by Daniel Forbes
How The White House Secretly Hooked Network TV On Its Anti-Drug Message
Thu, 13 Jan 2000
Advertisements urging parents to love their kids and keep them off drugs dot urban bus stops across America. Anti-drug commercials fill Channel One in the nation's schools and the commercial breaks of network TV — most notably a comely, T-shirt-clad waif trashing her kitchen to demonstrate the dangers of heroin. We've come a long way from Nancy Reagan's clenched-teeth "Just Say No."
Few Americans, however, know of a hidden government effort to shoehorn anti-drug messages into the most pervasive and powerful billboard of all — network television programming.
Two years ago, the U.S. Congress inadvertently created an enormous financial incentive for TV programmers to push anti-drug messages in their plots — as much as $25 million in the past year and a half, with the promise of even more to come in the future. Under the sway of the office of President Clinton's drug czar, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, some of America's most popular shows — including "ER," "Beverly Hills 90210," "Chicago Hope," "The Drew Carey Show" and "7th Heaven" — have filled their episodes with anti-drug pitches to cash in on a complex government advertising subsidy.
Here's how helping the government got to be so lucrative.
In late 1997, Congress approved an immense, five-year, billion-dollar ad buy for anti-drug advertising as long as the networks sold ad time to the government at half price — a two-for-one deal that provided over $2 billion worth of ads for a $1 billion allocation.
But the five participating networks weren't crazy about the deal from the start. And when, soon after, they were deluged with the fruits of a booming economy, most particularly an unexpected wave of dot-com ads, they liked it even less.
So the drug czar's office, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), presented the networks with a compromise: The office would give up some of that precious ad time it had bought — in return for getting anti-drug motifs incorporated within specific prime-time shows. That created a new, more potent strain of the anti-drug social engineering the government wanted. And it allowed the TV networks to resell the ad time at the going rate to IBM, Microsoft or Yahoo.
Alan Levitt, the drug-policy official running the campaign, estimates that the networks have benefited to the tune of nearly $25 million thus far.
With this deal in place, government officials and their contractors began approving, and in some cases altering, the scripts of shows before they were aired to conform with the government's anti-drug messages. "Script changes would be discussed between ONDCP and the show — negotiated," says one participant.
Rick Mater, the WB network's senior vice president for broadcast standards, acknowledges: "The White House did view scripts. They did sign off on them - — they read scripts, yes."
The arrangement, uncovered by a six-month Salon News investigation, is known to only a few insiders in Hollywood, New York and Washington. Almost none of the producers and writers crafting the anti-drug episodes knew of the deal. And top officials from the five networks involved last season — NBC, ABC, CBS, the WB and Fox — for the most part refused to discuss it. The sixth network, UPN, failed to attract the government's interest the first year of the program; it joined the flock this current TV season.
The arrangement may violate payola laws that require networks to disclose, during a show's broadcast, arrangements with any party providing financial or other considerations, however direct or indirect. (We'll explore that issue in a separate article tomorrow.)
Legal or not, the plan raises a host of questions. "It sounds to me like a form of propaganda that is, in effect, for sale," says media watchdog Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation. Terming it a "venal practice" and "a form of mind control," he adds, "It's breathtaking to me that any [network's] sense of obligation to the viewing audience has a dollar sign attached to it."
Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm, says, "This is the most craven thing I've heard of yet. To turn over content control to the federal government for a modest price is an outrageous abandonment of the First Amendment ... The broadcasters scream about the First Amendment until McCaffrey opens his checkbook."
Former FCC chief counsel Robert Corn-Revere, now at the law firm Hogan & Hartson, calls the campaign "pretty insidious. Government surreptitiously planting anti-drug messages using the power of the purse raises red flags. Why is there no disclosure to the American public?"
The ONDCP, the powerful executive-branch department from which the anti-drug effort emanates, is more commonly known as the drug czar's office. McCaffrey, a Vietnam War hero, directs it and sits on Clinton's Cabinet.
The office oversees spending of nearly $18 billion annually for such activities as fighting peasants growing coca in Latin America, helping interdict drugs entering the United States, local law enforcement and research and treatment. Though Bob Dole savaged non-inhaler Clinton as weak on drugs during the 1996 presidential campaign, Clinton has quietly been Washington's most aggressive anti-drug warrior. Says Dr. Thomas H. Haines, City University of New York medical school professor and chair of the Partnership for Responsible Drug Information, "Clinton spent more federal money in the war on drugs in his first four years than was spent during Reagan's and Bush's 12 years combined."
But in the fall of 1997, the most prominent public face of America's anti-drug crusade belonged to the private Partnership for a Drug-Free America. With major funding from a foundation fueled by the estate of the founder of Johnson & Johnson, along with other corporate support, the partnership bills itself as a "nonpartisan coalition of professionals from the communications industry."
Founded in 1986, the partnership has garnered hundreds of millions of dollars a year in donated media space and time, hitting its peak with over $360 million annually in both 1990 and 1991. But by 1997, donated media had declined to $222 million, the group was suffering a decrease in both the quantity and quality of its donated space and time, and the targeted teens had become inured to its oft-parodied "This is your brain on drugs" message.
The partnership's chairman, James E. Burke, began to lobby Congress to add money for paid ads to the drug czar's budget. Though then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich didn't need much convincing, other Republicans had to overcome two objections to a new federal expenditure of this size: Some wondered if the highly visible effort would just let the president and other Democrats claim credit as crusading anti-drug warriors; others worried about showering money on Clinton's perceived allies in Hollywood. "Some on the Hill wanted to just cut a check to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America," says one Capitol Hill insider.
Burke and the partnership eventually won the Republicans over. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds the media campaign, says, "We were persuaded by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America to spend tax dollars" to get the message out in prime time.
So in October 1997, Congress approved an extravagant plan to buy a $1 billion worth of anti-drug advertising. The drug office got about $200 million annually for five years, beginning in fiscal year 1998, and was charged with targeting both the nation's youth and "adult influencers." The office billed the job in a 1998 press release as "the largest and most complex social-marketing campaign ever undertaken."
Approximately two-thirds of the office's ad budget was targeted at TV; the rest was sprinkled among everything from billboards to radio, newspaper, magazine and Internet advertising.
But Congress, feeling that the networks should also contribute to the war on drugs, drove a hard, two-for-one bargain: for every ad the government bought, it demanded another of equal value for free.
"It was contingent on a private-sector match," says John Bridgeland, former chief aide to Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who fought for the deal. "No member of Congress was going to pass new money for this without a match" — that is, without that second ad slot.
Indeed, with only $1 billion budgeted to it by Congress, the office refers to its "five-year, $2 billion ... campaign." McCaffrey himself called it "our major prevention initiative, the $2 billion five-year Anti-Drug Media Campaign."
The government's paid ads began running on five of the nation's networks, all but lowly UPN, during the summer of 1998. One TV ad features a scruffy, plainspoken teen who boasts of a sterling academic record before succumbing to marijuana and getting thrown out of the house. Then there's the one mentioned above: the waif-like Gen-Xer taking a frying pan to her kitchen, supposedly to demonstrate the terrors of heroin addiction. The actress is budding young star Rachael Leigh Cook of "She's All That."
How did the networks' two-for-one ad deal evolve into a plan to insert messages into programming content? Bridgeland says that wasn't the original idea. "I don't think we thought of programming content as a match ... [It] was not actively discussed," he says — a point that Kolbe echoes.
The half-price deal got a mixed reception from the networks. NBC, the most highly rated network in 1998, with the most valuable ad slots, initially balked for some three months. The chief ad buyer for the drug czar's office, Zenith Media Services Inc. CEO Richard Hamilton, oversaw negotiations with the networks. NBC, he says, made a "business decision."
Then in the ratings doldrums, ABC had fewer qualms. Says Bart Catalane, former CFO of ABC Broadcasting: "Given the way ad-spending had been going, we needed every category, particularly a growing one like government spending. We wanted to grab every share we could." Indeed, the first year of the office's ad campaign, ABC grabbed nearly $30 million worth, half again as much as Fox, its nearest rival at $20 million.
Even high-flying NBC eventually went along; participants say that the network came around after hearing about its rivals' barrels of government cash. Half a loaf was considered better than none, especially from a baker with a projected five-year supply of flour. "This was before the market got so tight," says one former contractor to the drug-policy office. "This was before all the dot-com ads. When we started, the market was less bullish."
But selling time at half price never went down smoothly, and Hamilton reported back that the networks weren't happy. Hence, in the spring of 1998, Alan Levitt, who runs the office's advertising campaign, and Zenith boss Hamilton cooked up the novel idea of using programming — that is, the plots of sitcoms and dramas — to redeem the second ad slot owed the government.
"We did this to make it a little bit more obtainable to participants," Levitt says. "I know it's allowed us to make some deals we wouldn't normally make before. There are some media outlets that have not been able to — are not financially able, or they don't have the structure where they can give us print space or programming or time. And so we can make it more flexible for them."
That spring of 1998, Hamilton and Levitt agreed that sitcoms and dramas that met with the drug-policy office's approval could be used in lieu of the ad slots still owed to the government. Formulas would be applied to determine the cash value of these embedded messages, and the networks would then be free to resell the commercials they otherwise would have given to the government.
Ultimately, the ONDCP developed an accounting system to decide which shows would be valued and for how much. And its officials began to vet television shows in advance, sometimes suggesting alterations. Tapes of the show as broadcast were sent to the office or its ad buyer to be assigned a final monetary value, which would then be subtracted from the total the particular network owed the office.
The drug office and its ad buyers received advance copies of the scripts from most networks, often more than once as a particular episode developed over time. In some cases, the networks and the office would wrangle over the changes requested. Says an office contractor, "You'd see a lot of give and take: 'Here's the script, what do you think?'" He adds, "I helped out on a number of scripts. They ran the scripts past us, and we gave comments. We'd say, 'It's great you're doing this, but inadvertently you're conveying something'" off-message.
This contractor prevailed upon the producers of the WB's "Smart Guy" to change the original script's portrayal of two substance-abusing kids at a party. They were originally depicted as cool and popular; after the drug office input, "We showed that they were losers and put them [hidden away to indulge in shamed secrecy] in a utility room. That was not in the original script," this contractor says.
The scheme worked like this: According to a set, numerical formula, the drug-policy office assigned financial value to each show's anti-drug message. If the office decided that a half-hour sufficiently pushed an endorsed anti-drug theme, it got valued at three "units," with each unit equaling the cost of one 30-second ad on that show. Hour shows presenting an approved story line were valued at five units, equal to the cost of five of that show's 30-second ads. (Ads on higher-rated shows — shows that deliver more eyeballs — cost more. Therefore, shows with higher ratings, which disseminated ONDCP's message more widely, achieved higher valuations.)
For example, the drug czar's office bought approximately $20 million of advertising time from News Corp., the Rupert Murdoch-owned global media conglomerate that owns Fox. Therefore, News Corp. owed the United States an additional $20 million in matching ad slots from its inventory of ad time.
To partially meet its "match," and thus recoup some of the ad time owed the government, Fox submitted a two-episode "Beverly Hills 90210" story arc involving a character's downward spiral into addiction. Employing the formula based on the price of an ad on "90210," the episodes were eventually valued at between $500,000 and $750,000, says one executive close to the deal. As Kayne Lanahan, senior VP at News Corp One, Fox's media and marketing operation, describes it, " There were ongoing discussions with Zenith. They looked at each episode and how prevalent the story line was." Lanahan adds, "We occasionally show [them] scripts when they're in development, and the final script, and then send a tape after it airs."
This Salon reporter was able to identify some two dozen shows where specific single or multiple episodes containing anti-drug themes were assigned a monetary value by the drug czar's office and its two ad buyers: Zenith and its eventual replacement, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.
In return for, apparently, several episodes with anti-drug subplots, highly rated "ER" redeemed $1.4 million worth of time for NBC to be able to sell elsewhere. "The Practice" recouped $500,000 worth of time for ABC to sell if it wished. And antidrug messages woven into "90210" redeemed between $500,000 and $750,000.
Other shows with episodes that redeemed ad time for the networks during the 1998-99 season include: "Home Improvement," valued at approximately $525,000 for ABC; "Chicago Hope," valued at probably $500,000 or more (CBS); "Sports Night," a valuation of around $450,000 (ABC); "7th Heaven," valued at around $200,000 (WB); and "The Wayans Bros." with its relatively paltry ratings, kicking in only approximately $110,000 (WB).
In addition, the following shows also redeemed ad time last season, though this reporter could not determine their monetary value: "Promised Land" and "Cosby" on CBS; "Trinity," "Providence" and several episodes of the four teenoriented Saturday-morning live-action shows on NBC; and "The Drew Carey Show," "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," "Boy Meets World" and "General Hospital" on ABC.
The process unfolded over time, with some scripts reviewed more than once. When a draft of the script was available, the network sales department would alert the drug czar's ad buyer. And then the office's Alan Levitt, or his colleague Jill Bartholomew, became involved. They'd get a copy of the script — though ABC maintains it was an exception to this step — and then provide "a quick turnaround" with their reactions, says one insider.
The drug-policy office typically verified the particular episode as being onmessage and appropriate for a match. "If a kid was offered a joint and said, 'No thanks,' in a way that was on-strategy, it was that simple. It was a judgment call by the network, the agency and the client," says this source.
Other anti-drug, government-endorsed plots were as subtle as a brick through a window. "Chicago Hope" is owned in part by News Corp. subsidiary 20th Century Fox Television. Though CBS was the potential beneficiary of any ONDCP-approved "Chicago Hope" episode, an agreeable News Corp. exec, Mark Stroman, phoned John Tinker, an executive producer on "Chicago Hope," to request an anti-drug episode. Facing cancellation and commanding scant leverage with the show's owners, the "Chicago Hope" producers dusted off a previously rejected script and decided it could stand another rewrite.
As broadcast, the graphically anti-drug story of the tragedies afflicting young post-rave revelers featured drug-induced death, rape, psychosis, a nasty two-car wreck, a broken nose and a doctor's threat to skip life-saving surgery unless the patient agreed to an incriminating urine test — along with a canceled flight on the space shuttle.
Other drug office-approved shows featured: a career-devastating, pot-induced freakout of angel-dust proportions ("The Wayans Bros."); blanket drug tests at work ("The Drew Carey Show") and for a school basketball team (NBC's Saturday morning "Hang Time"); death behind the wheel due to alcohol and pot combined ("Sports Night"); kids caught with marijuana or alcohol pressed to name their supplier ("Cosby" and "Smart Guy"); and a young teen becoming an undercover police drug informant after a minister, during formal counseling, tells his parents he should ("7th Heaven").
At least one show, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," was rejected after it showed itself to be immune to the drug office's worldview. "Drugs were an issue, but it wasn't on-strategy. It was otherworldly nonsense, very abstract and not like real-life kids taking drugs. Viewers wouldn't make the link to our message," says someone in the drug-policy office camp who read and helped reject it.
Levitt, the office's point man on the campaign, downplays the money's influence on the networks' "voluntary" creative decisions. He likens the process to the (non-monetary) Prism Awards for socially responsible television. "The government is not dictating these kinds of changes," he says. "We will provide an incentive, a financial incentive."
Levitt insists that his office is trying solely to achieve accurate portrayals of drugs -- not any overall increase in the number of anti-drug episodes broadcast. Be that as it may, by the office's own count, the number of shows with anti-drug themes (whether financially boosted by the office or not) has risen from 32 as of last March to 109 this winter.
Whatever the intent of the government program, it was deemed sensitive enough to be kept under wraps. The TV producers typically knew nothing of the money involved. Says Levitt, "In almost every instance that I'm aware of, the [creative] people coming to us have no understanding at all of the pro bono match. They have no idea." Asked if they should know of the financial arrangement, Levitt says no: "We're not trying to intrude on their creative freedom. If the perception is such that we are trying to influence the [TV] program financially — well, I won't go any further."
This reporter spoke with some 20 writers, producers and production executives for major shows. With perhaps one exception, nobody knew of the arrangement.
John Tinker, last season's "Chicago Hope" executive producer, took the News Corp. call requesting an anti-drug episode. He recalls no mention of CBS being able to recoup something like half a million dollars in ad time for the one shrill episode he helped craft at the show owner's request. He says the financial incentives are "complete news to me." He adds, "I'm so caught off guard, so stunned. I like to think I'm well informed. I had not a clue about any financial incentives." Asked if the scheme gave him cause for concern, Tinker says, "Of course. It smells manipulative ... All of this is disturbing."
Tinker's response would undoubtedly be shared by many in Hollywood's creative community. One network sales executive who's worked with the drugpolicy office acknowledges that if producers were to learn that scripts were being altered, that would "start a nightmare." This executive adds, "I don't need it getting back to [a particular powerhouse producer]. I'm in a tough situation between the client and the shows."
Realizing how tough it might get, a lot of top brass shied from trumpeting their enlistment in the drug war. In a brief conversation, Rosalyn Weinman, NBC's executive vice president for content policy and East Coast entertainment, said that the drug office did not exercise "script approval," but conceded that there had been conversations about broad issues or "specific concerns." Other NBC officials declined comment. Two other NBC executives implicitly confirmed the deals, however.
Senior management and public relations officials at each of the other four networks involved last season — ABC, CBS, the WB and Fox — were contacted, but offered little in the way of substantive comment.
While no current Fox executive would comment on the network's cooperation with the government, Rob Dwek, the network's former executive vice president of comedy and drama series, maintained that the financial incentives have "no impact on what we do creatively — it would have no effect on the direction of a show ... It's not noticeable, it doesn't hurt the quality of our product, and it allows us to be responsible."
An ABC public relations exec, speaking anonymously, confirmed the network's participation in the deal. "Halfway through the year ['98-'99 season], ONDCP said we can meet the match ... if programming was appropriate. I don't know the month. But it was after setting up the [matching ads] schedule."
CBS president Leslie Moonves had nothing to say. A CBS spokesman said simply, "CBS is proud to be working with the government in regard to the war on drugs."
Michael Mandelker, executive VP of network sales for UPN, sounded enthusiastic about the program. Speaking this summer, he said he'd "already started a dialog with programming. Somewhere there will be shows that qualify."
Mandelker said he urged UPN entertainment president Tom Nunan to drum up support for anti-drug messages with producers, asking him: "Is there a way to have these kinds of story lines as you talk to producers?" Mandelker adds, "I imagine ONDCP will look at a couple of scripts in the first year to make sure our interpretation is theirs." He stated further, referring to UPN's strategy: "Tom approaches the producers. We [sales] can't do anything for them. Tom can pick up a show."
Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin, vice chairman Ted Turner and the WB head office all declined comment.
The drug office's campaign is only just approaching full flower.
The teen-friendly WB (home to "7th Heaven" and the since-cancelled "The Wayans Bros.") has, for example, "significantly" expanded its anti-drug messages, one insider notes, with the drug office more than doubling its WB buy this season. The WB had initial plans for "at least five" programs with anti-drug content counting as a match, the source adds.
"Last year was the program's first year," he points out, "and a lot of companies didn't understand the match." He predicts the practice will only increase as the networks come to understand it as an effective way to free up valuable ad time otherwise sold at half-price.
WASHINGTON SCRIPT DOCTORS
How The Government Rewrote An Episode Of The WB's "Smart Guy."
By Daniel Forbes
Jan. 13, 2000 | Like much of network television aimed at a youthful audience, "Smart Guy," a WB network sitcom that went on the air in April 1997 and was cancelled this past spring, was full of lessons about growing up. It told the story of T.J. Henderson, played by Tahj Mowry, a genius of sorts who finds himself in high school at the age of 10, grappling with the pressures that beset his older peers.
But in the case of one episode, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) thought "Smart Guy's" moral instruction could be made even more explicit — and, with the active cooperation of the show's producers, the government proceeded to do just that.
The original script of the episode, which eventually aired May 19, 1999, placed T.J. at a kids-only party, where he encounters two older boys he'd known before he skipped several grades in school. As first conceived, the two boys were the life of the party, their coolness evidenced among other things by their precocious ability to score some beer.
They convince an impressed T.J. to indulge. He returns to the party sloshed, makes a fool of himself and spills a soda all over a girl he's trying to dazzle. Hung over the next day, he compounds his sins by lying to his father about his condition. Later, his new friends drop by with some peppermint schnapps. Dad walks in on their debaucheries, and all hell breaks loose.
The episode was written primarily by freelance film and television writer Steve Young. Young first pitched the alcohol-themed story in 1997. It was rejected, he believes, at least in part because Disney (the show's partial owner) recoiled from having its young character involved with booze. But well over a year later, Young suddenly received a phone call from "Smart Guy" executive producer Bob Young (no relation), who told him, "Remember that show we said we're never going to do? We're doing it."
The booze-themed script was revived after WB senior VP for programming John Litvack suggested a drinking or drugs episode to the "Smart Guy's" producers. (While most of the shows that the drug-policy office influences deal with drugs, the office permits about 10 percent of them to be alcohol-related.)
Says "Smart Guy" creator Danny Kallis: "The WB came to us and asked if we'd consider doing a drugs or drinking show." Tahj Mowry's mother would have objected to a show concerning drugs. But fortunately, the producers had on hand Steve Young's previously rejected script.
Once the script was resurrected, Kallis recalls that the WB "put us in touch with the White House, with Alan Levitt [the drug-policy point man for the media campaign]." "Smart Guy" producer Young says that show staffers spoke to three or four outsiders on "the most effective way to reach teens," including Levitt and other social-marketing experts whom Levitt referred them to.
ONDCP and its consultants offered "a few dictates," Young says. No mention of beer brand names. T.J. had to be "clearly inebriated" and the negative consequences of drinking had to be emphasized, including — worse even than T.J.'s embarrassment with the girl — his breach of trust with his father. And father and son had to (eventually) have a heart-to-heart talk.
Writer Young recalls that the scenes in which T.J. is counseled by his father were crafted with the government consultants' input. He says the show's producers were "concerned that we didn't say anything that diverges from" the consultants' paradigm.
Among the consultants Levitt steered Kallis, Young and their writers to was George Carey, president of Just Kid Inc. of Stamford, Conn., an expert on effective youth marketing. Carey says he consulted with ONDCP on "a couple of shows." Around last February, a couple of months after the decision to revive the beer episode, Carey participated in a conference call with the producers of "Smart Guy." He says, "The holding company [the WB] was looking for ways to fulfill the match" — i.e. make the show palatable to the drug czar's office.
In that phone conference, Carey delineated a few more specific themes dear to the drug-policy office's heart: Parents need to take an active role, not just assume kids can handle these issues on their own; "resistance skills," that is, saying no to drug or alcohol inducements in a face-saving way, are crucial; and, as always, the overall negative consequences of drugs and under-age alcohol use.
Producer Young recalls two or three other ONDCP contractors augmenting Carey's ministrations to "Smart Guy." By the time everyone was done shaping the script, it had changed significantly. The two older boys were turned into goofy and unappealing clowns, one of whom T.J. remembers from the "slowreading class." Instead of trying to ingratiate himself with a couple of winners, as the original script had it, T.J. finds himself dragged down to their inferior level. A second drug-policy office contractor who worked on the script says, "We showed that they were losers and put them in a utility room [rather than out in the main party]. That was not in the original script."
Asked whether it's proper to have government consultants shaping a TV program's scripts, WB programming chief Litvack says, "Sure, absolutely. It's a good idea if he knows more than we do."
PROPAGANDA FOR DOLLARS
When The White House And The TV Networks Got Together To Put Anti-Drug Messages In Prime-Time Television, Were They Breaking The Law?
by Daniel Forbes
Salon http://www.salon.com/ Fri, 14 Jan 2000
Has the federal government embarked on an illegal payola scam with the nation's television networks? And has the nation's drug czar blown smoke at Congress to escape ongoing congressional oversight?
A Salon exclusive published Thursday described a hidden government campaign to insert anti-drug messages into TV programs. The arrangement was concocted by the office of the nation's drug czar, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, and its ad buyer and was carried out by the six networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, the WB, Fox, and, this TV season, UPN.
As disclosed Thursday, the scheme began in fiscal year 1998, when Congress appropriated nearly $200 million a year over five years for paid anti-drug advertising. But there was a catch: Congress said the networks had to give the government a two-for-one deal on the ads. Instead, the networks and government officials decided that anti-drug themes and stories in prime-time TV shows could take the place of the free ads. Ultimately, promulgating government-approved propaganda afforded the networks the opportunity to earn buckets of extra cash.
The arrangement raises legal questions. Some observers think the government may have run afoul of the nation's anti-payola regulations. Payola entered public consciousness during the 1950s, when rock 'n' roll impresarios were convicted of bribery for paying DJs and radio stations to play specific records.
The payola laws that followed require broadcasters to reveal any financial considerations, direct or indirect, that yield on-air exposure. Today, in the arrangement uncovered by Salon, the networks are earning millions in financial incentives from the government in exchange for inserting anti-drug plots in TV shows.
Is the practice illegal? Perhaps.
Clearly federal law requires that anyone financially influencing or contributing to programming content be revealed at the time of broadcast. That's why gameshow credits include disclosures like, "Joe Game-Show Host's suits provided by Botany 500." The drug-policy office's financial incentives certainly could be construed as, to quote the law, "matter for which money, service or other valuable consideration is either directly or indirectly paid or promised to, or charged or accepted by such station ..."
Andrew Jay Schwartzman of the Media Access Project says there's a "rigid requirement" to disclose direct or indirect sponsorship. While he couldn't say for certain, Schwartzman believes "It's likely it's a violation."
An FCC enforcement bureau official says, "I was not aware [of the ONDCP financial incentives]." He adds, "We haven't received any complaints yet. If we do receive a complaint, we'll proceed from there."
Whether or not the deal is illegal, it's clear that it wasn't exactly what Congress had in mind when it authorized the drug-ad funding. And until recently, no one in Congress knew much about what the drug czar's office had been up to — and many still don't.
Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chair of the House subcommittee that appropriates funds for the drug office, says he had no idea until late last year that anti-drug shows were being used to free up half-priced ad time owed to the government. Alan Levitt, the official who runs the campaign for the drug-policy office, can name no members of Congress who knew of the arrangement prior to this fall, two years after the campaign's initiation.
In the past, before both the House and the Senate, McCaffrey has referred to the deal only obliquely, making reference to "entertainment venues" or "pro bono programming." In March 1999, for example, he called the arrangement "an equal added dollar's worth of anti-drug public service, pro bono activity." Nowhere did he tell Congress that his office was horse-trading valuable advertising time for TV shows that promulgated the government's anti-drug messages.
After Kolbe learned of the deal from this reporter, he summoned McCaffrey for explanation, and the snow job continued. McCaffrey appeared before Kolbe's appropriations subcommittee in October 1999. There McCaffrey made his most direct, if brief, statement yet: "We allow public affairs and programming to count as part of a network's public service contributions," he said. But even this was buried in a complex discussion of formulas, and he did not make it clear that the practice frees up millions of dollars in advertising time for the networks.
Following the hearing, Kolbe declared himself "satisfied that it's legitimate." Nonetheless, he marvels at the unusual Hollywood-government pact: "I never thought of it before, and I'm still not sure that Congress intended it."
San Jose Mercury News, 17 Jan 2000
DRUG OFFICE SNEAKS MESSAGE INTO PRIME TIME
TROUBLED LOSER: ``Want to try some illegal drugs?''
SERIES REGULAR: ``I'd rather play sports and perform community service.
TROUBLED LOSER: ``Oh no! I've just flunked out of school, gone to jail, lost my friends, hurt my family and wrecked my kitchen due to my illegal drug use.''
SERIES REGULAR: ``I see that drug abuse has bad consequences. I'm going to have a heart-to-heart talk with my parents.''
SERIES DAD: ``Your mother and I think that drugs are wrong.''
SERIES MOM: ``Your father and I think that drugs are dangerous too.''
SERIES REGULAR: ``Drugs are for troubled losers.''
THIS is your favorite TV show. This is your favorite show on anti-drug money.
This is ``Beverly Hills 90210,'' ``ER,'' ``Chicago Hope,'' ``The Drew Carey Show,'' ``Seventh Heaven,'' ``The Practice,'' ``Home Improvement,'' ``Sports Night,'' ``Promised Land,'' ``Cosby,'' ``Trinity,'' ``Providence,'' ``Sabrina the Teenage Witch,'' ``Boy Meets World,'' ``General Hospital'' and others.
But when the credits roll at the end of the show, something's missing: White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey, the secret scriptwriter, won't be listed.
After a six-month investigation, the online magazine Salon (www.salon.com) has reported that the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy is financially compensating networks for inserting its anti-drug message into prime-time programming. It's payola for propaganda.
In late 1997, Congress funded a five-year, $1 billion anti-drug media campaign, demanding that broadcasters provide one free ad for every ad paid for by the government. Regular ad sales were slow, so the five major networks — ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and WB — went along.
But the buy-one-get-one-free deal quickly soured when e-commerce exploded, writes Daniel Forbes for Salon. Dot-com advertisers were willing to pay full price for the time networks were giving away to community service ads.
In the spring of 1988, a payola deal was struck: The networks would turn selected sitcoms and dramas into anti-drug commercials. In exchange, they'd get back some of the ad time they owed the government and be able to resell it.
Most networks have been sending a copy of anti-drug scripts to the drug czar's office for approval or rewriting, according to Salon. In most cases, writers and producers didn't know their network bosses had sold script control.
The May 19 episode of ``Smart Guy,'' a WB sitcom about a 10-year-old genius in high school, is an example, Forbes reported.
A WB executive requested a drugs or drinking script, so the producer revived a previously rejected script in which the main character, T.J., drinks beer to impress two popular older boys at a party. It showed T.J. getting drunk, acting stupidly, spilling soda on a girl he wanted to impress, suffering a hangover and getting in trouble with Dad.
The drug czar's consultants insisted that the older boys couldn't be portrayed as popular or cool. They were turned into clownish losers; T.J. recalled one was in the ``slow reading class.''
Their beer drinking was moved from the main party to a utility room to suggest shameful secrecy.
T.J. was required to take a dose of the ``anti-drug,'' a heart-to-heart talk with his father.
By contrast, no deal was struck with ``Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'' which features a college freshman who battles adolescent angst and the ubiquitous spawn of Satan.
The drug message wasn't ``on-strategy,'' according to a drug policy officer who nixed the script. ``It was otherworldly nonsense, very abstract and not like real-life kids taking drugs.''
Buffy's struggle against the soullessness of her peers is very relevant to the choices young people face. But subtlety is not the strong suit of the anti-drug campaign.
While the drug czar's office claims to want realistic portrayals of substance abuse, they really mean 100 percent negative portrayals, even if those don't ring true.
In real life, drinkers are sometimes popular and cool, and don't hide in the utility room at parties. Fast readers experiment with drugs out of curiosity — they've heard so much about it in drug ed — and usually don't become addicts.
The reasons people use drugs and alcohol are complex; the consequences vary depending on the person and the drug. ``On strategy'' is off reality.
Prime-time TV isn't promoting drugs, according to a Mediascope study released last week by the drug czar's office. Only a few episodes show illicit drug use, and nearly all show negative consequences, the study found. Underage smoking and drinking also is rare, though adult drinking is often portrayed as — horrors! — ``a positive experience.''
I don't mind if TV writers and producers choose to send simple messages through their shows: Say no to drugs. Talk to your children. Fasten your seat belt. Love thy neighbor — but use condoms.
It violates the movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn's advice: ``If you want to send a message, try Western Union.'' But it's only TV after all.
What's alarming is when the government becomes the scriptwriter, manipulating public opinion with the public's money. The secrecy makes it more sinister: If it's OK to have the drug czar approving scripts, how come nobody knew about it till Salon broke the story?
``Big Brother is watching you,'' George Orwell warned in ``1984.''
As it turns out: You're watching Big Brother.
Chicago Tribune, 18 Jan 2000
JUST SAY 'NO' TO BIG BROTHER
The failing war on drugs has caused so much collateral damage to America's precious constitutional safeguards that it may have been unrealistic to think our most precious one would go unscathed.
What really hurts, though, is the way media executives sold the First Amendment so cheap.
No sense blaming the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy for doling out millions of dollars in regulatory relief in return for oversight of network television scripts. Or even blaming Congress for the 1997 law that requires media outlets to sell ad time to anti-drug campaigns for half price.
It is in government's nature to be invasive. That's why the first Americans insisted on a Bill of Rights.
What the Framers did not reckon on, however, was a multimedia oligopoly in which corporate profitability would so readily override good judgment.
So it did not take long for sharp minds in advertising to come up with this modest proposal: Instead of forgoing millions in ad revenue to accommodate federal public service announcements, why not include an anti-drug message in the shows themselves? Of course, someone at the White House would have to decide how much of a dispensation each script was worth. But we're all on the same side in the war on drugs. What's the harm?
The harm, of course, is the awful precedent set by any arrangement in which government confers financial favor on selected media based on content.
This isn't the River Rubicon being crossed. It's the Atlantic Ocean.
If it's OK for "Beverly Hills 90210" to claim a credit for an anti-drug script, why not extend the courtesy to "7th Heaven" for promoting Judeo-Christian values? Or whatever values happen to be in vogue at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
One can forgive media middle-managers for a certain amount of confusion on these matters. Traditional distinctions are fast fading between news and entertainment, fantasy and reality, art and commerce. Advertisers are paying big bucks to have their gym shoes, soda pop and sport-utility vehicles used as props. Dan Rather, the news anchor icon, recently gave his Millennium report in front of a live shot of Times Square in which another network's neon logo was electronically replaced by the CBS eye.
Reality or promotion? Artistic freedom or government bribe? The new giants of Big Media each need to assign someone who can determine and patrol the difference.
DrugSense FOCUS Alert # 154 January 15, 2000
ONDCP/PDFA Accused of Propaganda and Influence Peddling
--- Make Writing At Least One Letter a Week Your Commitment to Reform
Together we ARE making a difference ---
The tax-funded anti-drug propaganda campaign sponsored by the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America is being closely scrutinized in the wake of a story first published by the online journal Salon (see http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2000/01/13/drugs/index.html).
The story concerns ONDCP/PDFA efforts to place anti-drug messages not only in TV advertisements, but into television programs themselves. The networks were not only rewarded with ads (and ad money) for working anti-drug messages into programming, the networks actually got federal money without running ads (thus leaving the ad space open for other paying advertisers) if the anti-drug messages were deemed effective enough. Also, the narcs were allowed review and suggest changes for scripts before the shows were actually produced.
Variations of the Salon story have been prominently featured throughout major media organizations ever since the story broke. While most of the stories (like the one from the Washington Post below) focus on the questionable ethics of such an arrangement, the damage from the propaganda is much worse. By allowing the drug warriors even more access to spread their poisonous messages, the networks have attempted to push the debate about drug policy away from reason. Please write a letter to the Washington Post or any other major newspaper to protest this latest attempt to escalate the drug war.
Thanks for your effort and support.
WRITE A LETTER TODAY
It's not what others do it's what YOU do
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Source: Washington Post (DC) Contact: http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/edit/letters/letterform.htm
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Send a copy of your letter to other major newspapers in the US. Please don't use the CC or the BCC function; send each as a separate message.
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Send a copy of your letter to your own local newspaper or any other newspaper around the country. This is a huge story that has been covered almost everywhere.
SAMPLE LETTER (sent)
To the Editor of the Washington Post:
I was glad to see some of the mischief caused by the federally-funded anti-drug media campaign finally exposed ("WHITE HOUSE, NETWORKS CUT ANTI-DRUG DEAL," Jan. 14). Many have rightly questioned the ethics of secret government payoffs to television networks that worked anti-drug propaganda into programming. However, more basic questions need to be asked about the media campaign's relationship to other drug policy issues.
Why, for example, does the Clinton administration want to shell out more than $1.3 billion to the Colombian government to escalate the civil war there? To fight illegal drugs, the administration tells us. And why do we have to fight drugs? Because everyone knows that they are inherently evil. And how do we know for ourselves? Because on TV, only the bad people use and sell illegal drugs, and if any good people get involved with drugs, terrible things happen to them.
The real goals of the anti-drug propaganda campaign have little to do with keeping kids (or anyone else) away from drugs. The campaign is designed to cause hysteria, and that hysteria is harnessed to justify any number of evils, from scaling back civil liberties to turning the prison system into a tightly packed gulag.
If those people who engineer the drug war didn't constantly promote fear and hate as the only proper responses to illegal drugs, maybe we could look at the situation more realistically to find an approach that doesn't cause more harm than good.
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Prepared by Stephen Young - http://home.att.net/~theyoungfamily Focus Alert Specialist
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