Los Angeles Television Stations Reject Anti-Syphilis PSA Created by County Public Health Agency, AHF
Several Los Angeles television stations have refused to run an anti-syphilis public service announcement created by the Los Angeles County Department of Health and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, saying that the PSA's content is "inappropriate," the Los Angeles Times reports. The 30-second PSA features a "lumpy, red cartoon character with an earring" called "Phil the Sore," who follows two men as they go home together, according to the Times. As the two men later part, one in a bathrobe and underwear says, "Let's do it again sometime," after which Phil the Sore calls in his "whole family," who carry boxes labeled "brain damage," "rash" and "blindness," which are all potential results of a syphilis infection, according to the Times. County health officials said they worked with AHF to develop the PSA because of the "dramatic" rise of syphilis cases among men who have sex with men, according to the Times. According to the county health department, the number of syphilis cases reported in the county increased from 93 in 2000 to 364 in 2003. County officials said the PSA is "adult-oriented" but aimed at people at greatest risk of contracting syphilis, according to the Times. Health officials said they were "frustrated" that five local television stations -- including affiliates for NBC, Fox, UPN and the WB -- refused to run the PSA (Chong, Los Angeles Times, 12/2). Some stations offered to run the commercial in a "toned-down form or late at night, when children would not likely be watching," AHF spokesperson Ged Kenslea said (Reuters, 12/2). Several cable stations, whose content is not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, have agreed to run the spot, according to the Times (Los Angeles Times, 12/2).
Kenslea said the group plans to file a complaint with the FCC regarding the television stations' decisions not to air the ad, Reuters reports. In addition, AHF will seek "clarification" from the local stations about what they find "inappropriate" about the PSA, Kenslea said. He added that AHF believes that most of the stations were "afraid" to run the commercial because of FCC regulations, according to Reuters. "This is in the swirl of stations running scared after Janet Jackson's 'wardrobe malfunction' and the creep of moral values is really flipping over," Kenslea said. (Reuters, 12/2).
Los Angeles County Public Health Director Jonathon Fielding said he does not believe the PSA is "objectionable," according to the Times. "It's distressing to hear that some important public health messages are not being aired," Fielding said, adding, "My question would be, 'Is this content more 'adult' than others that are being shown ... in the evening hours?'" (Los Angeles Times, 12/2). AHF Director of Prevention Karen Mall said, "I am perplexed and saddened by this censorship by Los Angeles-area broadcast television stations of an important, effective and, I believe, fairly benign public health message" (AHF release, 11/30). Mike Nelson, spokesperson for KCBS-TV Channel 2 -- which refused to run the PSA -- said he is "troubled" by the spot because it "took such a light-hearted tone about a serious disease," according to the Times. "We consider the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases to be a serious matter," Nelson said, adding, "It's an issue we have addressed and will continue to recognize through fair, accurate and balanced news reporting, as well as broadcasting public service announcements." Christie Nordhielm, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan, said that FCC takes into account "public complaints" when reviewing licenses for television and radio stations every seven years, according to the Times. "It's an easy decision," Nordhielm said, adding, "Between running the ad and getting money and the risk of losing their license or paying lawyers, they're going to reject the ad. It's a no-brainer" (Los Angeles Times, 12/2).