Is TV-drug scandal just smoke?

Policy common knowledge, gov't says

A growing number of network execs and producers say they believe the Great Drug Scandal of 2000 has been completely overblown.

Granted, some unanswered questions exist regarding the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s formula of allowing the networks to run programs with an anti-drug message rather than airing additional public service announcements.

But it’s become clear that despite hype to the contrary, the arrangement wasn’t a secret. The ONDCP had said from the beginning that the networks weren’t required to match its network buys ad-for-ad with anti-drug spots.

ONDCP director Barry McCaffrey wrote about the arrangement in the New York Daily News on Nov. 20, 1998.

‘Open’ policy

“We’ve been very open about this,” said Donald Vereen, the office’s deputy director. “We testified (to Congress) three times last fall, once specifically on this issue.”

The ONDCP’s press materials from the media campaign’s 1998 launch also prove that the pro bono media match was never intended to be solely in the form of additional PSAs, and that it was never kept quiet.

“This ‘match’ can take many forms — from free advertising space or time, to printed inserts and broadcast programming, to sponsorship of community events,” reads a ONDCP newsletter distributed to the press in the fall of 1998. “But it must be able to be precisely quantified as pro bono value given for paid value received.”

Industry players said they were taken aback by the rabid coverage, which probably grew because it came out as TV journos were meeting with network execs at the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour.

‘Boondoggle’ time

“It’s a slow-news-day story, a boondoggle,” said “Law and Order” creator/industry gadfly Dick Wolf. “I’ve never seen any trace (of government interference on the drug issue).”

The controversy erupted last week after a story in Salon.com reported that the networks were able to cash in on shows with anti-drug plot lines by submitting them to the ONDCP. If a show had an anti-drug theme that was strong enough, the White House would surrender back to the network ad time it was owed for anti-drug messages.

In what may have been a coincidence, the Salon story was posted one day before the ONDCP was set to unveil at the press tour a report on the depiction of drug use on TV.

Network execs insist that the anti-drug ad swap is a non-issue: “Some of this has gotten blown out of proportion,” said ABC Television Network prexy Pat Fili-Krushel.

Added UPN CEO Dean Valentine: “This is the biggest non-story ever.”

Reaction was more mixed among the studios. Some studio chiefs said they were concerned about a possible governmental influence on series (“I think it’s appalling,” said Regency TV prexy Gail Berman); others seemed confident no tinkering had taken place.

“It’s much ado about nothing,” said Studios USA Programming chief David Kissinger.

Clinton steps forward

Nonetheless, President Clinton found himself defending the arrangement Friday at a unrelated White House press conference.

“(It’s) my understanding that there’s nothing mandatory about this, that there was not an attempt to regulate content or tell people what they had to put into it,” Clinton said. “Of course, I wouldn’t support (content regulation).”

Wolf said he’d “never stand” for the scenario of government influence suggested in some media accounts.

“It would never happen on my shows or David (E. Kelley’s) shows or Tom (Fontana’s) shows or Steven (Bochco’s) shows,” Wolf said.

Wolf said he had no quarrels with network sales units submitting tapes of his programs for credits against their matching PSA requirement. “They’re not (subliminal) messages,” he said. “They’re entertainment programs that carry a positive social message.”

No editorial input

Both the networks and Vereen have emphatically denied that the White House had any editorial or creative input on any show. Vereen said the ONDCP does occasionally read scripts and give advice on how to depict drug use and its effects.

Of the 109 programs that have been approved under the pro bono media match formula, between 20 to 24 were sent to the drug czar’s office in various stages at the network’s request for input, Vereen said.

“The majority are already completed and couldn’t be changed,” he said. “We never know what our influence is. I don’t know until I see the show what happened.”

In one new wrinkle, ABC execs on Saturday said the ONDCP asked them to start submitting scripts of TV shows before they aired, in order to be considered for an anti-drug ad swap. That would seem to contradict statements made a day earlier by Vereen.

“Occasionally scripts are sent to us, but we don’t ask for them,” Vereen said. “We can’t require that you send us scripts. We don’t do that.”

UPN Entertainment prez Tom Nunan, whose network started participating in the program this year, said the web was never asked to submit scripts for review. UPN was given the option of turning in finished scripts or tapes of programs.

“Our policy is, we produce a show, then we submit it to see if it qualifies,” Nunan said.

The ONDCP said it had miscommunicated with ABC in May 1999 and that the office had not changed its policy. “It’s a regrettable misunderstanding,” an ONDCP spokesman said.

Also, in a statement, the ONDCP said it never planned to make changes with scripts. “We have always assumed that any transcripts or programs submitted for public service value qualification were final products and not subject to further change,” the ONDCP said.

But Fili-Krushel said the Alphabet network declined to submit scripts and instead decided to honor the media match requirement entirely with PSAs rather than programming content.

ABC said the ONDCP’s advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, informed the network Friday that it had eliminated the script requirement, and that once again episodes to be considered as a media match could be submitted after broadcast. ABC decided to stick with the PSAs anyway.

“We’re comfortable with our PSA match,” said Alex Wallau, president of administration and operations at ABC.

(Josef Adalian and Christopher Stern contributed to this report.)

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