January 13th, 2000

Prime-time Propaganda: How the White House Secretly Hooked Network TV On Its Anti-drug Message

By Daniel Forbes
Salon

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, 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, $1 billion 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 Friday.)

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 $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, plain-spoken
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 anti-drug 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 teen-oriented 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 on-message
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 drug-policy 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.

Comments

Add your own Comment

(optional)