhortations of various kinds, it is tempting to catalogue any set or series of messages of a non-commercial nature as a campaign. But some sets of messages are either so random or so much the result of content-free standard programming routine, that they are more properly a form of filler which may incidentally do some good. For instance, it has been the mandated and voluntary practice of stations to provide free air-time for a given number of public service announcements, most of them produced by the interested parties (like the Post Office urging use of zip codes) or the National Association of Broadcasters, as an aid to member stations. Recently, both taxpayer and freely contributed dollars have provided a large number of such announcements (PSA’s) directed against drug abuse, which broadcasters have shown without charge as their contribution to the Bush Administration’s update of its predecessor’s “Just Say No” campaign. But this is a government campaign that uses broadcasting among other means. Broadcasting is on board, but not in the driver’s seat. If the PSA’s are orchestrated by station management into a larger plan that uses other formats of on-air programming, plus off-air activities, then it is a communications community campaign. Stations often do this: the latest National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) survey indicates that when it comes, for instance, to AIDS issues, local stations not only show Public Service Announcements (PSAs) (85%), use local news stories on the issue (57%), feature it on their own public affairs programs (27.7%), and locally produce their own PSAs (17.7%), they also participate in community outreach activities off-air (22.1%). It should also be noted that 23.1% of all such programming focuses on strictly local matters that often include fundraising for charities.
Just as the NAB does, network and group owners often provide packages of PSAs on a given theme, the current favorites being drug abuse, drunken driving, and AIDS. Some local stations might not have the facilities to produce acceptably slick spots nor access to national celebrities who often donate their time to nationally distributed PSAs. But another important reason is to protect the local station from being deluged with requests for free time by plugging the holes with unimpeachably “safe” spots for “safe” causes.
Local stations also often contribute time for fundraising announcements from area charities. These activities are often called campaigns, but they are not usually tied to any organized station effort beyond themselves.
Campaigns differ widely and are conceived variously, depending on the goal of the exercise, and the pre-existing conditions, as well as the communication instruments available. In general, the goals of a campaign can be traced on a continuum. The most rudimentary type of campaign seeks to spark public awareness of a given thing, event, opportunity, danger, or person and is successful when there is a reasonable increase in “name recognition” test results. The next step is to change attitudes, to persuade, to get people to change the way they think and feel about a serious topic, such as abortion or, in a lighter vein, fragrances for men. Since we only know what people think and feel in this context from what they are willing to say in a focus group or to an interviewer, this type of campaign is both difficult to test and to achieve. Finally, a campaign may seek to actually change the way people act: picket abortion clinics or the Supreme Court, lobby for or against a given tax, buy an airline ticket of a certain type. This is a bit easier to test than attitudes, but it is much harder to achieve than the other two types of campaigns. Nonetheless, it is the goal most campaigners are interested in: mobilization of a group for specific action.
If one is out to make people act, it is a lot easier if they already have the knowledge and correct attitude, so most campaigns that must, in effect, fulfill all three functions take a good bit of time to build support, which entail further problems sustaining interest (and budgets) over the long haul. Americans are better informed about the danger of smoking than they were twenty five years ago, less tolerant of smoking in others than they were ten years ago and, in a much smaller degree, more willing to give up smoking and actually quit than they were five years ago. This was the result of a quarter century of a variety of campaigns.
In general it is best to have the first two steps accomplished before trying to get people to donate blood, money, or labor to any cause.
One can also divide campaigns among those that have only one target — smokers, let us say — and those that have intermediate targets as well, sometimes with different though related goals. There are abundant examples of this in product/service promotion. National Car Rental, United Airlines, A & P and many others have run campaigns that feature attractive and efficient personnel. While primarily, it would seem, aimed at attracting customers, this type of campaign also flatters and encourages the employees of the company that promotes itself by promoting them as an A-Team. On a yet more sophisticated level, celebrities who are “used” by campaigns are often managed by savvy agents who know precisely what kind of campaign will promote the celebrity’s image in a career-enhancing manner. These intermediate targets and secondary goals, as we shall see, are vitally important in television community campaigns and at times may override the ostensibly primary target/intention.
A further secondary result of campaigns, often intended, is to increase group morale in the campaigners themselves, who feel they are involved in a worthy and admirable cause. This phenomenon is the same in such divergent contexts as combat troops aiding disaster victims and “Hey-Kids,-Let’s-Put-on-A-Show!” initiatives in any depressed or bored social setting. It is important to stress that this is group morale – the good feeling springs primarily from membership and team work and bonds each individual more tightly to the group, as every sergeant, headmaster, scout leader, and corporate manager knows.
The beneficial intermediate and secondary effects of a campaign can in paradoxical fashion be at odds with the primary goal. When the Salk vaccine was invented and applied, it was a blessed triumph for polio victims who had long been the exclusive beneficiary of the March of Dimes campaign organization, who no doubt cheered the development. But the morning after it was a disaster for the organization as such, whose purpose had been whisked away. (The organization was able to shift, not without difficulty, to other worthy purposes.)
This reality underscores the fact that all campaigns must be within some reasonable time frame with some finite measurable primary goal. A permanent campaign is a contradiction since of its nature it implies urgency and heightened activity which cannot be sustained indefinitely. This characteristic creates a minor problem of fit for television.
We have seen that the essence of campaigning is mobilization, which is marked by focussed purposeful activity – by unity and identification. In a medium that is propagated through the air and is perceived more in terms of time and scheduling than of space and location, continuity is the most effective form of identification.
Continuity implies duration just as campaigns imply completion. While specific campaigns on television must come to an end, whether it be for food donations for the needy at Thanksgiving or toy donations in the Christmas season, the station itself, and what it stands for, must continue past Thanksgiving and Christmas as a permanent locus of community service. Furthermore, in many instances the intermediate targets, from employees to financial supporters, need to be continually cultivated even though the primary target’s goals have been met (so many students signing a pledge not to drink and drive on Prom Night, for instance).
Group W, drawing from long experience in community service, has evolved the type of campaign that meets a surprising variety of the demands a television station must meet for continuity, identification with local concerns, campaign worker and employee morale building, bonding with sponsors and other supporters, and, sometimes last but never least, mobilizing the appropriate target for responding to a genuine community need.
Because of the nature of the television marketplace, the total environment of the campaign, elevates the intermediate targets to a level that rivals the primary targets of any mass media campaign, it is imperative to understand its latest shape and likely future direction.
The Television Marketplace;
If the Dukakis-Bush presidential campaign of 1988 were not sufficient evidence to convince the last skeptic about the power of television to mobilize public opinion toward a precise political goal, August of 1989 offered an epiphany of media’s legitimacy on the world stage of politics. With much of the world hysterically focused on the drug trade and the the dissolution of legitimate government in Colombia in the face of the drug lords, the President of Colombia, Virgilio Barco Vargas, had a chance to address the American people on the new punchy show-biz “news” show, Prime Time Live, starring Sam Donaldson and Diane Sawyer. What were the the first words of Virgilio Barco Vargas? “Hello Sam, Hello Diane.” So much for the dignity of heads of state in times of international crisis.
Beyond politics, we have observed the great power of television, and broadcasting in general, in forming public support for massive behavioral changes in diet, smoking, and exercise regimens.
While television has effected changes in government, politics and public attitudes, few outside the industry have noted how much television itself is being transformed by technology and economics. Analysts of state-run systems, from South Africa to the Soviet Union to the mixed system of the United Kingdom, all too readily ignore these pressures as negligible in the face of state and hegemonic interests. But they are very real in the commercial system of the United States and the mixed systems of places like Japan. With the coming of a “United States of Europe,” these technical, political, and economic forces will have greater play in areas of hitherto direct government or party control. While surely not invisible, the hand of the marketplace is becoming a fist with a worldwide grasp.
What are the effects of new technologies and economic structures on the American television marketplace and thus, what kinds of pressures are likely to produce what kind of campaign adaptations?
Technology has radically altered the roles of major players in the television world. Networks are steadily feeling the pressures brought about by cable and satellite access, with a number of alternative paths being opened for national distribution of programming, their former oligopoly. At the same time, the replacement of film with videotape and ever smaller instruments for live on-the-spot coverage have made the production of local news much more attractive for affiliate stations and independents, further lowering the need for “clearance” of network offerings.
These same technologies of accessible and affordable production have added new encouragement to local stations to produce shows of such caliber that they can be sold to or otherwise shared with other outlets.
However, just as the networks are less necessary to local stations, so too are local stations less necessary to the local television market. The technology that has helped local broadcast stations has also enabled out-of-market “superstations” to beam in on many lucrative markets all over the country. Low-power television stations and other methods of expanding the available spectrum have been added to the multiple channels available through cable, whose share of market has catapulted in recent years. San Francisco, for instance, has gone from five to twenty-two television outlets in the eighties. All of these factors are added to the burgeoning home use of VCRs, not only for rented videocassettes but for time-shifted viewing and commercial zapping of broadcast fare.
The net result of all this technological innovation is radically to reduce the market share of each outlet and, even more seriously, to undercut the revenue base of advertiser-supported television media, whose rates are based not only on raw numbers but increasingly on demographically targeted market segments.
A further pressure on broadcast stations, at a time when revenue is being squeezed, is a demand from ownership for ever higher return on investment. This obsession for maximum profits in the immediate term is a broader disease of the entire corporate American economy, fueled by crushing debt service created by leveraged buy-outs. Although the effect on networks, all three of which are now part of far larger corporate conglomerates with a great demand for cash flow, has been widely noted, the enormous effect on individual stations, whether independent, affiliated with networks, or parts of chains, is less noticed.
Despite increasing deregulation, stations remain the most highly regulated node in the many-stranded television web. They not only are the primary responsible agents for programming liability, they also are under pressure to serve the local community by both the terms of the license and the public interest tradition from the original Communications Act — an obligation not shared by other program producers and distributors.
Enlightened management has over the years seen the obligation of local service as the advantage of local identification, the characteristic which a station can use as a classic “unique selling point” against all those other competitors. (Except for other local stations, of course.) This is achieved in practice by building on traditional avenues of community involvement, adapted to broadcasting realities.
It should be noted that “identity” for any medium that exists in time, rather than space, takes the form of “continuity.” Although the local station obviously has an address on a real street in a real town, it is presented to its market on screens everywhere, along with other entities from New York, London, Tokyo, even outer space. This lack of a “local habitation and name” had earlier plagued movie studios, which assuredly had huge tracts of real estate in California and elsewhere, but which were presented to their customers in a nationally scattered set of theaters shared with other movie producers.
The answer for the movie studios was the star system. They became identified (more properly, their product became identified) with the faces of known stars, whose clever promotion and personal talent created instant identification, sometimes to the point of adoration. People were loyal to the Gable or Bogart or Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire movies. Each star provided a thread of continuity to a series of movies, which could be seen as a “vehicle” for the star. It was of course the other way around: the power of the star was “moving” the product.
Note that films, which are experienced sequentially in time, naturally move producers into the concept of a series, so that each new product can build from the popularity of the previous product. Movie makers knew well that Kellogg’s could not sell one cereal box at a time, but that it could promote a brand name that made every box part of a way of life. Movie-going must also be a way of life.
Broadcasting grew up when more markets from breakfast cereal to the movies were going national, and it borrowed the promotional ideas of the series and “brand name identity” from them. With all of the programming flotsam and jetsam about, broadcasting identity depends all the more on the continuity concept. It is not good enough to own movies; you must also own groups of movies that can be shown over time with the same identity, creating brand loyalty among viewers. If you don’t own a series, you can at least bill a set of movies as “Clint Eastwood Week.”
Thus the repetitive display over time of the station logo, the network mark, the series “billboard,” is the fundamental tool of establishing identity, just as scheduling is the fundamental programming tool for reaching specific audiences.
In broadcasting, continuity is identity, and must shape the form of any strategy for building local identification, however based on traditional techniques.
Since the time of the Greek city-states, the way to local prominence has been boosterism. Promote the positive side of local life and local people will naturally welcome you as one of their own. Merchants have long seen contributions to local charities and causes as enlightened self-interest, and civic groups have long exploited this interest. Join in local organizations and ad hoc drives that address problems of local concern as well and the local identification is more deeply bound.
These obvious and time-tested strategies have over the years been fashioned into ready-made formats by such large corporations as MacDonald’s, which can only live on the success of thoroughly local franchises from Topeka to Tokyo.
Stations thus have adopted forms of these same strategies appropriate to broadcasting. They are fundamentally divided into three parts: local news and special documentary coverage, on-and-off-air involvement of station personnel in community affairs, and concomitant cultivation of local advertisers. All strategies must also contribute to “continuity,” the peculiar form identity takes in a product whose “location” is in time, not space.
Given that the enormous appetite for programming requires all stations to run network and other purchased material that is metaphorically “From Nowhere” so it can be sold everywhere (in Edward J. Epstein’s memorable formulation), stations seek to expand local programming in formats that are not cripplingly expensive yet attract audience. Local News and local audience-participation shows (the Phil Donahue/Oprah Winfrey/Geraldo Rivera format), because of that new technology, would seem just the ticket. As a result, most stations have early evening news programs that are often at least two hours long and late news from thirty minutes to one hour. More stations are inaugurating hour-length audience participation shows in early morning and late afternoon, to which some even provide van or bus service. In addition, regularly scheduled or “special” programs, usually on weekends or in fringe times, are focused on specific local issues.
What sort of content characterizes these local programs, whatever their format? The Television Information Office, as the research arm of television owners in the National Association of Broadcasters, conducts surveys on precisely this and allied questions. Samples are usually large and representative, typically involving over 250 stations from every region, including Alaska and Hawaii, about two thirds from the top fifty markets and about one third from the second fifty.
Local coverage can be divided into news, which concentrates on events, and varied treatments of more enduring conditions, positive or negative. Sports is at the top of the event list, followed by ethnic festivals, local government affairs, neighborhood and church activities, awards, Chamber of Commerce meetings, school matters and cleanup drives. The performing arts and any occasion that raises funds for charity, like the Special Olympics, form the second tier. Minority activities such as local celebrations of Martin Luther King Day come last. About ten percent of such coverage was in the form of specials, in addition to regular local news programming.
Non-news treatment consists of discussions, specialist-interviews, and often exhortation, about crime, drug abuse, good health practices, family conflict, education, sexual problems, employment, the environment and consumer complaints. Since these topics are perennial, they are recycled regularly, sometimes in the form of a short series, or a monthly “drive” that orchestrates various formats, from specials to short announcements to news segments. Although many of these topics raise heated controversy, such as abortion or nuclear hazards, the overwhelming tendency is to preserve an atmosphere of upbeat optimism. If news is bad news, then local public affairs tend to be good news, or at least comforting information. (A seeming exception to this general trend is the enormous attention paid to AIDS, a decidedly downbeat topic, and a frightening one at that. It is thus a special challenge for adaptation to mass television campaigns, whose complex political and cultural elements that are discussed below.)
Controversy can be addressed in editorials, which are usually one or two minute talking heads, the head often that of the station manager or the public affairs director, if there is one. Another NAB survey, with a sample of 422 stations, found that less than one third bother to editorialize and that, of these, less than 3% will actually endorse a candidate in a contested election. So, although the occasional station, like KPIX-TV in San Francisco, may take an unpopular position it believes in, most stations play it safe for fear of alienating viewers or of triggering equal time rebuttals from sources that will surely alienate viewers, for whose loyalty all this localism is expended.
Localism cannot be confined to on-air activities. General managers, like executives of any local business that depends on public acceptance, spend a great deal of time attending local civic affairs, visiting schools, speaking at ceremonies. The better stations make sure that their on-air talent, which is the key to news and public affair ratings, is visible in the flesh for public affairs and local charities. Stations themselves sponsor dinners for the elderly, music concerts, park and zoo days for families, fund-raising ball games with their own employees participating. The weather reporter is increasingly fitting a central casting type of the all-purpose warm community person, who visits schools and hospitals with some sort of science or health presentation.
Since all of these strategies, on and off-air, are often common within the same market, the competition for ratings among local stations revolves around two intangibles: the personalities of the talent and the perception of the station as “the” local station. Hiring charismatic talent is still much of a mystical operation, with successful producers referring to mysterious visceral cues as the determining factor. Scarcely open to rational discussion, the star factor is thus underemphasized in studies of programming strategy. The other factor – competitive edge in local identification of the station as a whole – admits to some logical planning.
The key to this planning the public service campaign: a special form of one of the oldest methods of organizing a variety of forces against a variety of obstacles in order to focus on one objective.
Flowing from a creative transformation of an alleged weakness into a strength, the public or community service campaign manages to mobilize all the strategies local stations have mustered to meet their obligations to owners, advertisers, viewers, government, and, of course, the local community in one policy gesture. A showcase for media adaptation, it seems almost too good to be true.
The pioneer and major national syndicator of public service campaigns, as mentioned is Westinghouse Broadcasting, better known as Group W. Its parent company is Westinghouse Electric, a multinational corporation based in Pittsburgh. It is a major defense contractor (about one quarter of all sales have been to the United States Government in recent years) and the manufacturer of nuclear reactors sold to both the Pentagon and other countries. It has joint ventures with General Electric, Mitsubishi and Toshiba of Japan, Hyundai of Korea, and Electromar of Brazil. With over two billion dollars in real estate financing alone, it is known to consumers as a producer of refrigerators and heating systems and is more widely known to industry as a major manufacturer and supplier of defense electronic systems, heavy electrical equipment, elevators, railroad equipment, and as a provider of engineering and construction services. Although representing less than ten percent of total corporate sales, broadcasting has been accounting for almost one fifth of pre-tax profit.
Group W, although wholly owned by Westinghouse Electric, is nonetheless truly a separate company with a separate and independent board of directors.
The Westinghouse Broadcasting Company is called Group W because it itself has a number of divisions. In keeping with the origins of the parent company, one of the divisions provides broad and diverse technical services to other broadcasters through satellite signal distribution. Group W is not confined to hardware, however, since it is involved in broadcast software (program production and material) with a production company in Los Angeles, a specialized television cable service in Country and Western music, The Nashville Network, and a news bureau, NEWSFEED, that works out of Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York.
Westinghouse is one of the earliest American enterprises to be associated with broadcasting since its radio station, KDKA, made the first public broadcast on November 2, 1920 (the Harding-Cox presidential election). The first to bring the all-news radio format to a major market, Westinghouse has a string of radio stations (six AM and eight FM) from Boston to San Diego. Group W is most widely known, however, for its five television outlets, in Boston, San Francisco, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and the original Pittsburgh. Although all the stations are affiliated with networks, Group W identity is overriding because much of their programming and production is shared among the group.
Although every station, as is endemic to the industry, has had its ups and downs, Group W television stations have a long record of public service. In 1973, for instance, acting for the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting [a Ralph Nader Public Interest Research Group] former FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson evaluated 144 network affiliates in the top fifty markets and placed four of the five Group W stations in the top five stations according to criteria of excellence in four areas: local programming, local news and public affairs, degree of commercialization, and amount of money allocated for local programming.
Currently, they all are strong in their markets and two, KPIX in San Francisco, the first station to win a national Emmy for local programming (which became the foundation for a national campaign), and WBZ in Boston, the spearhead of two immensely successful Group W national public service campaigns, are considered industry leaders. In fact, Channels magazine in October of 1986 said that “WBZ may be the finest local TV station in America.”
The corporate culture of Westinghouse has a good deal to do with this. The policy handbook of the company, which explicitly states that the integrity of the operation always takes precedence over profit, requires each station to produce a minimum of two one-hour documentaries a year, one of which must be usable by the group. It also lays out a specific requirement that all station executives be conversant with current community issues, preferably by personal involvement in as many as possible. KPIX began a magazine show, Evening Magazine, which eventually became a Group W co-op, with all stations contributing to and airing it. In 1978 this program was syndicated and expanded its co-op features to over 100 markets. Outside Group W it is known as PM Magazine, and in every market the format has windows for local anchors. More recently KPIX, in its pioneering coverage of the AIDS epidemic, sparked the creation of an AIDS co-op with over 100 members sharing local stories about AIDS that can be used as news segments.
The tradition of local production and broader commitments to public needs stems in large measure from the tenure of the late Donald H. McGannon, who was CEO of Group W from 1955 to 1981, when Alzheimer’s disease forced his retirement. (He died of the illness in 1984. check date) He demanded a high standard and greater quantity of local production from his stations as well as a locally oriented news operation. He was a pugnacious opponent of what he saw as excessive network control over affiliate programming and led the fight for Prime Time Access, which gave time back to the affiliates. He banned cigarette advertising from his stations years before the government got around to a general broadcast prohibition of such advertising. And he fought against what he believed to be excessive sex-and-violence in network offerings. Tom Goodgame, the current president of Group W Television, brought this attitude up to date, in the time of “reality programming” a la Geraldo, when he announced on ABC’s Good Morning America that Group W would not carry such a program since it “did not choose to be The National Enquirer of the air.”
Larry Fraiberg, Goodgame’s predecessor (and currently president of MCA Broadcasting), notes that Group W was a seed ground for a number of executives throughout the industry, including Joel Chaseman, president of Post-Newsweek Stations, Wally Schwartz, president of Blair Television, and William Baker, now president of PBS’ WNET and Fraiberg’s predecessor.
George Moynihan, Senior Vice-President for Group W Television, who has been with Group W for over three decades, recalls that the first long term awareness campaign that he can remember was at the Group W radio station in Boston in the late fifties, started by the manager, Frank Tooke. It was called “Let Freedom Ring” and ran for a full year, with each month holding a specific sub-theme. The theme organized a variety of patriotic and upbeat news features, interviews, and narrative segments. It involved most of the staff who were placed on the “Let Freedom Ring” Committee. It was about this time, 1957, that the Group, under the leadership of Programming Vice-President Dick Pack, held an industry-wide Programming Clinic for Public Service and Education.
This clinic led to a series of industry-wide Local Public Service Programming Conferences, for which Westinghouse Broadcasting provided full financial support, in Baltimore (1958), Palo Alto and San Francisco (1959), Pittsburgh (1961) and, finally, in Philadelphia (1966), so that each conference could be hosted by the local Group W television station. Representatives of the FCC were present at each conference and the first and last were keynoted by the sitting Vice-President of the United States (Nixon in 1958 and Humphrey in 1966).
Such industry leadership is enlightened self-interest. No executive at Group W pretends that the campaigns are wholly altruistic or not well worthwhile for solid business reasons. Larry Fraiberg, who in his new position is pumping local public service programming and campaigns vigorously into New York’s previously troubled WWOR-TV since his MCA Broadcasting acquired it, states flatly without apology that there is nothing wrong with public service being underwritten. Tom Goodgame, his successor at Group W, readily admits that “we are trying to make money, trying to be a force in the community, but we are now through the campaigns becoming a resource for television stations in the country to do better.” Some perspective can be cast on how well Group W is doing by noting that it is among the top syndicators in television and that the campaigns account for the great bulk of its profits in this area along with PM Magazine. Debra Zeyen, director of development and syndication for Group W TV Sales, candidly grants that her sales people spend sixty percent of their time on campaigns. “It is crucial; it is our lifeblood!”
The corporate culture of Group W, therefore, has an historical affinity for public service programming which naturally led to the contemporary structure and purpose of the community campaigns that Group W has developed not only for its own stations but for the television industry as a whole.
Genesis of a Format
Granted that community public service campaigns are a natural product of the general corporate culture of Group W, the demands of the television marketplace, and the formative historical precedents of media campaigns, the two current campaigns in syndication, For Kids Sake and Time To Care (as well as the specially distributed AIDS Lifeline) have a more proximate particular heritage. According to Larry Fraiberg, who was vice-president for television at the time, Tom Goodgame, the incumbent head of Group W Television, and Nance Guilmartin, who developed both campaigns and is currently the national director of all campaigns for Group W, it began with a WBZ-TV campaign called You Gotta Have Arts, instigated by Larry Fraiberg in 1981. As Fraiberg put it in an interview in his office on Park Avenue recently:
[When I was] at GW I felt we should consolidate all the dollars we were spending here and there into one focussed program so that we had more dollars to do better programming and do it more effectively; to promote those [public service] programs, to do it over at least a year and finally to find some way to measure our impact. The worst thing you can do is dissipate time, energy, money, anything.
We try to pick a specific issue or problem peculiar to a given market and make our station the champion in that area. If we do something, I think we should own it, if you see what I mean. We started in Boston with You Gotta Have Arts right after Reagan came in and chopped the National Endowment for Arts, then the Mass. legislature also reduced subsidy to arts. Boston being a cultural hub had a strong identity with arts. We started by having the company make a contribution to the arts of 75 thousand dollars, as a basis for the campaign so that in the end we would have a foundation of sorts for continuing support for the arts. We owned it. Any other station who later wanted to get involved with the arts would be confused with BZ!
My role was inspiration. The station people focused in on it and did a fabulous job. Then they started the Anti-Crime Team (ACT) and used the station to focus on community activities — using car decals. Lots of off-air meetings we handled and a lot of collateral [=non-broadcast material such as posters, stationary, outlines for local strategies, etc.]. We owned them and continued to live with these projects and programs. The Police Chief said the crime rate went down about 8%. Well, if it only went down 2%, we were still doing a lot. These programs were devices for converting members of the station staff into evangelistic enthusiasts.
Tom Goodgame and Carolyn Wean at KDKA were quick to pick up on what was going on in Boston and they got the idea. It started from the chance event of a letter being read with a check on the news from someone who wanted to help create food for the poor. As a result, a flood of checks hit the station – this led to the creation of KDs Army,[=the groups of volunteers who pitch in for station supported programs] sending barges up and down the river collecting food, station folk worked joyfully seven days a week, lots of volunteers.
Earlier on we had a market research study which placed KDKA behind the competition, with a perception of a cold operation. KD’s army changed all that.
Tom Goodgame, speaking to the same interviewer in his office overlooking Central Park, is characteristically generous in giving credit to others:
As for the authors of this idea (=campaigns) there are many but it starts with Larry Fraiberg who said to me one day that the idea behind public service is to do something with a real impact in the community over a long period of time with a readily identifiable positive result. It’s gotta be your own. Larry taught me that principle. Jonathan Klein, and who was my sales manager vp in Boston and Nance Guilmartin who was the catalyst at BZ who said this is how it’s gonna work. I kept sending them back until they got it right. They got it very right and we are all still working on how to improve the total package. We should be planning a new campaign to be ready for the nineties.
There were other campaigns as well in the eighties. KDKA in Pittsburgh has long had a special affiliation with the hospitals there, spearheading fundraising for many of them, particularly the world-renowned Childrens’ Hospital. Pittsburgh’s medical center is even more widely known for organ transplants. Thus was born Second Chance, a campaign that focussed on the drama of recovery for recipients and the heroism and generosity of donors. A distinctive feature and development in this campaign was the concrete purpose of persuading people to do something: filling out a donor card that could be carried on the person.
Originally a one-station campaign, Second Chance was picked up and developed further by the Group. Added to the Pittsburgh stories were news segments, interviews, talk shows produced by Group W stations all over the country. Evening Magazine, the cooperative program of local feature segments produced by each station and shared by all, was a natural vehicle for stories about transplants. A one-hour special, using actor William Devane as anchor-narrator, was added to all the varied on-air formats. Each station pumped local material connected with transplants into its news segments, talk shows, public affairs programs, and PSA’s. Uniform donor cards, posters, electronic billboards, and other markers of uniformity, of continuity, were gradually put together to form a “package” that could spread beyond the Group. The two-month campaign eventually reached 108 participating stations. The material was not syndicated, but given to stations outside the Group.
No individual part of Second Chance was new, but the total orchestration of the parts was an innovation and the wide and eager acceptance of this two-month campaign from so many stations drew the attention of Group W management. It set the stage for the next campaign: For Kids’ Sake. (In between there was a brief awareness campaign about Alzheimer’s Disease, called Whispering Hope, but it was never syndicated.)
According to Guilmartin, Tom Goodgame felt that previous campaigns, although good, failed to be broad enough. They did not reach into the entire community served by the station, on the one hand, nor did they really involve the station across the board. He wanted something that could give a total identity to a total station effort. Guilmartin, in an interview at Group W headquarters in New York, said she saw the mandate as a campaign whose purpose was “to empower viewers with a sense they can do things, to offer information-cum-entertainment and to enhance the image of the station as a place that cares. It is better to be judged by the whole personality of the station rather than by the news anchor or weatherman. If the viewer believes you care about the community, then perhaps they will have more loyalty to you.”
Guilmartin comes from a political science and community studies background. Following Goodgame’s lead, she put together “backroom brainstorms” involving as many of the the different station departments, from sales to news to programming, as possible. The goal was to find some “uniting umbrella that would, one, tie together a number of local issues such as homelessness, child abuse, juvenile delinquency, education, family stability, job training and that would, two, tie in to existing community structures like the PTA, the police, the schools, hospitals.” Both the issues and the organizations must have staying power so that the campaign could run indefinitely yet shift focus to maintain that heightened edge.
The answer was For Kids’ Sake, a campaign that is still running all over the country. Unlike the classic campaign, it deliberately avoided one specific single issue with one tangible goal, for then, win or lose, it would have to be terminated. It was conceived as an initial two year cycle that could be renewed. John Spinola, now general manager of WBZ, has said that when it comes to campaigns, “A year is a waste.”
Guilmartin explains: “Just about the time a public is beginning to get the message (four to six months), the station people are getting tired and want to move on to something else. But you must build momentum and it takes a year or more before you can ask people to do something.” Developed initially by WBZ-TV, it quickly became a Group W campaign and went into syndication by 1986. At the end of 1988 there were twenty six markets involved in For Kids’ Sake reaching almost 18% of the total United States television market.
What were these stations buying? They were buying two things. The physical package of broadcast and off-air materials was one thing. The more important thing was a method for orchestrating their own local public affairs programming to establish a local identity for their station. It is a an endemic irony of the broadcast world (and of all mass marketing), of course, that local stations would become “more local” by buying into a nationally marketed package intended for “everywhere.”
By the second year of For Kids’ Sake the package consisted of the following elements:
• Station Image spots: one minute or thirty second music and sound messages that convey what in Variety jargon is called “warm fuzzies,” often featuring a celebrity involved in some way with children. Each carries a music signature (“theme song”) and of course a window on both audio and video for station identification. For Kids’ Sake has seven of these.
• A collection of video and audio graphics, billboards (“the screen title”), variations on the theme music, animation and graphics, that can be mixed and matched with all the packaged as well as the locally produced pieces of the campaign to tie them all together and to provide that constant hammer of continuity.
• Four one hour specials that have a celebrity anchor-narrator, each with an organized upbeat treatment of specific kids who triumph with adult help over ordinary or extraordinary difficulties. These new programs are packaged with the backlog of eleven previous specials and the buyer can pick any six from this menu.
We will analyse some typical specials below, but one that created very favorable stir in Pittsburgh was “Drop Everything and Read,” presented by the celebrity husband-and-wife acting team, David and Meredith Baxter Birney. KDKA even went to the startling extreme of “going black” for fifteen minutes so that they themselves would be dropped to give people time to read, a theatrical gesture that merited wide local press attention. The program concentrated on very young children in school and at home or in the library, almost always in a group. Although no scientific survey was done, it was reported that the rate of library card acquisitions showed a marked increase. It presented reading fundamentally as a social activity which provided “family quality time” when mom or dad read to the kids from a story book. KDKA also made sure one of its news presenters was taped reading stories to children in the local park during a festival promoted by the station as part of the campaign.
• Each of the specials comes with “program support:” three promotional spots of ten, twenty, and thirty seconds, press kits, and ad slicks.
• Most importantly, the package contains eight new vignettes, to be added to the thirty-eight vignettes from previous editions of the campaign.
What is a vignette? A vignette is a short (twenty or thirty seconds with a window for local insertion) message on the theme. With For Kids’ Sake it might show a handicapped child being loved or instructed, a “tough cop” being a lovable dad, or other dramatic highly personal and appealing little narratives, usually with some variation of the theme music, always with the campaign billboard and, of course, station identification. The added and vital ingredient is space for display of the logo or other mark of an underwriter. Vignettes are bought by sponsors. It is a brilliant yet simple concept. Stations have always run PSA’s, but they were scattered and often vaguely national. Vignettes are PSA’s that are organized in clusters, focussed on a local issue, clearly identified with the station, and paid for.
Vignettes are the keys to any campaign. Larry Fraiberg has said that there is nothing classy about not being underwritten and Tom Goodgame has said that stations can be a lot more public-spirited if they can be paid for it. Although the specials are also sponsored, specials only appear four to eight (with repeats) times a year. Any single vignette is shown hundreds of times a year; in a given campaign, there may be up to twenty different vignettes in the course of a year, for a staggering amount of air-time and a very broad scatter throughout the broadcast day. Vignettes give the identity, the continuity, that a station wants; they give the identity that the sponsor wants. And they pay well.
Although the mechanics of media buying, to the layman, often resemble the whimsical intricacies of a casino game, the vignette offers the station a simple and powerful tool to increase revenue and good will in one grand coup.
Nance Guilmartin designed For Kids’ Sake to build on existing community organizations within communities, such as we have seen on “Drop Everything and Read,” which was a natural tie-in to schools, libraries, and PTA’s. The vignette is the device which enables the station to get commercial sponsors involved with communities by sponsoring off-air events, such as a day in the park or a “read-in,” and then to use the event as the material for a locally produced vignette which gives the sponsor credit. Larry Fraiberg has said that stations “may be doing a lot of [good] things, but if they are not focussed or organized in some kind of campaign, the good will effect is dissipated.” Ms. Debra Zeyen, director of development and syndication for Group W TV Sales, has used this notion repeatedly in selling the package to the station: “People will probably say [about your station], ‘Oh, yeah, they’re doing something,’ but with the campaign they will link you with specific service to their own community.” What the Group can say to a station buying the package is precisely what the station can say to a potential underwriter. They, the sponsors, may be giving away bushels of money for their favorite charities year after year, but nobody knows about it. By linking their good works to a media campaign they will be recognized for what they are already doing. And there is a further parallel. In interviews with managers and department heads at WBZ, KPIX, and KDKA, and in testimony from many customers of the campaigns at luncheons and symposia, again and again it was repeated that the campaign involves station employees in far more charity and volunteer work than they would otherwise do. Carolyn McClair who directs public service for KDKA noted in an interview that she is met by mock groans when she approaches talent or other station personnel because they know it may mean another late night of extra work. Sponsors linking with a campaign find that they and their employees, because of the encouragement of the coverage, wind up doing more.
Furthermore, since the campaign goes beyond just broadcasting to a number of local events, drives, meetings, and award ceremonies, purchase of the vignette amounts to a total media buy: print, collateral, posters, event staging, event coverage, celebrity endorsements. This can at times produce some rancor between stations and advertising agencies, who may be cut out of what they usually do for clients, but often enough the agency is involved from the beginning. Because of all of this involvement, the commitment between the station and the sponsor or underwriter is multifaceted and enduring (another reason that campaigns must last beyond one year). As a result, the term preferred by Group W and their clients is “partner” rather than “sponsor” or “underwriter,” and it does reflect a truth.
Bruce Kaplan, marketing director of KDKA, was one of the first to institutionalize this relationship in a “Partners’ Council” which would meet under station auspices periodically to discuss off-air aspects of the campaign. The fruit of this mixing can lead to relatively complex tie-ins, such as a supermarket offering discount coupons to an amusement park for a campaign event and underwriting promos for the event and having its name on the print ads for the event. The supermarket and the park get both traffic and credit, the community benefits, and the station is at the center.
In 1988 the average price of partnership in the KDKA market, for instance, went from $175,000 to $225,000. And these dollars often represent funds that might not otherwise go into broadcast advertising; they can be print dollars or promotion dollars, or public relations dollars. At KPIX Kennen Williams, General Sales Manager, and Carol Tweedle, Marketing Development Manager, note that the direction of all broadcasting time sales is to go after “partners,” to seek special relationships for special services that cannot be reduced to a simple rate card charge for air-time. It affords the station a stability that the ups and downs of program popularity or of network offerings (for affiliates) cannot disrupt.
This strategy meets the curent split of broadcast time into two-tiers: at one extreme, a sort of K-Mart of the air that is based only on numbers and is marketed through national media services that sell complex computerized packages of spots. With the fragmentation of the market (recall that, typically, San Francisco has gone from 8 to 22 outlets since 1980), this type of sale is almost out of the stations’ control. The partner becomes vital for the core local business, which is made up precisely of those local programs (news, public affairs, audience participation, magazine) that stations see as their great differentiators in a growing market.
The campaign partner is the ideal solution for this problem. Chevron, for instance, was giving six million dollars away in school aid; when they came aboard For Kids’ Sake it was known what they were doing.
Williams points out that partnership works in both directions. For Kids’ Sake was sold to the prestigious Embarcadero Center, whose president happened to head the committee in charge of marking the anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. When it was time to arrange coverage of the event, Tweedle notes that “we were the ones to get the call, because the campaign had set us apart as the local station.” Williams adds that vignettes sometimes take the place of ad agency freebies (=bonus free air time to helpful agencies as an incentive premium) and thus attracts new business.
So, in the end, it is hard to separate the physical elements of the campaign from the concept which they embody and the methodology and incentive they offer stations. Deb Zeyen notes that only stations sell media time, she sells concepts, even though her national sales people soften up national advertisers who have outlets in markets where the campaign is active.
It is up to any station outside the group how they use the package. For a station of very poor facilities, the campaign can be a “turnkey” [= an automatic self-running module with no modifications or additions]. But this would be a waste. The elements of the campaign are also templates for local activities, both on and off-air. With new taping technologies, local production does not require as many technicians nor facilities as in the past and the ideas are simple and easy to localize. A local vignette can be as simple as a talking head in a local schoolyard with the music, billboards and logos provided. In an extreme, only the audio need be altered to dub in the name or slogan of a local partner.
Nance Guilmartin emphasizes the actual community impact of the campaigns:
Plugging into local organizations is never a turnkey and many stations with meager resources do this quite well. Some stations have tried to just put the product on the air and try to get sponsors. Some have done well at this but they would do better if they locally customized it especially with off-air events and tie-ins. We do provide a turnkey operation which you can just put on the air, with a lot of completed on-air material with windows of all kinds for local insertions which may or may not be exploited. But there is a lot of collateral and suggestions for local news segments which would just go to waste if the local stations don’t try to customize by getting involved with their own communities, like partnerships with local agencies.
We want to teach stations how to maximize their community resources in the interest of community service which is then in the interest of the station. If you just put on these beautiful spots with heartwarming visuals and music, but there is no proof of performance, no proof of the pudding, to show how you (the station) care or why you care, then you just have a shallow self-promotion campaign. We do not recommend that stations do that.
Some client stations put a lot of their own creativity into it. For instance a station in Richmond, Virginia created “Ambassadors” T-shirts and badges for kids who did community work. Some were taken on as unofficial junior reporters, etc. Tremendous response. Received discount coupons for partners’ stores, etc. Not just in it for money — portion of proceeds went to the town to build playgrounds. We encourage this.
They did it, we didn’t; but they might not have done it without the encouragement of a larger structure.
All of us do many different good things in the community from telethons to colon cancer screenings. We also have all kinds of news reports and public affairs programming that is disparate. But how do you add them up so that they equal more than just a local TV station? For Kids’ Sake knits together promotionally and content-wise in your viewer’s mind all the different things you do during the year and during the day into a theme – “We care about children and families” – Well, this is saying something like you care about motherhood and apple pie in that it means something to everybody. But that is what makes it work.
We are marketing a structure to organize the effective communication of many different parts that in the viewer’s mind do not stick together until he sees and hears those billboards and verbal tags and theme music that identify it.
For Kids’ Sake will be phased out at the end of 1989. It will share its last year with a new campaign, Time To Care, which by December of 1988 already has been bought by 56 stations, more than twice the number (26) achieved by For Kids’ Sake. For 1990, Time To Care will be alone, but has already been “cleared” (=contracted for) by 73 stations, reaching 45% of the total American television market. Time To Care has been meticulously planned by a team of over 100 people, with the project development centered in Boston under Nance Guilmartin. It takes the campaign one step further.
Packaging the Public Interest
Time To Care is a supremely slick package, fitted out with every conceivable convenience and as ergonomically enhanced as a Mercedes-Benz. Just as local underwriters of campaigns are “partners” with the station, the stations in turn are “partners” with Group W, which as a matter of course runs workshops for station buyers where all contribute experience and innovations to the common pool. (Needless to say, campaigns are not and cannot be sold to competing stations in the same market.)
It is ironic that this localism is orchestrated by a series of strategies developed all over the country by teams of people in contact by telephone and jet. Nance Guilmartin says that Time To Care was the result of six years of planning. It has the recognizable elements of For Kids’ Sake but it has built on this structure to an extraordinary degree. Before we look at the elements, let Nance Guilmartin talk about the idea, the overarching rubric that binds the campaign together:
Time to Care was the result of six years of research which spotted a trend in the US of growing volunteerism and community action projects. For Kids’ Sake clients had registered a desire for more flexibility. This is why Time to Care did not select four or five specific issues for all the stations in the US like homelessness, dropouts, etc. Time to Care is a national infrastructure into which local issues can fit. The problems of St. Louis are not those of San Francisco. First and foremost we design the campaigns to be good community service.
There used to be six specials per year in campaigns but this has been scaled down because of less demand. Now just seven in two years – one per quarter with one repeat – with encouragement to local to do their own special once a year. WBZ-TV has done two locals: one on helpers for AIDS victims and one on education in Massachusetts.
Everything has been improved. For instance, local self-promo spots, which are worth millions of dollars of time, can be transformed into Time to Care spots with a prominent station logo. These are more tactful and more effective than saying we’re great, watch us. These are great image spots.
Time To Care is clearly the son of For Kids’ Sake but it has pushed out the boundaries. For Kids’ Sake admirably met Goodgame’s desire for a broad campaign that would involve the whole community; but For Kids’ Sake customers began asking for something even more broad. As we have seen, this emphasis on the biggest possible umbrella flies in the face of tradition which dictates that for a campaign to succeed it must concentrate on a specific goal within a reasonably short time. For campaigns whose raison d’etre is to effect just the primary target, this is common sense. But broadcasting campaigns have a variety of intermediary targets which in some ways supersede the primary target. For Kids’ Sake was also for partners’ and stations’ sake, and while the umbrella of the campaign permits, even encourages, a shifting focus from, let’s say, child abuse to handicapped children during any given period, the partners and the station are relatively permanent. Therefore the more broad the umbrella, the better for those intermediate targets.
Although in one sense such an arrangement would seem to subvert the very idea of an effective campaign, in practice it means that stations can be organized to carry on a number of real primary campaigns, with all the characteristics of the traditional campaign, under a relatively permanent structure of mobilization and focussed imaging. Nance Guilmartin’s task in formulating son-of-For Kids’ Sake was to come up with a concept that would give legitimacy and symbolic unity to a sellable structure for just about any conceivable finite primary campaign — a structure that would in fact be For People’s Sake.
Using the resources of WBZ, which are considerable (it has its own documentary unit, for instance) and relying once again on backroom brainstorming there and throughout Group W (“People are on the phone all the time”), Guilmartin came up with a focus: volunteers — individual volunteers and volunteer organizations — as a telegenic vehicle for portraying and promoting just about any “community caring and involvement.” The gestation process took place in the latter half of 1987, culminating in a presentation to Group W management at the end of the year. At this time the volunteer concept dovetailed with the Reagan administration’s rhetoric of private efforts replacing government initiative to say nothing of Reagan’s real cutbacks to social programs. It could not be anticipated that George Bush would carry the idea yet further with his popular “thousand points of light” and “kinder, gentler nation” rhetoric, but it did not hurt that the campaign would begin its first full year of syndication under the Bush administration.
Based on her corporate presentation notes which she shared with the interviewer, it is clear that Guilmartin pitched her proposal in terms of readily grasped and concrete actions.
1. Empower viewers by showing that ordinary people like them can make a difference. (a fine antidote to the “sofa spud” self-image viewers might have.)
2. Present positive images of benefits to volunteers, such as new friends and job skills, sense of accomplishment, pleasant camaraderie.
3. Dispel myths about volunteering, such as exclusive contexts of depressing surroundings of suffering and poverty.
4. Build on existing good will, by expanding existing community efforts.
5. Demonstrate ‘state of the art’ caring and helping through surveys and portrayals of professionals.
6. Sponsor workshops to strengthen recruitment and retention of volunteers.
7. Broadcast recognition of outstanding volunteer role models.
8. Identify types of problems that customer stations can locally inject into structure.
9. Campaign for projects that have built-in effect measurement: numbers of recruits through “calls-to-action,” event attendance, etc.
10. Pick causes that are marketable to sponsors.
This concept met the stations demand for a broader umbrella, in fact for a rubber umbrella that could stretch into almost any shape; at the same time, it met the basic marketing need of providing that indispensable upbeat ambience within which commercial messages can thrive.
When we turn to the practical elements of the campaign, we see that some specific requests have been specifically met. For instance, there was a complaint that many of the programming elements, particularly the specials, of For Kids’ Sake were not “entertaining enough.” The line-up of special broadcasts, which is under the direction of executive producer Francine Achbar from WBZ programming, directly addressed this complaint. The first, “kick-off” special, which had the working title “Who Cares?” until the later devised campaign title was affixed to it, was to be a cheery overview of volunteering in America, following the journalistic line that the “me generation” had turned into the “we generation” and that altruistic giving of the self met a need that career-obsessed yuppies had been starving. The second idea for a special was “Celebrities Who Care,” whose title explains all, including its ideal fit to the promotion machine of stars-cum-product. As the campaign went into actual development, these ideas were collapsed into one kick-off “Time To Care” special, which used celebrities to introduce ordinary people caring for others. The “Celebrities Who Care” concept was revived in its purity for the third quarter special in the second year of the campaign.
Guilmartin’s team realized the importance of music in stamping that continuity into memorable form and spent a good deal of time and money developing a Time To Care theme song with variations to back up a great variety of program elements, from simple billboards to elaborate vignettes and station image spots. The Time To Care theme music was specially written and produced by Frank Gari Productions in three “campaign moods:” sentimental, inspirational, and celebratory, as described in the Group W literature. Vocal versions are sung by Jonathan Edwards. The second scheduled special, “That American Spirit” would be about inspirational music from The Battle Hymn of the Republic to We are the World.
The third quarter special is a docudrama about troubled teens who overcome their problems; the fourth quarter “Holiday Special” is slated to be an animated classic fable (this will not be produced by Group W) that will be repeated the following year also during the holiday season, with the implied hope that it may become a “perennial favorite” like The Wizard of Oz. Other planned specials include profiles of “activist heroes” like John Walsh, who founded the Adam Walsh Center for Missing Children after the loss of his own son; and a true-life drama about an individual who “fights city hall” and wins, in the spirit of Tender Places and produced by the same staff. Altogether seven specials are to be provided, with the suggestion that each be repeated (first run in prime time, second run in the following weekend), with the Holiday Special (the only program to be thirty minutes instead of one hour) run four times. It is strongly suggested that the local station produce its own special each quarter, so that optimally Time To Care would cover thirty-two runs of fifteen programs over the eight quarters of two years. But even if the local station produces nothing, there would be sixteen runs of seven programs.
As we have seen, the higher frequency would be still insufficient for the all-important continuity and would certainly not provide an abundance of occasions for underwriting partners to identify with a worthy cause. The heart, therefore, of the on-air campaign is the oft-repeated theme music, billboard, and logo of Time To Care. This signature comes in sufficiently varied forms with built-in windows to provide stations with tailored tags to its own news, public affairs, talk and promo programming.
Centrally important as vehicles for the campaign signature are the newly refined short spots provided by Time To Care in carefully crafted categories. First there are what are called “concept promos.” There are five of these, each a warm short drama of people helping people in a variety of contexts, with strong musical background and various audio windows for local statements. These promos will be repeated heavily at the beginning of the campaign to establish its identity. Frequently recycled in every quarter, they also serve as station image spots. Each special comes with three promos of varying spot length and of course tagged as part of Time To Care.
But as with For Kids’ Sake, the heart of the campaign is formed by the vignettes, which are run hundreds and hundreds of times over the two years and are all meant to be underwritten. Group W provides each station with 24 core vignettes each year for a total of 48. The vignettes are divided into four types of six each annually:
• Slice of Life: “simple dramas of human kindness.”
• Historical Figures: “inspiring figures like Booker T. Washington.”
• Famous Quotes: for example, “The most I can do for my friend, is simply to be his friend.” — Henry David Thoreau
• Traditions: “warm reminiscences of parents and friends celebrate the spirit of caring.”
Each vignette is twenty seconds and can be customized with the provided music, animation, billboards and logos. One minute versions might have a customized Time To Care opening of three and a half seconds, the vignette, then a thirty-second sponsor commercial followed by a six-and-a-half second Time To Care close. Thirty-second spots would just add ten seconds of sponsor/campaign identification. Although conditions vary from market to market, of course, in Pittsburgh the average sponsor got about 215 plays of its vignette for its annual partnership in For Kids’ Sake in 1987.
The stations are further encouraged to produce entire vignettes of their own and Group W suggests three types: Time-Out Breaks, local actuals shot with talent at community events; Care Force Salutes, broadcast tributes to local achievers; Proof of Performance, broadcast announcements of tangible results of campaign efforts.
Time To Care provides the station with elaborately documented game plans for local off-air activities which dovetail with these vignette suggestions. The creation of a local “Care Force” is directly modeled on the success of Group W’s own “KD’s Army” in Pittsburgh and a client station’s (WIVR in Richmond, VA) “Ambassadors,” a way of both creating new resources for good in a community and of capturing the identity of existing good will and works. The “Salute” vignettes carry forward the Fraiberg-Goodgame-Guilmartin notion of giving credit for what was already done but unsung as a firm step toward becoming the authoritative local station and earning good will in the bargain. “Proof of Performance” is the most laudable from a strictly traditional view of the campaign as aimed at the primary target – getting people to do something like volunteer to give blood, or food, or time to a definite cause in a measurable way.
Group W provides an abundance of collateral to client stations as well: But What Can I Do? is a simple flyer that explains the mechanics of volunteering and has windows for local organizations as places to try. The material can be given out by the station in conjunction with the concept promos at the beginning, with the “Celebrities Who Care” special in the seventh quarter, and throughout the campaign. There is no reason why one or more partners cannot be identified on the cover nor why they could not provide their places of business as distribution points. Greeting cards for any number of holidays, from New Year’s to Valentine’s Day, can be customized to appropriate these occasions into the seemingly infinite reach of the campaign.
The massive Time To Care Station Handbook, the richly detailed manual of implementation provided with the package, includes a calendar for planning off-air events prior to launching the campaign, so that service organizations, hospitals, and other foci for volunteerism can be plugged in at the beginning. And of course there are sample sales presentations of Time To Care for perspective partners. The handbook is such an exhaustive compendium that it could easily take over an entire year’s worth of station executive decision sessions.
Clearly, Group W is on to something. Writing in The New Yorker, the witty economist Robert Heilbroner has opined that even Karl Marx would never have dreamed of how clever capitalists would manage to make commodities out of simple everyday things like family entertainment, housework, meal preparation, and exercise. In its development of the campaign that has culminated to date in the overwhelmingly comprehensive and sophisticated Time To Care, Group W has made a commodity out of good will. Good causes have become goods.
Nobody at Group W feels they have to apologize for this, for it is up front and everything in our society carries a price tag. Marketing is simply the way to get anything done in a capitalist society; it is a fluid method that adapts itself to almost any reality. It also transforms, at times wantonly, whatever it touches.
To put this perhaps disturbing thought into perspective one very special campaign, still very much alive, must be examined. It embodies all of the techniques of the broadcast campaign but it appears to fly in the face of the profit motive and to challenge and break through the often facile optimism of mass media uplift: it is called AIDS Lifeline.
It presents a striking stage for both the dramatic confrontation and mutual co-optation of traditional institutions coupled with the new mechanization of hope and love.
AIDS For All
On August 26, 1987 the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences granted KPIX-TV its 1986 Community Services Award, from a field of two hundred entrants and fifteen finalists. For the same year, 1986, KPIX also won the Peabody Award. Both occasions of professional kudos were in recognition of KPIX’s extraordinary local campaign effort, AIDS Lifeline, which started with one spectacularly successful documentary in 1983. By 1986 it had blossomed into a massive campaign of ten Eyewitness News special segments, sixty-two PSA’s using forty-five celebrities and a number of sixty and thirty-minute specials. Eight months after the period judged, KPIX was still at it, having aired “Heterosexuals and AIDS,” a live studio call-in discussion, two weeks before the announcement of the award.
AIDS Lifeline is a true community campaign focussed narrowly on a special subject but reaching and holding the attention of the widest possible audience. It is a terrifying, unpleasant subject that in many of its particulars impinges on controversial political questions which raise tempers to a boil. Not the ideal selling environment. Yet KPIX began this campaign because it wished to be The San Francisco station, as station manager Carolyn Wean told an interviewer, and San Francisco has in relative terms the largest gay population in the country and without doubt, irrespective of size, the most organized and politically active gay population in the world, in terms of its impact on community awareness, civil services, electioneering, and municipal hiring practices. KPIX anticipated the AIDS “story” as worthy of major coverage by at least a year in the broadcast news media.
Sceptical critics can point out that although AIDS is hardly upbeat, it wields a powerful fascination for a mass audience, mixing the perennial dramatic themes of sex, death, forbidden fruit and apocalyptic plague. It is thus a topic easily open to exploitation, like that of serial murder or pornography, on the one hand, and like that of miracle cancer cures and “Florence Nightingale” tearjerkers on the other. Both facets, the terror and the triumph, are proven box-office hits.
Whatever the courage required to begin coverage of AIDS, the orchestrating of a campaign, one might argue, can be totally explained in terms of sheer good business. That first one-hour special in 1983, “Our Worst Fears: The AIDS Epidemic,” turned out to be the highest rated public affairs show in the history of KPIX, sparking the most hotline calls to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation since it began. After the program was repeated, more than one million people viewed it locally, an enormous number for public affairs in the fifth-ranked U.S. broadcast market. This program was broadcast by all the Group W stations and was successfully syndicated from New York to Honolulu. Requests for videotapes came from as far as Australia and it was ultimately shown all over the world and domestically by over 100 companies, schools, local governments and service associations.
From this beginning KPIX went into an all out effort by 1985 called AIDS Lifeline: over a four year period (up to the announcement of the Emmy) the station presented over 1000 news reports, not only from California, but from their own crews filing stories from Australia, Brussels, Geneva, as well as domestically from coast to coast. The different celebrity PSA’s were expanded to a roster of over sixty. All this time talk shows, call-ins, additional documentaries were produced as part of the campaign.
These on-air elements were complemented by an unusual number of off-air activities. Not just a flyer, but a hefty booklet about AIDS with lists of helping agencies was published in cooperation with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and went into over a half-million copies in several languages. A further cooperative effort with the Foundation and a new twist on collateral was the production of an educational videotape about AIDS presented by actress Jane Curtin made available at local video rental stores (the Captain Video chain).
Off-the-air, KPIX was a senior partner or instigator of many local events, from huge walkathons to school “safe sex” programs. KPIX made sure that its own employment practices did not discriminate against AIDS patients in terms of workplace, insurance, or workmates.
By 1985 WBZ-TV in Boston hooked into this campaign and began doing its own version of the blanket coverage and community outreach that it had applied so well to other subjects. The national interest led KPIX to head a national co-op of ultimately over 100 stations, who shared AIDS-related news stories by satellite feed.
Although it would be impossible to track down all the footage filed by the entire co-op, it would be a captious critic indeed who could say confidently that any Group W footage deliberately sensationalized the AIDS disaster. In fact, a visitor to Group W stations finds a very sensitive protective apparatus surrounding the AIDS question, with a host of taboos and recommended procedures to quash even the slightest hint of disapproval of gay sexuality or promiscuity and especially to avoid the tagging of any “risk” group with a “typhoid Mary” label. For instance, no AIDS Lifeline broadcast element will ever refer to an AIDS victim, it is always a “person with AIDS” to the point that the acronym “PWA” is gaining currency.
The subject is simply not being exploited. What about money?
The intrinsic power of the system to force adaptation to its needs, to subordinate the obvious primary goals of a campaign to what has been called the secondary goals (the needs of the campaign organization itself) is spectacularly illustrated in Aids Lifeline precisely because of the evident personal good faith of the major participants. Clearly, KPIX and Group W never placed raw profit as the primary purpose of AIDS Lifeline.
One of the criticisms often leveled at news media is that they are too cost conscious to assign mature reporters to specific “beats” that require technical expertise and hours of research when the beat is not in the mainstream of the police blotter, politics, or celebrities. During the peak of the campaign, KPIX had the equivalent of three producers and two researcher-organizers full-time on AIDS Lifeline.
The month after the Emmy award, in September of 1987, KPIX donated the services of their point reporter on AIDS, Jim Bunn, to the World Health Organization. Bunn moved to Geneva where he was appointed public information officer to the WHO’s Special Programme on AIDS (SPA). Bunn’s salary was paid by Group W while he produced strategies and broadcast quality tapes for WHO at their facilities over a full year.
Just as other campaigns were accompanied by cash grants from the station, so KPIX gave $35,000 to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, with whom they continue to collaborate on off-air events and collateral production.
On October 19, 1987 Group W announced that it would launch a nationwide campaign with all of its stations and syndicate it for others. The kick-off for the campaign announcement was an impressive video teleconference and symposium on the threat of AIDS linking all Group W stations and adding the studios of Public Broadcasting System stations in New York (WNET) and Washington, D.C. (WETA). Each of the seven studios fielded a panel of distinguished experts and others associated with AIDS work. Outstanding were Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, M.D., at WETA and NIH Director of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., at Group W’s Baltimore station, WJZ-TV. Tom Goodgame, President of Group W Television, along with KPIX general manager Carolyn Wean shared WNET with the Director of the World Health Organization’s Special Programme on AIDS, Jonathan Mann, M.D. One is reminded of those industry-wide Group W conferences on public service during the fifties and sixties which established Westinghouse Broadcasting’s authority and linked it with government through the presence of FCC officials and United States Vice-Presidents.
On this hook-up and with these auspices, Tom Goodgame announced that Group W would launch a nationwide campaign with all of its stations participating. Although the campaign would be syndicated nationally, Group W would absorb all production and distribution costs and would charge no license fee to any station that cleared the campaign.
Instead, Group W would require each station, including its own, to send copies of cancelled checks made out to local or national non-profit AIDS care agencies equal in amount to what would have been the license fee.
Although Metropolitan Life signed on later as the national sponsor of the campaign for one million dollars to defray costs, Group W was foregoing at least one million dollars in licensing revenue for the first year. Furthermore, Group W continued to carry AIDS Lifeline for a second year (1988) without any underwriting, since Met Life did not renew. An added burden was that the vignettes, “Faces of AIDS” were never suitable for local underwriting so they have been run as straight PSA’s. Digital Equipment Corporation, which locally underwrote some of KPIX’s local AIDS Lifeline received a thirty second spot before each AIDS Lifeline documentary or feature, which are of course much less frequent. This diminished underwriting was characteristic in all markets.
AIDS Lifeline is thus a testimony to Group W’s bona fides in crafting public service campaigns. Although sponsorship and station leadership are important permanent factors in all campaigns, this campaign is clearly focussed on helping those suffering from AIDS and reducing the risk of its spreading.
The definitive measure of the “success” of AIDS Lifeline is beyond any final determination because it is not alone in the media mix — all sorts of media not affiliated with AIDS Lifeline are covering the AIDS story. In addition, the primary target for the campaign is not so clearly defined as one might at first think, since it must include not only the population of AIDS victims, but the more nebulous and diffuse communities of AIDS risk groups, professional and volunteer providers of care in AIDS-related contexts, government agencies and officials, and the friends and relatives of persons with AIDS. Beyond the specific targets, one cannot exclude some measure of the level of informed awareness about AIDS among the general population.
Two accessible areas that can reasonably represent the entire campaign do, however, afford some reasonable index of intent and achievement: first, San Francisco AIDS-affected communities, since the municipality as a whole has been in the forefront of dealing with AIDS as a question of public health and KPIX has been the point station in the country in AIDS coverage, in or out of AIDS Lifeline; second, the major broadcast elements of the campaign at KPIX which at least afford some purchase on the general shape of the message(s) in the entire national campaign.
Authoritative testimony to the campaign’s local effectiveness is offered by Ron De Luca, the Development Director of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, who readily declares that KPIX is easily the single most important outreach tool that local AIDS helping agencies have. He points out that in San Francisco the annual care per AIDS patient costs $75,000 less than the national average. Although this cannot be attributed to one cause, he believes the greater community of San Francisco, which has responded magnificently to the special needs of the gay community, is the major factor – volunteers have replaced paid professionals. De Luca credits KPIX’s outreach programs and awareness campaign as indispensable in raising volunteers of various kinds to help AIDS patients.
Almost everybody who watches television and reads the newspaper has by this time become aware of one particular project that was initiated in San Francisco and has traveled all over the country, culminating in a grand event on the “national mall” in Washington D.C. It is the Names Project, perhaps better known as THE QUILT. It encapsulates AIDS Lifeline, since it is an off-air community project as well as the subject of an entire special not to mention innumerable feature and news stories among and beyond AIDS Lifeline stations in the main news stream.
A project of many years duration, the Names Project Quilt is the brainchild of Cleve Jones, a gay activist and art center director. The Quilt keeps growing from additions of three by six-foot fabric panels each of which is a memorial for someone who has died of AIDS. Each panel is different in color and design with people of varying talent and resources putting their hearts into creating suitable memorials for loved ones. The Quilt has toured the country and was prominently displayed in major cities from coast-to-coast, culminating in a massive roll-out on the Washington Mall overlooked by the Capitol Building, the Smithsonian buildings and the Lincoln Memorial, where it received television network and other national media attention.
When the Quilt came back to San Francisco, KPIX and the San Francisco Examiner sponsored a “homecoming” at the Moscone Center from December 17th through 20th of 1987, just before the inception of the national Group W AIDS Lifeline and a few weeks after the Group W teleconference announcing the campaign. The first night was a fifty-dollars-per-person affair which raised $75,000 to underwrite the cost of a new national tour during the Spring of 1988, when AIDS Lifeline would begin in earnest across the country. On subsequent nights admission was free but people were asked to bring food and clothing donations to help people with AIDS. Over the course of the homecoming five truckloads of food and 500 pounds of clothing were contributed. Both the newspaper and KPIX featured advance notice, current coverage, and follow-up features on the event, which drew an estimated 100,000 people.
On the first free night, Friday the 18th, KPIX broadcast a live special, “Threads of Love,” hosted by their local news talent, who cut to celebrity interviews from the floor, in the format of political convention coverage. Local officials like Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Speaker of the California State House of Representatives Willie Brown were interviewed as well as comedienne Lily Tomlin. Special-information and volunteer-recruitment AIDS hotlines were manned during the broadcast and up until midnight. The AIDS Lifeline directory published by KPIX and the Aids Foundation were advertised on the program and mailed free to those who called in. Three thousand people called in to volunteer as a result of the broadcast of the event.
The following summer, on July 28, the AIDS Foundation, Herth Realty Company, radio station KGO, and KPIX sponsored “AIDS WALK San Francisco,” which raised in the neighborhood of one million dollars for the following local agencies: AIDS Emergency Fund, AIDS Health Project, Asian AIDS Task Force, Black Coalition on AIDS, Instituto Familiar de la Raza-Latino AIDS Project, Mobilization Against AIDS, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, STOP AIDS Resource Center, Visiting Nurses and Hospice of San Francisco. The catalogue of sponsors and beneficiaries is a testimony to the broadness of KPIX’s community base and the integrated local nature of the campaign.
As before, KPIX featured the walk prominently on its news programs before the event and with follow-up, and of course covered it live with the same style of celebrity and people-on-the-street interviews, with cutaways to prepared “up-close-and-personal” related features. The night before the walk, the station broadcast “Talking With Teens,” a half-hour guideline for parents on the subject of talking about AIDS, hosted by Jane Curtin, an actress starring in a popular CBS melodrama (KPIX is a CBS affiliate). This particular program as aforementioned was also distributed as a rental videotape.
In a very special campaign which flies in the face of many marketing considerations in order to meet perceived community needs, it is all the more convincing of the problems of the system to find serious dangers and distortions in mass media methods of presentation and exhortation; the pitfalls of industrializing persuasion.
We don’t have to look far to pinpoint the trouble. Just take the content and style of a representative sample of the broadcast elements, to see in fact what message is being conveyed to what target. A good place to start is with the Jane Curtin video, “Talking With Teens,” available throughout San Francisco on a rental basis and aired on the eve of the AIDS Walk.
In this half-hour program which is intended as a serious guideline for parents who wish to protect their children from AIDS, the word homosexual is not mentioned once. The word “gay” is mentioned once, in a joking manner, by an actor portraying a straight male teenager: “Gee, Dad, I’m not gay or anything.” To which the father replies, “Fine, son, but the AIDS virus doesn’t know that.”
The film begins with Curtin in an empty classroom, thinking about her days as a teenager, when her generation didn’t have to worry about AIDS. We cut to a matronly Hispanic school counselor who sympathizes with Curtin about the difficulty parents have accepting that their child is a sexual being, who may well be in the intimate hands of some stranger (to the parents).
Curtin then voices over a series of billboarded simple statistics: that seven girls and eight boys of every ten are sexually active as teens, that one in ten teenage girls becomes pregnant, and that one out of seven of either sex get some sexually transmitted disease. There is also the figure of 200,000 intravenous drug users among all American teenagers, cited as a low estimate. No AIDS statistics are introduced at all. But after these general statistics there is a cut to Dr. Robert Scott, a black internist who practices internal medicine in Oakland and specializes in AIDS cases. He states flatly, on the heels of these statistics, that “The potential for getting the disease [AIDS] in that population is going to be explosive.”
We then cut to a group of teenagers having a discussion in school about sexual activity in general with random references to AIDS. The discussion leader, Ms. Kim Cox, “health educator” then says to Curtin and us, “Sex is a natural way of living. Unfortunately, it is becoming a common way of dying.”
After this melange of statistics and random comments, about teen sex in general and pointed dire predictions and statements from authority figures about AIDS, Curtin states: “Accurate information is the best defense . . .” There follows a short graphic depiction of virus invasion of the body’s immune system cells with a voice-over stating that the AIDS virus is “very hard to catch. It is a fragile” — and here the face behind the voice, that of Dr. Mervyn Silverman, Director of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, fills the screen — “virus; it can be destroyed by soap and water. . . Study after study shows that you don’t easily get AIDS.”
The good doctor is interrupted so that Curtin can voice-over large billboard statements to the effect that AIDS cannot be contracted from casual contact, which is defined as sharing a glass of water, hugging, handshakes, even kissing, if it is not deep open-mouth kissing. Dr. Scott reappears to indicate that one can care for a person with AIDS and even have skin contact with urine, feces, and vomit without being in danger, provided one is careful.
Curtin then asks the rhetorical question, how do you get it? Graphics return in the shape of male and female having genital-to-genital heterosexual intercourse while Curtin intones “Any unprotected sexual contact, sharing of semen and vaginal fluids with someone who has AIDS, male or female.” There is a brief mention of sharing of needles. Dr. Silverman returns to point out that abstinence is a sure way to protect yourself, but short of that, a condom and a spermicide should be used during sex, “from beginning to end.” He points out that one should not take drugs, but if one does, at least do not share a needle.
This segment of the video constitutes the “accurate information” part. There follows the advisory examples of how to talk to your teenage child about the problem.
What problem? From the context it would seem to be both the standard heterosexual rites of initiation and experimentation during adolescence and protecting oneself, in this straight setting, from AIDS. Other diseases are never mentioned, although the initial statistic of one in seven referred to all sexually transmitted diseases.
First we are shown the Stone family, a white professional middle-class couple who have lost their only son, Michael, to AIDS. Stills of Michael reveal a strikingly handsome young man. The parents say they knew he was sexually active, but wish they had talked more. The Stone’s are an attractive and brave couple, who are unusually articulate and frank about their experience. We cannot help but admire and feel for them.
From this we are exposed to three little dramas that illustrate situations in which parents may inject their values about sexual activity and the dangers of AIDS into conversations with their children.
The first situation takes place in a kitchen, an affluent middle class kitchen similar to those used for commercials featuring kitchen products, in which a very young black girl (who talks like a “valley girl,”) has a friendly and very quick chat with her substantial, earth-mother mom. With some embarrassment, the girl reels off rote instructions from school on how to have safe sex. The mom does not reveal any technical knowledge, but rather urges her daughter to be careful and wait for someone who has respect for her [“I am not telling you what to do, I am telling you how I feel.”]
The second situation takes place in a parked car where a divorced Dad is meeting his son. He urges the son to be careful because of AIDS and because he should have respect for the girls he goes with. This is the context for the remark about being gay and its seeming irrelevance to the AIDS question. The final scene is in the living room, again white and middle-class, where a young teenage girl is about to go off “with friends” until midnight. There is an embarrassed series of little jokes that show the unease of all three with the topic, but it frankly deals with the concern of the parents that their little girl not have sex with anyone nor take drugs nor drink and drive. In the course of the conversation, the threat of AIDS and the need for precautions are emphasized.
Although there is not one untruth in “Talking With Teens,” the film editing and comparative weight given to different facets of the topic by graphics, authority figures, and the settings for parent-teenager interchange, are misleading.
Is the subject AIDS and how to guard against it or how to deal with your child’s first steps into sexuality? The video never made up its mind.
Furthermore, two juxtapositions seem to be deliberately misleading. After giving prominence to the statistic that one in seven sexually active teenagers will contract a sexually transmitted disease, there is a cut to a doctor who claims (we do not know the context of the interview from which this snippet was taken) that there is a potential for an “explosion” of AIDS in that population. When another authority figure is pointing out how difficult it is to get AIDS, the sound is fighting graphics of the AIDS virus vividly succeeding in infecting an immune system. Immediately after the correct information of how weak the virus is, the script jumps to the conclusion that it is casual contact (not the virus) that is “weak,” that is, hardly likely to spread the disease. This distortion is followed by a description of how one does get the disease, with graphics displaying normal heterosexual intercourse. The true parts add up to the false, and seriously false, impression that there is a serious risk of contracting AIDS from normal heterosexual intercourse.
As for the tone of the parent-teenager interchanges and the sad story of Michael Stone, the clear implication is that middle class heterosexual non-drug users with caring affluent parents are at serious risk of AIDS. Although we can all use sex education and although drug abuse in the non-intravenous forms of crack, speed, and marijuana, unwanted teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases like herpes and clamydia (which are not laughing matters) are certainly not unknown among the affluent mostly white middle classes, AIDS is rare in this group. It was rare two years ago, when the film was shown, and it remains rare today, two years into the epidemic “explosion.” AIDS is on a rampage, however, among those who practice the risky behavior of anal and oral sex promiscuously and among intravenous drug abusers who share needles. This risky behavior is particularly prevalent among homosexuals, who are the overwhelming majority of victims of the disease, and drug abusers, who are beginning to catch up with the homosexuals (as are the children of women, mostly drug abusers, with AIDS.) Although both groups can come from all walks of life, intravenous drug abuse accompanied by sharing of needles is overwhelmingly a practice in racial and economic ghettoes; put another way, such self-destructive behavior is most often the consequence of poverty and racial discrimination. Any kind of unprotected sex with someone who has AIDS does put one at risk, but the question is among what populations does one have a significant risk of meeting someone who has AIDS. With this in mind, it would seem the choice of Jane Curtin and the atmosphere of the safe suburban school is aiming at the wrong target.
Furthermore, if the threat were as serious as one is led by innuendo to believe, the facile and fleeting encounters in kitchen, car, and living room that are shown as models would hardly suffice, nor would a string of such superficial verbal joustings between embarrassed teenagers and unconfident, unknowledgeable, and tentative parents. Given the real statistics, parents should want to know if their children are homosexual and/or intravenous drug users, which would put them at serious risk. Yet these questions are not addressed at all.
Maybe the real thing, like the blow-torch “Scared Straight” video about life in prison, would be too much of a downer. But one view could be that this video does not reach those at risk and does reach those who can misread the message as not for them (about AIDS) so they can ignore the rest (about parent-child communication and sexual responsibility in general).
Like any aid to family communication and any video that deals frankly with sex, especially in a general population scared out of its wits by stories about AIDS, “Talking With Teens” was enormously popular.
A different AIDS Lifeline thirty-minute special directly deals with the question of risk factor: “Sexual Roulette.” The program begins with pictures of a motorcycle accident, airline travel, and smoking, all of which have known risks to life yet which people pursue anyway. In this context “risky behavior,” we are told, is “meeting someone in a bar and going to bed with them.” We are then told the story of a young healthy looking woman who has contracted AIDS by sleeping with a stranger she met in a bar. The young woman is neither homosexual nor a drug user, “yet it happened to her.” The narrator asks us: was she just unlucky or was she taking foolish chances? There follows a reference to a then current Cosmopolitan article stating that there is not much risk in vaginal intercourse; an immediate contrasting reference is given to the Masters and Johnson contention that a heterosexual AIDS epidemic is poised for take-off. “The experts,” says the voice, place the real risk “somewhere in between.” [This statement is true in the sense that most adult males are between four and four hundred feet tall.] This case, from real life, is the frame for what follows, introduced by a doctor who as an aside mentions that the chances of the young woman catching AIDS that way were one in five thousand (0.02%). His main message is that such low odds are “deceptive,” since risk depends on specific behavior. This leads us to short life-style montages of four “types:” a young college student, a recently divorced swinging single woman, a traveling businessman, and a black-hispanic ghetto resident, recently separated from her intravenous drug abusing husband, who continues to have sex with male drug abusers. All four types are sexually active but none of the four are homosexual, nor are they drug abusers themselves. No judgment is passed on the behavior from any point of view but risk of AIDS.
After each short video vignette we are shown in graphics the risk of each behavior. If the college boy has sex with about six different girls each year for two years, without a condom, his chances of contracting AIDS are one in 50,000 in contrast to his one in 1200 odds of being killed in a scooter or motorcycle accident. The swinging single woman, who lives in Omaha where only one known case of AIDS existed at the time, has herself regularly tested for the HIV virus. “You can’t be too careful,” she states. In an interview she jokes: “The sexiest man in the bar is the one who just passed his blood test.” The graphics point out that her chances of contracting AIDS from unprotected sex on a regular basis with bar pickups is one in 10,000; if she lived in New York, her risk would rise to one in 4000 [=0.025%]. By contrast her risk of contracting cancer from cigarette smoking is one in 300 [0.33%]. If the traveling businessman were to go with a different woman every week for five years with no condom, his chances of contracting AIDS would be one in 10,000 (his chances of dying in a plane crash would be one out of 15,000). If all those women were prostitutes and he still failed to use a condom, his odds would increase to one in 2000. Although the film does not bother to make the calculation, that would mean that any one unprotected intercourse with a prostitute has a risk factor of one in about half a million for AIDS. Since the program is about AIDS, we are not told in any of these cases the risk factors for other very serious, but rarely fatal, sexually transmitted diseases nor of unwanted pregnancies and subsequent abortions.
The final case is that of the drug abuser’s estranged wife. Her chances are one in ten. Serious odds. In the course of being told her sad story, we learn that her best friend and supporter, her sister, who was having sex with drug abusers, did in fact contract AIDS. Although she continued to have sex with drug abusers other than her husband, the lady did not contract AIDS and had found a man who respected her and insisted that she demand the use of a condom.
The film ends with the original case, which we were later told was a one in 5000 chance, “Of little comfort when it happens to you.” The final message is that whatever the risk, you should lower your chances by practicing safe, protected sex.
The figures in the program were quite on the high pessimistic side for the time; now the odds of heterosexuals catching AIDS have been further reduced with more numbers coming in.§ The odd thing is that the visuals, and the whole premise of the program, do not jibe with the numbers. AIDS is still presented as a plague that threatens us all. It may threaten us all, but if you do not practice unprotected homosexual oral and anal sex nor share needles or a bed with an intravenous drug abuser, if you are not a hemophiliac nor a medical worker who must continually handle infected blood in a context of needles and scalpels, the threat is less than those of being struck by lightning, contracting lung cancer, getting cirrhosis from alcoholism, or, if you are a young man (as the program itself pointed out), dying in motorcycle crash.
In other words, the facts are not hidden, but they are so skewed by the method of presentation, the heart of media adaptation, as to seriously mislead the viewer, even a sophisticated one. A local KPIX program in the form of a call-in to a panel of experts was similar in frame: careful correct answers were given, but no sense of scale and no sense of the tremendous difference in odds once one was out of contact with homosexual or drug abusing communities.
Like all campaigns, AIDS Lifeline depends for its impact most of all on the short “vignettes” and news segments that are shown so much more frequently than the specials. The campaign has two types. The first is a set of over sixty celebrity stand-up statements about the dangers of AIDS, the need for understanding, the need for helping and treating AIDS patients with dignity, the need for research, the importance of safe sex. All of these goals are worthy and literally what is said is true. But the implication is that the entire nation, heterosexual and homosexual alike, are faced with a coming overwhelming disaster unless drastic revision of lifestyles, principally among heterosexuals, is not forthcoming. The second set is a series of black and white stills, in a slow dissolving montage, of real ordinary people connected with AIDS. They are victims, relatives of victims, doctors, volunteers. The series is called “The Faces of AIDS” and at the end of every showing when the title comes up, “All of Us. Together.” is added in equal size type. Now, the idea can well be that all of us human beings must love one another and care, as in Time To Care. But in the context of the thematic programming, the idea is that all of us, together, are at equal risk of catching AIDS. In fact, one of the Faces, that of a heterosexual man who has caught AIDS from a prostitute says: “All it took was that one instance. It doesn’t matter whether you are gay or straight. The pain is the same.” True, but the risk is far from the same.
One recalls that Metropolitan Life has underwritten AIDS Lifeline for Group W to the tune of one million dollars. As a result, Mr. John Creedon, the CEO of Metropolitan Life, presents the Group specials through a brief tape made in his office, in which he declares how important Met Life feels proper information and public education about AIDS is. In this context he then states: “We believe the AIDS epidemic may be the most serious health issue facing our nation and the world in this century.” Not malnutrition, not toxic and radioactive pollution, not even smoking and alcoholism, all of which either actually do or seriously threaten to kill, far more humans? No one can make light of the seriousness of a fatal and loathsome disease for those who have it and those likely to get it. A large variety of cancers are such diseases. But hyperbole and fear are not helpful. To paraphrase Jane Curtin, accurate information is the best defense. Within the special context of San Francisco and the Bay Area, KPIX may not be distorting the problem too much, but AIDS Lifeline is a national campaign.
One keeps thinking of Larry Fraiberg’s observation that television is a visceral medium. Time To Care, which is virtually content free, is the ideal structure for mini-campaigns on real local finite needs. AIDS is a complex disease involved with all the psychological twists and turns we associate with sex and with sexual deviance. Its major victims are a controversial group, who have a huge political stake in distancing themselves from a disease which might be labeled “the gay disease,” and thus add to the motives for discrimination they already suffer. The heartbreaking slow course of the disease and its pandora box of secondary infections and other diseases makes AIDS a treatment nightmare which severely taxes health resources at every level, a factor that attracts significant interest from hospitals, insurance companies and caring agencies in any campaign effort that might alleviate a strain on their resources.
It will be recalled that AIDS is among the top three topics for all national PSA’s on television, in or out of Group W’s AIDS Lifeline, a further testimony to its mainstream relevance, if not to its marketability. But precisely because of this relevance, as Edward Brecher and John Langone have pointed out conclusively, the mainstream media have seriously misreported the AIDS problem, as they did with radon and as they often do with science and health stories. AIDS is a complex story and is not in the “safe” mold that is ideal for community media campaigns. Critics should bear AIDS Lifeline and its well-intentioned but dangerous distortions in mind when they demand that the mainstream media, which must aim for the bulging middle of any market, should bite the bullet and pump unpopular but important causes that management believes are truly in the public interest.
Group W’s persistence for over two years in maintaining this costly campaign produced significant cash contributions to AIDS agencies and, whatever the shortcomings of the campaign, it has proved a net public gain for those people affected by the AIDS disaster and its many private tragedies. An unanticipated benefit may be its demonstration of the limits and hazards of what Nance Guilmartin has called “activist television.”
Safety in Numbers;
There is no doubt that local community campaigns spearheaded by local television stations around the country are in general effective. They raise money and “armies” for good causes; they almost guarantee attendance at community affairs. Although some ill-conceived campaigns may fail, most succeed. The special spin that the Group W national campaigns have put on the formula enhances campaign effectiveness on the intermediate targets: sponsors (“partners”), client stations, and pre-existing community organizations. This often betrays the original goal sought for the primary target (usually the public at large or some market segment like senior citizens or teenagers). We are left in the uncomfortable situation of finding urgent issues inevitably, if innocently, betrayed by the exigencies of the media system when they choose to treat them. More serious, but less noticeable, is the invisible choice of simply ignoring the most urgent issues because they are not “safe,” and may offend and thus lose an important part of the market. The media share the dilemma with the official government, which is again and again forced to back off needed reforms because of the power of vested lobbies.
With local television stations being in more and more economic trouble unless they are either in major markets or part of a powerful corporate parent, the range of “safe” causes will shrink, since ownership interests become more broad.
The seeming exception to this, AIDS Lifeline, proves the rule. AIDS and homosexuality are in the middle of very hot controversial issues, not to mention sensitive personal religious convictions. But the point station, KPIX, is in the middle of the most articulate and politically powerful gay community in the world. It is from this point of view that the otherwise baffling downplay of homosexual anal and oral intercourse as the principle sexual transmitter of the disease makes sense. When the original setting is coupled with national conditions like the research and helping professions’ crying need for more funds from public sources, as well as the relative scarcity of homosexuals in client markets, then the need to conceive of AIDS as a broad deadly plague that threatens all of us equally makes sense nationally as well. Although this entire affair may be construed as what Plato called a noble lie, it is a lie nonetheless. Noble lies, like the light at the end of the Vietnam tunnel and the inevitability of dependence on safe nuclear energy, have a way of rewarding faith with catastrophe.
Stepping back from any particular campaign, how do the structure and setting of any public service/community campaign relate to the broader cultural question of how media shape our values and attitudes on matters of pressing urgency?
At this point, the research community and evaluators of campaigns in general are still stuck with the effectiveness model that dominated all communications research until recently. Concrete measurable effects, on the model of billiard-ball causality — how many boxes of cereal? how many people recognize a name? — was seen as the “real” measure of what media do. In the same vein, the number of volunteers or checks or generous partners resulting from a campaign are seen as the “real” significance of a campaign. From a management point of view, this can hardly change because the bottom line is the last ball on the billiard table (to mix metaphors). From a research point of view, however, the contemporary television public service/community campaign raises questions of politics and culture and thus fundamental questions of values.
Tobie Pate, KPIX marketing director, says with some force that the “churches and government have failed” to deal with the AIDS problem effectively. The reason they have failed is that they do not know how to communicate effectively to the vast run of ordinary people; they have lost the common touch. While not exhibiting a trace of smugness (Ms. Pate is realistic about television’s own shortcomings), she points out that marketing has become more and more of a sophisticated science – careful formulas for reaching the people you want with the message you have. True, like medicine, at its best marketing will always remain an art, a place for people who do have “the touch.” Television, she is confident, is the instrument for reaching people and, more importantly for campaigns, for mobilizing people to get things done.
Nance Guilmartin, the national coordinator for all Group W campaigns, speaks about “activist” television, which has awakened a can-do spirit among people, in sharp contrast to the couch-potato stereotype. In fact, in recounting the origin of a particular campaign, she tells the anecdote of an executive at WBZ who lost a close relative and was in the unenviable position of having to explain the loss to his little daughter, who had never before experienced a death in the family. He was surprised that there was no available guidance on the task and this led to a television “guideline” program to help others in the same spot. Probably this programming did some good, but one is at first astounded to hear Ms. Guilmartin say: “Before we did this, there was nothing out there on death.”
Does she mean Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, secular humanism and all the vasty resources of Boston’s churches and libraries, to say nothing of Harvard’s faculty, had nothing worthwhile to say on the subject? It surely did sound like that. But Ms. Guilmartin is more aware than most of Boston’s cultural resources. What she meant, one soon realized, was that there was nothing on television to offer specific by-the-numbers guidance to adults who must explain death to children.
The clear implication is that religion, churches, education, in fact all the resources of Western civilization available in a cultural hub like Boston are irrelevant in reaching ordinary people with ordinary problems. They need real help; they need to be empowered, one of the favorite words of campaign planners. If the issue were put so baldly to any television executive, among whom there is no lack of cultivated and sophisticated individuals, he or she would surely deny, and sincerely deny, that this arrogant assumption were present. But whatever their intentions or assumptions, the “natural” uses to which technology is put within a given political economy have inevitable systematic consequences. In our system, broadcast television, and most of cable, is market driven. Thus mass culture, in this view, is our only culture and the only one we really need. There is no animus against traditional or high culture – broadcast executives have their equal share of Bach and Tolstoy devotees – but such culture is rarely dragged into the marketplace, “the real world,” where it is deemed irrelevant.
The mass media have developed a sophisticated language of simplicity, a method that strips off subtlety, stimulation to further questioning, or any hint that what is being discussed is in reality tangled and difficult and requires hard work to understand. This can be seen, for instance, in the way For Kids’ Sake treated the hard subject of reading, which is at the heart of the Renaissance and Enlightenment traditions embedded in our best literature and scientific endeavors. It was treated, and quite consciously treated, as a vehicle for family togetherness and especially as a problem for young children or totally untutored adults. This is not to condemn the producers’ professional integrity or skill, both of which are of a high order, but simply to locate the program in its cultural and political setting.
The public service campaign presents an urgent form of the general problem of media adaptation. Something happens when good causes are mass marketed that is neither obvious nor intended, but culturally and morally critical. Recall the process in more obvious occasions of adaptation.
What happens to Shakespeare or Dickens when their work is mass marketed? If we have a master adapter whose reputation puts him or her above strict marketing considerations, we have something brilliant like Olivier’s Hamlet. But if we have individuals, no matter how great their talent, who are employees of a large marketing corporation like a big film studio or a television network, the systematic pressures often squeeze the work into a programming cookie cutter, as they did with The Winds of War.
In and of itself, adaptation does not destroy a work. It all depends on the marketing environment and the goals of the producer-owners. But it is impossible to aim at the greatest market for the greatest revenue unswervingly and preserve the artistic integrity of any challenging work intended for adults.
Just as this is true for art and literature, so is it true for science. Ted Koppel or Time just cannot deal with Star Wars the way the Scientific American has.
Alarmingly, much more is at stake when it comes to science. People who are never exposed to unadulterated works of genius have missed something important, but they can live responsibly and happily in any event. People unequipped to grasp the degree of dangerous difference between acid rain and plutonium fallout as environmental hazards cannot deal with the politics of technology, which increasingly shapes our society and our health.
And as with art and science, so with religion and politics, in an increasing curve of serious social consequences.
Local campaigns adapt causes to the mass culture milieu of mainstream television programming. Syndicated public service/community campaigns, since they are reaching for a much wider market, adapt causes more radically and thus must deal very carefully with problems of adaptation. If areas like AIDS that require some scientific understanding can cause trouble, it is even more true in the realms of politics and religion.
Television campaigns are above all messages of their medium, and they have more in common, in form, with commercials and sports coverage than with church meetings or lecture halls, to say nothing of inspiring texts read in solitude. Different as they are, both Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have far more in common with Johnny Carson and Phil Donahue than they do with Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa.
Thinking down the campaign road, Ms. Guilmartin reflects that “what we are doing for companies and causes now we may well be called on to do for governments tomorrow.” For a middle-aged reader of Brave New World who has just lived through the media blitz of the successful Bush campaign, such innocent ambition rings an ominous Orwellian bell.
The way television has taken over the prime analogate of campaigns, the political campaign, offers a cautionary tale.
There has been an abundance of writing for years on how television has transformed American Politics and helped kill off the party. Nineteen eighty-eight campaigns spent ten dollars for every one dollar spent in 1972 for television. At the same time, the number of people actually voting has been plummeting, so the cost per vote in the last fifteen years has gone from 12¢ to $3.34 per vote. If the trend continues, candidates will soon be spending millions of dollars for very few votes, but those few votes will amount to a landslide from an electorate on boycott.
This paradox accounts for the at first surprising inverse proportion of voter turn-out and campaign costs. The cash drain takes money away from the campaign for travel and debates that would bring the candidate in the flesh to groups of live voters, giving people a sense of participation that might lead to a vote. Television, it appears, only manages to mobilize the “majority” toward a “landslide” victory for incumbents by paralyzing the real majority.
The new politics of image cast directly to local constituents require a great deal of money – for media consultants, even for fashion and “makeover” specialists, as well as the obvious costs of air time and slick production. It has concurrently accelerated the promotion of cold cash as the ultimate political arbiter when it comes to both legislation and regulatory policy. Paradoxically, therefore, while the media enable politicians to go directly to voters, avoiding the brokerage of party leaders, use of the media confers overwhelming importance to cash contributors who thus gain often unnoticed privileged access to legislators and executives that is denied to the common voter.
If the profit sector gets involved in political and religious campaigns any more than they are already, poverty and other pressing social issues which the late Michael Harrington found invisible will be totally inaudible as well.
These considerations put the whole concept of media public service/community campaigns between a rock and a hard place.
On the one hand they strongly suggest that any movement of syndicated campaigns into “unsafe” areas like religion and politics is unlikely from the viewpoint of responsible adaptation as well as of sheer marketing savvy.
On the other hand, sticking to “safe” topics has the obvious downside of promoting conventional wisdom at a time when we desperately need innovation and leaders of new vision.
Although there is still room for the shock of the new in rare instances of intelligent interviews with genuine experts in place of “spokespersons,” which may lose some of the audience in the interest of holding those who can benefit, such programming is in short supply. KPIX and other stations are now getting into longer and more imaginative editorials, which use some location shooting and research on difficult unpopular topics, presented by the General Manager but prepared by full-time staff. There is little reason for station management to be afraid of controversy and innovation in this context.
Nonetheless the overwhelming experience of commercial community campaigns underscores the reality that an advertising-based, market-driven system of public communication can only offer conventional wisdom, for the most part. Daring drama, investigative journalism that hits hard at established abuses, social criticism that seeks to strip a bogus legitimacy from rapacious special interests — all these necessary public communication services cry out for a public mass media system that can in some way be insulated from totalitarian politics and mass marketing. The admirable exceptions which pop up rarely on commercial networks and with more frequency on the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio only underscore the bland vacuity which dominates the horizon.
The public can only be served by broadcasting that can truly be conceived as the Fifth Estate. The Electronic Marketplace, as it has come to be manipulated, is destroying the promise of technology to deliver honest truths to those without the sophistication to explore the elite channels in print and film, and even of television itself, where they can still be found.