Transcript: Is the White House Editing TV Scripts?

Transcript: Is the White House Editing TV Scripts?
Posted by FoM on January 15, 2000 at 14:25:10 PT
Talk Back Live Transcripts From January 14, 2000
Source: CNN
BOBBIE BATTISTA, HOST: How much does the White House influence what you watch on television? Salon magazine calls it primetime propaganda. It says television networks allow the government to review and recommend changes to some show scripts in exchange for credits that translate into dollars. The deal involves the White House Office of National Drug Policy Control and some of the most popular shows on television. 
According to Salon, shows, including "Seventh Heaven," "Beverly Hills 90210," "ER," "The Drew Carey Show" and "Chicago Hope," have pitched anti-drug messages approved by the government. Should the networks open their shows to government approval and tow the White House's line on drugs? (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, TV COMMERCIAL)UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Any questions?(END VIDEO CLIP)BATTISTA: Good afternoon everybody. Welcome to TALKBACK LIVE. Are networks getting paid to let government approve scripts? Daniel Forbes is a freelance journalist who wrote for the online news site for Daniel, thanks for joining us.DANIEL FORBES, FREELANCE JOURNALIST: Thank you. BATTISTA: In a nutshell here, tell us about the relationship between the White House Drug Policy Office and the networks? FORBES: Well, it's a little tough in a nutshell, because it's somewhat indirect. Even Hollywood would blanch at the thought that the networks would take a check for programming. So, a indirect formula was arrived at to value programming in exchange for financial incentives from the federal government. If government approved and endorsed anti-drug themes appeared in particular sitcoms and dramas, some of the most popular shows everyone has heard of, the networks as a result have the opportunity, should they exercise it, to make more money.BATTISTA: Well, now, how did the Office of Drug Policy -- and how did they influence the scripts? Or did they?FORBES: Well, in some cases, as in we indicate in, we have a source, ONDCP Consultant, who indicates his influence on the WB show, "The Smart Guy." There were conference calls between this consultant, and the producers of "The Smart Guy" to get a more effective anti-drug theme into the show from a public health point of view. A second ONDCP consultant told me on a not-for-attribution basis that he consulted with several shows, and in effect, it was a matter of negotiation, that changes in shows would be discussed back and forth over a period of a few days perhaps and then finally agreed to.BATTISTA: And all of this was done for a financial incentives, shall we say? FORBES: Well, I believe the motivations are several. Certainly bonafide desire to see kids less attractive to drugs, but there was the opportunity for the networks to make significant amounts of money. "The Practice" recouped some half a million dollars in advertising time that ABC, should they wish to do so, sell to another private client, like IBM, Ford , Wendy's or whoever. "E.R.," several episodes of "E.R.," were advertised, I was told, by a participant at $1.4 million. Last one, last example, "Beverly Hills 90210," I was told by an executive at Fox, was advertised at between half a million and three quarters of a million dollars. BATTISTA: You also suggested this was done in secret. So who knew about this? FORBES: Well certainly, the participants knew, but the official running the campaign, for instance, a Mr. Alan Levitt, who works for General McCaffrey, told me in mid-November, a couple of months ago, that he was not aware and could not name any members of Congress who knew of this prior to this fall, that's some two years into the campaign's existence. One last thing if I may. I spoke to Representative Jim Colby who said that he and his staff learned a bit from my questions posed to him. He's chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, who has funding oversight for ONDCP activities. He said he had no knowledge of it. BATTISTA: Well, Congressman Colby will be with us just a little bit later on in the show, but let me bring in our White House drug policy director, General Barry McCaffrey.General McCaffrey, thanks for joining us. GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, WHITE HOUSE DRUG POLICY DIRECTOR: Good to be here. BATTISTA: Was this not disclosed in your statements before the subcommittee, this particular arrangement with the networks? MCCAFFREY: Bobbie. the campaign is a matter of law. We put out about $185 million a year paid component. We are required to get about a hundred percent matching component. The networks, the radio stations, the paid print media have been enormously generous in responsive. We got 108 percent last year in matching components. Of that total, about 15 percent is programmatic content, which is also mentioned in the law. Very powerful messages in "E.R." and other shows. National Institute of Drug Abuse and the behavioral science experts panel are available to the creative community if they wish to make use of them. But there is zero government approval or involvement in how these shows are produced and run. Now having said that, I've got to underscore that I think the programmatic has been enormously effective and helpful in creating what we say was a 13 percent reduction in adolescent drug use last year. BATTISTA: You know, let me ask you this, though. I think what people don't quite understand is if that if the networks bring you a script that contains a storyline that involves, say, a teenager involved with drugs or something like this, the office...MCCAFFREY: Or alcohol.BATTISTA: Yes -- the office did make suggestions -- correct? -- to the network officials about how they could best handle this particular storyline. If the...MCCAFFREY: Well, they may have. It's hard to tell. Look, what we've done is we've given seminars and tutorials to writers, producers, directors. We've told them about the existence of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, Dr. Alan Leschner (ph), a half billion dollar a year research effort, and that's all at the disposal of this creative community. But I think the selection of story content and the arguments and the way these are portrayed is strictly up to this free and creative community. BATTISTA: Well, in the statement that you made before the subcommittee, you said that we have all -- you said we have been well received in the television industry in particular, where there is an openness... MCCAFFREY: Sure.BATTISTA: ... to accurately depicting real-life risks and consequences of drug use. But nowhere in the statement does it disclose, though, that if the network doesn't take these suggestions about the treatment of drug and alcohol problems that they won't, you know, get the financial deal at the other end of that.MCCAFFREY: Oh, no, Bobbie, that's not the case. First of all, let me just, if I can...BATTISTA: But they don't.MCCAFFREY: Let me explicitly tell you. We showed video outtakes of these shows in the congressional testimony. We are very proud of the cooperation we got out of ABC, Fox television, NBC, CBS et cetera. Warner Brothers, WB has done a spectacular job with some of their programming. But there is no question that we are not going to get involved in the decisions that networks and creative the creative community make about what they put on TV. That just isn't the case.BATTISTA: But it does put them at the networks in a difficult position because, you know, they get the credit from your office -- you know what I mean? -- for airing that as a public service announcement, shall we say... MCCAFFREY: Sure, yes.BATTISTA: So, you know, it puts them between a rock and a hard place because obviously, you know, the bottom line at the networks is money. MCCAFFREY: Yes.BATTISTA: And so...MCCAFFREY: Yes, but, Bobbie, let me, if I can interject. I'll just use ABC as an example, a tremendously responsive creative organization. They've given us -- we paid about $40 million bucks to ABC. They gave us a matching component. I think it was of $40 million dollars to get their 100 percent match. And then there was an additional $105 million of content, programmatic content, they did on their own. So this is not, you know, a quid pro quo, where we have prior approval over content. BATTISTA: You know, I'm curious about one more thing because if the government is just another advertiser at this point, they too have to buy time on the network, then why are they required to get the two- for-one deal? MCCAFFREY: Well, I think it's extending the reach and the power of the message. You know, we have 56 million children out there. We've got a drug problem in America of enormous consequences, 52,000 dead a year, $110 billion in damages. Our intent is to talk to American adolescents and their adult mentors four times a week with a scientifically accurate message. We're in 11 difference languages around the country, we have 102 different media strategies, we've got the tremendous power of Partnership for Drug-Fee America and these two corporations, Ogilvy-Mather and Fleischman-Hillard behind us. We're doing a pretty good job, and we darned sure are going to act in accordance with the law. BATTISTA: All right, General McCaffrey, thanks very much for joining us today. We have to take a break at this point. In a moment, we'll meet the man who came up with this deal between the government and the networks. Back in a moment.(COMMERCIAL BREAK)BATTISTA: Welcome back.Let's meet the man who helped create the deal between the networks and the government. Rich Hamilton is the CEO for the North American operations of Zenith Media Services. His firm also buys media for the government. And also joining us is Matthew Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs.Rich, let me start with you and ask you exactly what your involvement was in this whole deal.RICH HAMILTON, ZENITH MEDIA SERVICES: We represented the government with the networks. We were their contract representative in negotiating the television buying as a part of the program. BATTISTA: So did you come up with this programming idea? HAMILTON: Yes, yes.BATTISTA: OK. Did you not think there were any problems with that at all? I mean...HAMILTON: Well, we needed to be sure that all -- the presentation of the concept to the networks was made with an indication that their participation in it was 100 percent voluntary. Having said that, we saw no problem with assigning value to some of the powerful programming that was on the air at the time and that, in fact, has been on the air long before there was ever a paid government program to fight the use of illegal drugs. BATTISTA: Matthew, what do you think is wrong with this, if anything? MATTHEW FELLING, CENTER FOR MEDIA: I think we're beginning to enter a fuzzy area between what is productive and what becomes propaganda. If it's just - -- if there is such a level of secrecy in the messages that are being portrayed -- I spoke to a few people on a subway over here today, and it was split 50-50 between thinking it's a good idea and thinking it's a bad idea. But both people thought that not divulging this information to the public was the mistake.BATTISTA: Well, let me ask you this, Daniel. Is this breaking the law? There are some people who would consider this to be borderline payola... FORBES: Well, I...BATTISTA: ... because...FORBES: Well, I spoke to a couple of communications attorneys. They say that it awaits FCC decision on this subsequent to any formal complaint. But in their opinion, payola refers to, to paraphrase the law, any financial consideration director or indirect -- and this is an indirect financial consideration -- that results in mention on the air. And they seem to think that there was a very good chance it violated the payola laws that resulted from the scandals with DJs in the 1950s.BATTISTA: And, Rich, did it not occur to anyone to check with the FCC on this arrangement?HAMILTON: I can't comment on that. I can just say that we -- all we said to the networks was if you plan to continue your programming efforts of this type, and we hope you do, and show us examples of that, and we will consider them as part of the non-paid component of the program. BATTISTA: But you're just -- but it was more to it than that. It wasn't just showing them examples, there was some tinkering with the scripts as well. HAMILTON: I have no knowledge of any, to use your word, "tinkering with any scripts -- excuse me.BATTISTA: Daniel.FORBES: Well, as says, we stand by our story. We quote a gentleman by name, George Carry (ph), of a firm called Just Kid -- singular there -- Stamford, Connecticut, an ONDCP consultant, he consulted with the WB show "The Smart Guy" and told me that he consulted also on a couple other shows that he declined to identify. A second gentleman who asked that his name not be used said he consulted on several shows...BATTISTA: Let me get some...... regarding programming content.BATTISTA: Right. Linda from the audience, let me get your thoughts. LINDA: Well, I think it's a good idea. We know how influential TV is in our nation, and if our children can watch their heroes dealing with a problem on television, I think it's going to have a greater impact than a 30-minute spot -- 30-second spot. And if the government finances it, well it's just part of the war on drugs drugs. And it's a very effective way to do it. BATTISTA: But, Matthew, even the president just a few moments ago said that he really hadn't thought about, you know, what sort of precedent this might set or what other doors this might open.FELLING: No, I understand your question. I think we are pelted with all these images of Coke cans and of Reese's pieces in the movie "ET." That's called product placement in marketing and advertising. Now we're starting to see the government shift to the same strategy. I'm not sure that that relationship should exist.BATTISTA: Yes, I think what people are having such a hard time grasping is this really isn't so much about the anti-drug emergency message. That's irrelevant really. It's about the principle behind this whole idea of the government and network getting into bed together. FELLING: Exactly.FORBES: Bobbie.BATTISTA: Yes.FORBES: Bobbie, if I may, Linda is entirely correct. There is no doubt in the public health community that embedded messages, programming content, is far more powerful than any advertisement. People are by nature greet advertisements with a certain degree of cynicism. Even the most clever add, a kid is going to say, that's that anti-drug commercial. So to have the same sort of anti-drug theme modeled by a favorite character has a far greater effect on their attitudes towards drugs. There's -- it's been proven in the Third World.Second point real quick, you asked Matthew regarding any down- the-road expansion of this, a couple of ONDCP folks speculated to me when I was interviewing them for the story that should this model prove effective they saw no reason it shouldn't go to matters such as sexual abstinence among teenagers.And last point, actually. here in the state of New York, on buses there are flat out anti-sex ads sponsored by the New York state Department of Health. BATTISTA: We've got to take another break. Doug, I'll get back to you as well. More guests as well in two minutes.(COMMERCIAL BREAK)BATTISTA: Let me go to the audience here very quickly. Doug, go ahead.DOUG: I think the general's impulse to do this is commendable, but I really believe that the effect is going to be lost, because the message is folded into the entertainment component of the show. I think those late night intense depictions of the young girl smashing the dishes are a lot more effective. If that time could be used in prime time, it would be a lot more powerful.BATTISTA: We're always telling our kids, don't believe what you see on TV, right?All right, James, go ahead.JAMES: Again, I guess what I'm concerned about, here's an opportunity for the public and private sector to really become involved in a concern that really is affecting our kids. I know you just said that you don't want the government in the same bedroom with advertisement. I mean, again, we're losing the message and the impact that we can have of really impacting our kids about drugs.BATTISTA: Let me bring in another guests. Daniel Forbes, we thank you very much for joining us today. Appreciate your time.FORBES: Thank you.BATTISTA: Joining us now is Merrill Markoe, former lead writer for "Late Night with David Letterman." Her latest book is "Merrill Markoe's Guide to Love." Also with us, Congressman Jim Kolbe, a Republican from Arizona. He chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the Office of National Drug Control Policy.Welcome to both of you.Congressman, let me start with you. Do you feel like at this point that a full disclosure has been made to all concerned? JIM KOLBE (R), ARIZONA: Well, I'm a little bit amused by all of this because we had a full -- when we first heard about this, it raised some questions in my mind. And I told my staff, I want to do a hearing, an oversight hearing on this because my subcommittee is responsible for providing the funds for the war on drugs and -- to ONDCP. And so we had a full hearing on this last October. We brought all this out. We brought the people from ONDCP, from the networks, from the people that do the research and all that, laid it all out, and I thought there would be a lot of interest from the mainstream media. They were asleep at the switch. They didn't cover it at all.BATTISTA: Well, looking through General McCaffrey's statement, though, I'm not sure that I got the idea that there was, you know, the financial incentives behind this deal.KOLBE: Oh, no, it was all very clearly laid out in that hearing. That was all laid out there.BATTISTA: Now let me ask Matthew: Where was the media on this story? FELLING: Honestly, I do not know where the media was. I do not know who fell asleep at the switch. If everything had been disclosed, and if enough people had been there to make the connections, to connect the dots, then we wouldn't be as affected by this story today and the surprise factor that came along with it.KOLBE: Well, it is interesting to me that this thing is revealed through an article that's in "Salon" magazine. How come some media journal hasn't brought this out yet? I mean, all this is public information -- there is nothing that has been secret about this.BATTISTA: Well, it is kind of all over the place today, from "The New York Times" to everywhere else, so it may grow on you. KOLBE: Well -- but only because "Salon" brought it out, and this story should have been brought out some time ago. As I said, we laid it all out in a hearing last fall.BATTISTA: Well, Merrill, let me ask you: If you submitted a script to a network -- and I'm not sure what the whole arrangement is there, I don't know whether the networks gets, you know, has creative control or owns the script at that point -- but then you found out that some changes have been made in the script after the drug policy office has reviewed it. What would be your reaction to that?MERRILL MARKOE, TELEVISION WRITER: Well, here is the thing. It is a really scary, insidious trend about content, because what you have to understand is that the networks are already completely involved in the content of the scripts as it is. Every producer, every individual entity of a show, submits their scripts to the network, and the networks ticker with it. Like I read in "The L.A. Times" this week that the networks were giving a lot of trouble to people who have a show called "Freaks and Geeks" because they thought that there wasn't enough winning on the part of the characters. And it is a show about losers. So there is already a lot of tinkering, a lot of messing with content. When you get involved in this kind of subterfuge kind of messing with content, it is a horrifying, scary, overall trend, because the only thing that networks care about is money. You have to understand that -- any way that they can trade for money is all they really care about. So it opens the door wide open to trading for money any kind of content. You know, suddenly there are five shows about aluminum siding. I mean, I know that this is like taking it to the extreme, but that's really what you are opening the door to. It is very anti- freedom of speech. If the government wants to have propaganda and discussion of anti-drug stuff, they should label it, and they should buy the time. And they should put the movies out and call them what they are, but not sneak it into stuff. BATTISTA: Well, a lot of people might say, well -- and the drug policy office was claiming -- that a lot of times these network writers and producers were coming to them over issues of accuracy. If that is the case, what's the different between that and, say, checking in with the DA's office over what is legal...MARKOE: Accuracy is still their decision. I mean, you want it to be accurate. Any writer wants their work to be accurate. But the whole idea of having a culture is for there to be individual voices reflecting on life, and the idea that a government would be involving itself in this content is just a horrifying slap in the face of freedom of speech. It is just a really wrong-headed way to do stuff.BATTISTA: Let me ask the congressman, should maybe there perhaps have been a disclosure, disclaimer, on these shows? MARKOE: Totally.KOLBE: Well, I think that's a fair question as to whether or not they should or not. That's entirely up to the networks to decide whether they should do that.MARKOE: They do in every detail on any other show... KOLBE: Well, whether they should put it in as a credit at the end. Much of the information that's given to the script writers and the networks does have to do with information. The conferences have been about what are the effects of these drugs so they can write accurate shows. But if there's a specific message that is in there that they are getting credit for, perhaps that should be disclosed. But that's a matter for the networks to decide. We provide the money for -- and I might add that 85 percent, let's keep this in perspective, 85 percent of the dollars that are required for matching have been hard match, that is, time being given for putting the messages on the commercials in 30 second commercials on. MARKOE: The scary part is the money, because networks will do anything for money. That's all networks care about, is money. And the fact that it slid in there in exchange for money is where it really is scary. I mean, labeling and calling it a PSA I have no problem with, and I'm not any more pro-drug than anyone, it is just that sneaking it in as content is a really scary trend.BATTISTA: We've got to take a break. We will be back in a moment. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)BATTISTA: All right, on the phone with us now is John Eisendrath, executive producer of "Beverly Hills 90210."And, John, reportedly yours was one of the shows that may or may not have been tinkered with. Were you aware of that? JOHN EISENDRATH, "BEVERLY HILLS 90210": No, I was not. That was as much a surprise to me as it was to most people.BATTISTA: And why do you think that the network would not make you aware of that?EISENDRATH: I'm not sure, and I wouldn't say it was necessarily a deliberate omission -- although I must tell you at least two or three times a day, every day, I'm on the phone with the network discussing content about my show. And the conversations are open. At least, that's the impression that I have, and that's the way they should be. They are open about the creative differences that we have. They are also open about the commercial needs. One of your earlier guests talked about networks being in commerce, and that's true. And they are open with us about that. If we need, for instance, to do certain more dramatic stories for the sweeps episodes that come several times a year, they are open about that. But the fact that they were not open to us about this, or that they, for whatever reason, omitted the conversation, and that at the same time our scripts are being read by the government, that unseen hand is unsettling.BATTISTA: All right.EISENDRATH: I don't believe -- I'm not under the illusion that the stories that we have done -- and our show does a lot of drug stories -- we have an impressionable young audience, and we are mindful of telling stories that are responsible, but inform them about issues that are important to them, including drug stories.And I'm not aware of the influence that this program has had on our show, though I know I've had many debates with the executives at the network about how to shape the stories that we do about drugs. And now, unfortunately, it might be in the back of my mind, am I having these debates in an open, creative forum, or is a piece of it being shaped by something that I was previously unaware of? BATTISTA: Page in the audience, comment?PAGE: Well, if they are going to do this with drugs, why not do it with domestic violence, child abuse, guns and other things that really bring us down? Our country -- the children are seeing things on television every day that don't make them better people.EISENDRATH: Well, what I would say about that is, and one of the things that I find interesting and slightly amusing about this whole debate -- is that the General McCaffery, who you had on earlier, cited as an example of how we have helped in the war on drugs, how television content, which historically gets blasted in the media for being the purveyor of things that are wrong with America, he's now saying that in association with this program the content has been so constructive that it actually has contributed to a reduction in the use of drugs in America, a rare instance where someone is actually patting the television writers and producers on the back, and saying, you actually are doing something constructive instead of destructive.BATTISTA: Interesting point.John Eisenorath, thanks very much for joining us. We've got to take a quick break.(COMMERCIAL BREAK)BATTISTA: In the brief time that we have left, let me ask, Congressman, what do you think the fallout will be from all of this, especially in light of the fact that some folks think this could be illegal, this kind of arrangement?KOLBE: Well, that's something, I guess, for the courts to decide, whether it's illegal or not. I don't think it is. But I'm not a lawyer, so I won't comment on that. But the fallout may be that the networks stopped this association with ONDCP. That's fine. We've got the money in there for the media buy. They have to -- in return, though, they have to give us at least an equal amount of free time on the air, and in order to make this work. And that's the agreement that we have. And we won't use the time, and won't be buying the slots on TV unless they are willing to give us some time as well.BATTISTA: Merrill, do you think most of Hollywood knew about this arrangement? MARKOE: Obviously they did, and I was stunned to find out that the producer of "Beverly Hills 90210" had this going on behind his back. But the point I can't stop thinking about is if you've got -- even if it's positive government agenda, if you've got government agenda working it's way behind the scenes into content of creative work, ultimately, it opens the door to a horrifying thing, that I keep thinking about fish on Friday. Remember when the Catholic Church used to say that you had to eat fish on Friday, and it turned out to have been the product of a deal between fish companies and a corrupt pope, at some point in history. I mean, you can't let secret agendas affect creative work.BATTISTA: And, Matthew, final comment from you. FELLING: Yes, Merrill, I totally agree with you. It's very seductive to frame this in the format of, it's drugs, it's a positive thing. I also agree with the viewer who was on earlier who said what about domestic abuse, what about guns? But it's that next level; it's taking it to, well, on this episode, let's discuss affirmative action, and the administration has a part in what the scripting is on that. It creates this gray area and it creates this momentum. And before you know it, we have the writers from Hollywood staying over in the Lincoln Bedroom because they did them a favor. BATTISTA: All right, we're out of time I think on this show. Right, out of time, I think?Merrill Markoe, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate your time. Congressman, appreciate you joining us.And Matthew Felling, appreciate you as well. And a couple of comments from the audience here as we close out. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we're really looking for a consistent message. If you're going to send it out in a commercial in one format and the kids aren't watching the commercial because they're doing this, they're doing that, at least they're going to pick it up in the program itself. They're going to go from one program to another between commercials; they're not going to see it when the commercial is on itself. BATTISTA: All right, thanks very much.We'll see you again on Monday for more TALKBACK LIVE. Pubdate: Fri, 14 Jan 2000Source: CNN's TalkBack LiveCopyright: 2000 Cable News NetworkFeedback: Article Courtesy Of MapInc. Related Articles:Click the links to read in depth coverage of this evolving news story!How the White House secretly hooked network TV on its anti-drug message: A Salon Special Report.Prime-Time Propaganda:Drug Money, How the White House Secretly Hooked TV-1/13/2000 How the government rewrote an episode of the WB's "Smart Guy."Washington Script Doctors - 1/13/2000, TV and Propaganda - 1/15/2000 White House Defends TV Drug-Ad Deal - 1/14/2000 
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