Network Clearance - A Producer's Checklist
by Bill Goodwill

There was a time when getting your TV PSAs cleared by the four major broadcast networks meant the difference between an "average" TV PSA campaign, or one that entered the "outstanding" category. The current reality is that the "big four" (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) use very few externally produced PSAs, preferring instead to create their own "branded" messages, using actors and personalities identified with their networks to deliver PSA messages.

The good news is that there has been an explosion in national cable networks as smart programming executives tap into serving very specific lifestyles of their audiences, and these are sometimes referred to as "niche netoworks." We currently work with more than 125 of these national cable networks, a list that is growing by the month.

In this article, we address some of the Do's and Don'ts of dealing with the networks, and every broadcast producer should review these rules at the risk of getting less exposure than they could have gotten, or worse yet, having their PSA dub thrown in the trash because they don;t know the rules of getting on the air.

If you are launching your first-time PSA effort, or have something unique to convey about your program, you should consider getting appointments with network clearance directors. Be advised, however, they are busy people and receive hundreds of PSA submissions for consideration, so you should respect their time demands. As an alternative, send a letter with your PSA concepts (draft copy and storyboards), to the networks, and your distributor should be able to provide you with a list of contacts.

To ensure that your PSAs will be cleared by the networks, or not have problems getting aired by their affiliates, your producer needs to know a few of the network rules regarding what you can and cannot say or show in your PSAs:

  • The sponsoring organization must be national in scope and dedicated to public service or charitable activities.

  • PSAs cannot, directly or indirectly, promote the sale of commercial products or services, including showing any logos or any other visual references.

  • The campaign cannot deal with sectarian, politically partisan or controversial subject or issues, nor can it be designed to influence legislation or government actions.

  • You should avoid direct appeals for funds in your message. CBS Network policy, for example, says a direct appeal for funds such as "send your check to...or please make a donation..." is not acceptable, whereas statements such as "please help...please support" may be acceptable. When in doubt, contact the networks.

    If you adhere to the formal review procedures required by networks, (very few clients or agencies do, and it is not a deal breaker,) there are four basic steps to follow for network approval:

    1. Ad-ID Code: This code is the industry standard for identifying broadcast, print and digital assets across all media platforms. Using Ad-ID greatly improves communications between agency, advertiser, and media. Most networks will not use your PSA without the code. For more information, go to: "How It Works"

    2. Organizational clearance: if you are a new organization or have not produced PSAs previously - get registered with either the Philanthropic Advisory Service of the Better Business Bureau, or the National Charities Information Bureau. The networks might ask you for proof of your registration, and you should also submit a copy of your (IRS501C-3) tax-free certificate .

    3. Dub formats: Your distributor should know what tape formats the networks want, or they may want them fed to them via digital delivery services such as Pathfire or Extreme Reach. If you send them precisely what they want, you greatly increase your chances of getting something on the air.

    4. Technical Requirements: All PSAs submitted to TV networks or stations have stringent technical specifications which you can view by clicking on the link below.

    Typically, unless there is a problem, networks will simply schedule the PSAs to air and our software creates a separate network, so we know which of them is and is not using our client PSAs. If they reject your campaign, they may or may not tell you the reason why it was not accepted and thus the best way to handle networks is to call each of them after submission of your PSAs. They may tell you they need substantiation for claims or statistics used in the PSAs, which should be easily handled, and then PSAs can be re-submitted.

    Or, the networks may ask for more background information on your organization or cause, beyond observing the procedures above. These include providing:

    • An audited annual report on your organization.

    • Background information on your organization's history, purpose and objectives, and the percentage of your budget used for fundraising.

    • Samples of materials you plan to distribute to the public, particularly if mentioned in the PSA.

    While all of this sounds like a lot of work, let us give you some data. For one of our clients, network usage accounted for two-thirds of all usage - and how much was that? $67million dollars! For that kind of money, it seems prudent to follow the rules, get to know what networks want, and monitor their usage, with gentle follow-up calls to those that committed to using your PSAs but are not showing up in your evaluation reports.

    (Updated 2/28/14)