Editorial: Just Say No 

Editorial: Just Say No 
Posted by FoM on January 28, 2000 at 07:33:48 PT
Uncle Sam shouldn't be a TV script doctor 
Source: Post-Gazette
Earlier this month it was reported that the government of a prominent nation on the world stage has been reviewing scripts of television shows before they air. Reviewers in a general's office accord the shows merit points, depending on how closely they adhere to the government's message.Where has this been taking place for the past two years? Cuba? China? Syria? Not exactly. The answer, shockingly enough, is Washington, D.C., under the auspices of Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey's White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The office's increasingly edgy commercials of the "this-is-your-brain-on-drugs" variety have become a familiar, and mostly well-received, part of the TV landscape. What viewers never imagined until the Internet magazine Salon broke the story was that in a cozy arrangement with the networks, Uncle Sam has not only been paying for these advertisements, but also for anti-drug subplots in a number of shows ranging from "ER" to "Beverly Hills 90210."In 1997, Congress approved a massive $1 billion ad buy for anti-drug advertising over five years, but stipulated that broadcasters would have to match the purchased time. Though NBC balked at first, the major networks all agreed to the terms of the two-for-one deal. They soon regretted it. The emergence of dozens of Internet companies desperate to build their brands created a bidding frenzy for advertising slots, but broadcasters had to turn many of them down to provide Uncle Sam its free time for previous buys.That's when the ingenuity of the marketplace took over. The word went out from the drug czar's office that it would relinquish some of the precious ad slots it was owed in exchange for anti-drug messages woven into prime-time shows.So, for instance, Gen. McCaffrey's censors determined that several "ER" episodes containing anti-drug subplots were worth the equivalent of $1.4 million of owed ad time, which the network was then free to sell to other parties. Call it anti-product placement. Salon reported that at least two dozen shows were so rewarded.Americans rightly trust the marketplace to address a number of societal ills, but certain immutable principles do not carry a price tag. Among them, the First Amendment notion that the people do not want the government involved in vetting and manipulating speech. Particularly worrisome in this case was the fact that all this was done covertly - viewers had no idea that Uncle Sam was paying the network to run "a very special" episode of their favorite shows.Fighting drugs is a worthy cause, to be sure, but this approach entailed too slippery a slope. What next? Why not reward an anti-tobacco message? How about a pro-seat-belt one? A pro-choice subplot? You get the point.The government has gotten it, apparently. The outcry following the disclosure led the Office of National Drug Control Policy to announce that it would no longer screen scripts in advance, though it will continue to reward networks for their shows' anti-drug messages. This remains a troubling intrusion into programming in our view but is a step in the right direction. As for the TV networks, they should not be so willing to erode the First Amendment's vitality for a quick buck. Next time Uncle Sam comes calling, they should just say no. Friday, January 28, 2000Copyrighted 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 to PG Publishing Co.Related Articles: Our Visionary Drug Czar - 1/21/2000 the 1st Amendment, Just Give Em Their Profits-1/19/2000, Drugs & Civil Liberties - Ministers of Truth-1/18/200 Magazine Articles:Washington, 90210 - 1/21/2000 House Defends TV Drug-Ad Deal - 1/15/2000 Script Doctors - 1/13/2000 Money, How the White House Secretly Hooked TV-1/13/2000 
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