In Deal With TV Networks, U.S. Drug Office Reviews

In Deal With TV Networks, U.S. Drug Office Reviews
Posted by FoM on January 14, 2000 at 10:39:18 PT
By Marc Lacey with Bill Carter
Source: New York Times
 Over the last two years, the White House has reviewed some scripts and advance footage of such television shows as "E.R." and "Beverly Hills 90210" under a little-known financial agreement with the networks that encourages them to include anti-drug messages in plots of programs. 
As part of the arrangement, White House drug policy officials scrutinized in advance more than 100 episodes on all the major networks. If the government signs off on a particular show, the networks receive credit that reduces the number of costly public service announcements they are forced by law to broadcast. The government officials, in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said they had made some programming suggestions to the networks. But television executives, who are participating in the effort voluntarily with an eye on the bottom line, insist that they never gave control of the content of their shows to the government. "NBC has never ceded creative control of any of our programs" to the drug policy office or any other department of government, said Rosalyn Weinman, the executive vice president of content policy for NBC. The other networks issued similar statements. But various networks and television studio executives said they did look for episodes that might satisfy the interests of the drug office. The practice surfaced today in a critical report on Salon, an Internet magazine, that labeled the practice "prime-time propaganda." Although not widely known, the programming effort had been outlined by Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, director of the drug policy office, in a Congressional hearing last fall. Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm, told Salon, "This is the most craven thing I've ever heard of yet. To turn over content control to the federal government for a modest price is an outrageous abandonment of the First Amendment." Under the program, government officials get an advance look at whatever shows the networks want to submit and an opportunity to make the case that anti-drug messages be inserted. Occasionally, the drug policy office might suggest that a scene be changed or a line rewritten to show characters turning down marijuana or ruining their lives through cocaine, said Alan Levitt, an official in the drug policy office who helped create the program. In the vast majority of cases, Mr. Levitt said, no suggestions are made. Officials with the drug policy office defended the arrangement as an effective way to spread anti-drug messages to young people without infringing on creativity. Drug use among young people has dropped by 15 percent in the last year, drug policy office officials said, crediting both a government advertising blitz and anti-drug programming. "I guess we plead guilty to using every lawful means of saving America's children," said Bob Weiner, a spokesman for the drug office. "But we don't interfere in the creative process. We don't say they can't run anything. We don't tell them what to say or not to say." Representative Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican whose appropriations subcommittee finances the drug policy office, approved, saying: "It's a new program. We're going to watch it closely. Certainly some questions have been raised about it. But we want to get the message out to young people." Mr. Levitt said all the major networks had participated in the arrangement, saving more than $20 million in advertising costs. Although he listed numerous shows that had been reviewed by his office -- including "E.R.," "Touched by an Angel" and "Cosby" -- he declined to provide the list. Congress in 1997 financed a huge anti-drug advertising campaign that required media outlets to match any advertising time bought by the federal government with public service time. That essentially gives the drug office and other government agencies the ability to buy advertisements at half price. But since 1997, the demand for television advertising has risen, and networks were seeking to sell more time at full price. So the government worked out a compromise: networks can reduce the amount of advertising time they are required to provide by broadcasting anti-drug shows. The networks can then sell air time that would have gone to the government for half price to regular advertisers for full price. Every network issued statements asserting that it had never ceded any control over its shows' content to any governmental office. Yet all but one acknowledged having sent either final drafts of scripts or tapes of completed shows to the advertising agency representing the drug office, seeking credit from the government. The exception was the new and smaller network, WB, which conceded that it had submitted scripts in progress from "Smart Guy" and "The Wayans Brothers." Both shows were doing episodes on the theme of drug use, and both altered their scripts as a result of suggestions by government personnel. Jamie Kellner, the chief executive of WB, said his network's motivation was to "try to find expertise" to help make the episodes accurate. "We submitted the scripts to get their input and make sure we were handling the stories in the most responsible way," Mr. Kellner said. "They're not editing the scripts," he said. "They may say something like, 'This will only work in the story if the person is truly inebriated.' " Like several other producers whose shows were used to help generate network credits, John Tinker, who produced the medical drama series "Chicago Hope," never knew that his shows were being sent to the government. "I would certainly have liked to know about it," Mr. Tinker said. Aides said General McCaffrey was not available for comment today. At a hearing in October before a House appropriations subcommittee, the general outlined the complicated system of credits. "An on-strategy story line that is the main plot of a half-hour show can be valued at three 30-second ads," he said. "If there is an end tag with an 800 number or more information at the end of a half-hour show, it is valued at an additional 15-second ad. A main story line in an hourlong prime-time show is valued at five 30-second ads, while such a story line in a one-hour daytime show is valued at four 30-second ads." The general also discussed the complexity of sending the right message, saying: "We realize that you cannot shoehorn a drug message in a script where it does not belong. It must appear organically. Sometimes only a one-second frown or wave of the hand when someone is offered marijuana is all that is needed." Rich Hamilton, an advertising executive who helped create the arrangement, said the program did not force networks to offer anti-drug shows. "We'd say to a television network, 'You're already doing this and it's great you're doing this,' " said Mr. Hamilton, chief executive for the North America operations of Zenith Media Services in New York. " 'And if you're planning, once our paid campaign begins, to continue this, send us the script and we will not rule out giving you credits for it.' " Published: January 14, 2000Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company Related Articles:White House Tie to Anti-Drug TV Scripts Criticized - 1/14/2000 House Cut Anti-Drug Deal With TV - 1/14/2000 Magazine:Washington Script Doctors - 1/13/2000 Money, How the White House Secretly Hooked TV-1/13/2000 
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Comment #2 posted by kaptinemo on January 14, 2000 at 15:07:24 PT
Watch your kid's faces
Some of those here are old enough to remember the incredibly stupid and banal after-school programs that were on the major network stations. Said programs were written with the a priori assumption that kids have had their higher mental functions severely damaged by the educational system they had escaped for the day, and therefore had no reasoning faculties left. Hence, the producers could write whatever drivel they wanted to, and the kids, bless their (supposedly) pointy little heads, would swallow it, wall-eyed.Needless to say, their not-so-captive (or moronic) audience recognized the programs for the manipulative trash it was, and paid it no mind. Many of us developed 'poker-faces' long before we ever held a deck of cards, rather than let an adult know they had offended us with this dreck.And now, the parents of today's kids are being manipulated in exactly the same way they thought they could manipulate their children, by having cutting drama reduced to Drug-Warrior sanctioned pablum. The worm has, indeed, turned.Look at your kid's faces; you might not like what you see.
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Comment #1 posted by Mike on January 14, 2000 at 12:22:16 PT:
Anti-drug propaganda
Makes me think the networks don't care about the anti-drug messages, meaning they don't have the conviction for it unless they smell the millions offered by the government. Our money wasted again, what a shame.
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