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Pfc. Joseph Tolliver films James Ernst, 4, sliding on the playground for an upcoming AFN spot on summer safety. Armed Forces Network personnel in Vicenza, Italy, produce 15-20 spots a month on a variety of topics, helping fill in the gaps between the shows on AFN.

Pfc. Joseph Tolliver films James Ernst, 4, sliding on the playground for an upcoming AFN spot on summer safety. Armed Forces Network personnel in Vicenza, Italy, produce 15-20 spots a month on a variety of topics, helping fill in the gaps between the shows on AFN. (Kent Harris / S&S)

Anyone who watches American Forces Network television for even a few minutes is familiar with the public information spots that take the place commercials fill in stateside programming.

Anyone who watches AFN television regularly might think they’re a bit too familiar with such spots.

According to the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, though, repetition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Since it’s the message that counts, seeing and hearing it again (and again) might make it sink in.

“We try not to overexpose spots,” said Paul Waldrop, chief of the AFRTS radio and television production office. “But the information is still important to get out there.”

AFRTS and its AFN affiliates produce hundreds of such spots a year.

Why?

Programs are available to AFRTS “very inexpensively” because it doesn’t make money off them by selling commercial air time, Waldrop said. If commercials were aired, networks — and possibly host nations — would view their relationship with AFRTS differently.

Commercials make up 15 to 17 minutes of every hour of standard American programming. If spots weren’t produced to fill in the gaps, he said, audiences would have a hard time finding their favorite shows.

“You would have shows starting and stopping at all weird times,” Waldrop said. “It would be a train wreck.”

Most importantly, though, the spots are produced because AFN television and radio networks are designed not only to entertain, but pass along command information.

“We are here to be the conduit,” said Anne Cook, command information manager for AFN-Europe in Mannheim, Germany. “If [the commands] want a lot of spots, that’s what we’re on the books to provide.”

They’re provided at three different levels.

¶ Waldrop heads the effort to produce spots targeting all servicemembers around the globe. He’s got an in-house team of five contractors that produce about 100 spots a year. AFRTS also has a contract with Film House Inc. of Nashville, Tenn., to produce about 120 a year. Waldrop declined to say how much AFRTS pays for that contract, saying it’s too hard to break down the amount from the office’s overall budget.

Commercials are designed to last, with shelf lives of up to five years. They feature paid actors and can take months to produce. The in-house team generally tackles issues that are more urgent and quickly turned around.

¶ Cook runs a two-person team in Mannheim that handles spots targeting those stationed in Europe or the Middle East. The half-dozen or so commercials produced each month are designed to last no longer than three years. She said 75 percent of those currently on the air in Europe were produced this year or in 2006.

AFN South, based in Vicenza, Italy, also contributes to the Europe-wide effort, particularly helping with Navy oriented spots. The Army and Air Force have teams in Germany.

¶ Vicenza churns out a host of locally oriented material. Tech Sgt. Jennifer Wessner, noncommissioned officer in charge of command information, estimates about 15-20 spots are produced each month.

Aaron Talley, a senior producer who is a former Army broadcaster, has had a hand in “hundreds” in his nearly eight years in Vicenza. Talley and Cook say there are many challenges to produce quality spots.

Amateur actors or “talent” tops the list.

“If you’re lucky enough to have a local theater group you can tap into, it’s an ideal situation,” Cook said.

Talley said people often appreciate specific commercials in the States because they latch on to the celebrity touting the product. That usually doesn’t work in Europe, though AFN does try to snag visiting entertainers whenever it can.

Trying to get out a specific message in a form that won’t turn people off “is sometimes a difficult balance,” Talley said. “If it’s just entertainment, we’re not doing our job.”

Cook said it’s sometimes a challenge to tell a high-ranking commander that his or her message — or a proposed way of delivering it — needs some work. But she said every spot on the air comes at the request of someone who thinks it’s important.

“Folks think we kind of sit around, thinking: ‘what can we do a spot on today?’ ” she said. “That’s not how it works at all. We don’t come up with the message. Just the concept.”

Stripes asked:

“What is your favorite or least favorite AFN spot?”

Master Sgt. Russell Miglicio31st Maintenance Operations SquadronAviano Air Base, ItalyFavorite “One that comes to mind is an anti-terrorism commercial where the guy goes off base by himself and then it winds back to what should have been done. It’s kind of comical, but it gets across a good message.

Airman 1st Class Antone Moore603rd Air Control SquadronAviano Air Base, ItalyFavorite “The Army V Corps safety tips. They are kind of ridiculous. Other than that, they’re pretty good.”

Airman 1st Class Mark Sawtelle100th Logistics Readiness Squadron on RAF MildenhallLeast favorite The Navy commercial with the coin dropping on the ground. “The music gets really annoying.”Favorite “I like the ones with the celebrities.”

Airman 1st Class John Fox100th Maintenance Squadron on RAF MildenhallLeast favorite “The “Don’t shake your baby” commercial. “Nobody is going to shake their baby.”Favorite “I hate them all. I don’t like commercials.”

Tech. Sgt. Mike WilsonSupply officer at RAF Mildenhall’s Fire DepartmentLeast favorite The government travel card commercial. “It’s just boring.”Favorite “I like the ones that have quizzes about the States.”

— Geoff Ziezulewicz, Stars and Stripes

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

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