So, you've come up with a hot ad concept. You've written the script, tuned and tweaked the storyboard until it's just right. You've got together the talent and money to produce a broadcast-quality video. And you now stand with a Beta video cassette in your hand, a target audience in mind...

Except you don't have the airtime. You've never even talked to a television station official, let alone bought airtime off one. What do you do? What questions do you ask? What is important to know, and what's irrelevant? What should you expect?

Stage 1: Contacting the Station

Anyone who knows their target audience and has the cash in hand can usually buy 15- or 30-second spots of television time. It's not much different from buying any product direct from a wholesaler. Phone one of your local TV stations and ask to talk to a salesperson. Tell them you want to purchase some air time and would like all available sales information rate cards, demographics, brochures, the works.

You'll probably be asked what company you represent and what your TV spot is about. Tell them it's an advocacy ad, and that you'll be bringing in a video copy of it when you come in to pay for the air time. You will be asked what your budget is, but don't divulge this information yet. Before you hang up, make sure that the rate card is part of the package being sent to you. The rate card tells you what it costs to buy 15- or 30-second time slots during each of programs broadcast by that station. Some stations are reluctant to reveal this information, so be prepared to put your foot down. You have a right to know what time costs on the public airwaves. Phone every TV station in your city or area and ask all of them to send information packages and rate cards. Keep records of the salespeople you talk to.

Stage 2: Planning Your Purchase

When the rate cards arrive, you will be ready to plan strategies. You may be surprised at how inexpensive TV time can be. Prime time slots go for thousands of dollars, and national network prime time is 10 times that amount, local TV stations may charge you only $200 for a time slot during the afternoon soaps, $150 during the Saturday morning cartoons, and as little as $40 during late night movies. Unless you have a big budget, it will be these fringe spots that you are after. By far the most effective strategy is to purchase a string of repeating spots, for example, after midnight spots running for a full week or even a month. A string of spots amplifies your message in the public mind. For example, midnight movie viewers notice your pattern and, over time, spread the word. Your message is discussed the following day over morning coffee, and is reinforced again that evening when it's repeated. The longer your string, the stronger the resonance. That is the logic of TV advertising.

If Your Ad is Accepted

When you show your advertisement to the station, one of two things will happen: a "Yes" or a "No." If the station agrees to air your message, congratulations! You've planted the seeds of the homemade media revolution in your community. You've joined the movement to take back the airwaves. Publicize the launch of your campaign. Draw as much attention to it as you can. Send letters and press releases to local papers, radio stations, and all the groups and organizations that may be interested in your cause. What you are doing -- launching a TV campaign -- is something usually done only by large corporations. People will be interested.

If Your Ad is Rejected

Many broadcasters in Canada and the U.S. (usually the affiliates of the big networks) will reject your ad as "controversial" and refuse to sell you air time. Their argument will sound something like this: We don't sell air time for issue ads because the people with the finances at hand would then be able to control the public agenda. The best strategy here is: don't take no for an answer. Publicize the refusal. Send a news release to the media in your community. Quote the reasons the station manager gave for censoring your campaign. Give the manager's phone number at the bottom of your news release so that journalists have access to the other side of the story. Challenge the station to a debate on "Who controls the public airwaves?" Write to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in the U.S. and the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) in Canada and ask them to pull that station's license. Fight for your right to get on the air. Battle it out from station to station if you have to. The television commercial is the most powerful communications tool of our age, and must be available to everyone.


Winning ideological and cultural battles, and creating new paradigms is the name of the game. -- Kono Matsu

Five ... four ... three ... two ... you're on the air. Ever thought about giving a piece of your mind in prime time? You don't need a big budget to launch a powerful media campaign. If you have a passionate cause, an environmental battle on your hands, or an issue you want to place on the public agenda, all you need is a message you believe in and some basic how-to information.

Television has become the most efficient way for North Americans to share their music and fashion, to make and break their leaders, to hear opinions. But who controls the airwaves? The flow of information is almost always one-way. The struggle is on to rescue TV from its commercial obsession, and return democracy to the airwaves.

Stage 1: Writing the Ad

Gather together the most creative people in your organization. Elect a moderator and then brainstorm. Your first step is to clearly identify the audience your message should target. You may want to use an existing TV ad as a model. Videotape ads that you like; write them out in script form. You will soon notice that television is most powerful when the visual and verbal messages resonate off each other. Write your script ideas using the standard two-column format: Visual and Audio. Try out your ideas on your colleagues. When the concept is right, you will get an immediate response. If you can reduce your message to a single concept, one strong visual metaphor and one powerful slogan--then the hardest part is done. Avoid expensive ideas that require feature film techniques. A beer commercial set in a crowded pub, for example, involves substantial production costs. The simplest ideas are almost always the best: a spokesperson speaking directly to the camera in an appropriate setting, a single image that slowly unfolds with sparse voice-over. You don't need to be slick--slickness is often a mask for insincerity. You don't need hype--hype costs money. An honest and sincere presentation of your position is your best tactic.

Stage 2: Producing the Ad

You have a strong concept. Everyone in your organization has read it and given you positive feedback. You have volunteers enthusiastic about getting it produced and aired. Now is the time to get assistance from a professional, someone who can guide you through the production process. The director is someone you can't do without. He or she is the only person who can make your script come alive. A graduate student from your local university film or communications department may take on your commercial. This may be his or her first big project; if so you will get a passionate, if untried director ready to take on the world. That's almost always better than a jaded ad agency hack. Whatever you do, choose a director who believes in your cause.

Most production studios and labs offer reduced rates to environmental and non-profit groups. A growing number of professional directors, camerapersons, soundpersons, narrators, actors and musicians will donate their time to causes they believe in. Even Kodak or Fuji film and videotape may be available at a nominal cost. Use the telephone, call around.

Keep your technical standards high. Don't skimp on vital equipment and production values. All television stations have minimum broadcast requirements, and you don't want to be turned down because your spot is not up to broadcast quality.