Networks' anti-drug shows come with a price

THE WHITE HOUSE HAS DEVELOPED a savvy new twist on the practice of product placement. Let’s call it “behavior placement.”

Though network honchos and programming execs shrugged off headlines about White House subsidies for anti-drug plotlines on TV, the arrangement has raised serious questions about the government’s “benign” influence on network programming.

The White House rewards nets for anti-drug plotlines in sitcoms and series by forgiving millions of dollars worth of anti-drug commercials owed to the federal government.

To date, more than 100 shows have been submitted to the White House to be redeemed as public service announcements, allowing webs to reclaim more than $20 million in commercial time.

The 2-year-old arrangement was never kept a secret, but the media jumped all over the story last week when Salon.com detailed the setup in a lengthy article.

During last week’s critics tour, many execs and producers dismissed the controversy, saying the White House was never given creative control over scripts and besides, noted the honchos, it’s all for a good cause.

IT’S CERTAINLY HARD TO FIND someone who thinks drug abuse is a good thing. But what if a future administration thinks it’s a good idea to subsidize a negative view of homosexuality or a positive view of a particular religion?

I find it surprising that vigorous defenders of the First Amendment like producer Dick Wolf don’t have a problem with the arrangement. Even if he doesn’t consider himself part of the deal, it could damage the integrity of his shows: The next time Sam Waterston rips apart a drug dealer’s alibi on “Law & Order,” some viewers might wonder if it’s a government-subsidized scene.

Jef Loeb, who produces commercials, put it this way on PBS’ “NewsHour”: “It looks collusive; it looks bad; it makes people in my business wonder, are things going to be hard for us to be credible and be trusted for the messages we put out?”

If someone who makes commercials is worried about his credibility, why isn’t a series producer concerned?

Network execs insist that their scripts were not changed in any way to meet the demands of the White House’s drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey. The only thing they did was submit shows that had already been written, produced and were headed for air anyway to the Office of National Drug Control Policy for credit.

If that’s true, then why should the government give the networks a break for something they were going to do anyway?

THE DEAL HAS ITS ROOTS in Congress’ demand in 1997 that broadcasters match every paid ad with a free one. Since the White House is spending more than $1 billion over five years on the anti-drug campaign, every major net signed up for the deal.

But as the ad market tightened up, the webs’ sales forces balked at the two-for-one sale they agreed to with the White House and looked for a way to mitigate it. That’s when the deal was created that allowed networks to reclaim ad time by, in effect, certifying certain shows with the drug czar as PSAs.

The six networks were able to reclaim about $21.8 million in ads that were resold. The webs made money on the deal, but may have sacrificed some of their entertainment programming’s limited store of credibility.

SO FAR, MOST NETWORK EXECS still insist that there is no lesson to be learned.

ABC’s Patricia Fili-Krushel said there was nothing wrong with the deal, but her network will no longer participate in the program. Other networks are still on board.

But there is a moral to the story: When it comes to public policy, don’t think with your sales staff.

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