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Nets deny gov’t control

Major webs say no connection between anti-drug programming, ads

WASHINGTON — Execs at several major webs are emphatically denying a report suggesting they gave government officials creative control of programs in order to sharply reduce the number of anti-drug spots sold at a bargain rate.

As part of legislation passed by Congress, the government allocates millions of dollars for the purchase of commercials discouraging drug use. Webs that take the coin are required to sell the spots at a 2-for-1 rate — unless they essentially buy back the time by airing programming with anti-drug messages.

Spokesmen for five webs confirmed that scripts and tapes of programs are supplied to government officials so the wonks can determine if the show counts toward relief from the 2-for-1 deal. While the arrangement has raised questions about the potential for government officials to influence programming, reps for several webs discount that possibility.

‘Not compromised’

“At no time has the independence or creative integrity of our programming been compromised, a CBS spokesman said Thursday.

NBC released a similar statement disavowing any federal influence on programming. “NBC never ceded content control of any of our programming to the (Office of National Drug Control Policy, aka ONDCP) or any other department of the government.”

Execs at other networks made similar statements.

The arrangement was first reported by online magazine Salon.com.

Every major network insisted that federal drug officials were never given the opportunity to alter scripts or edit shows to beef up their anti-drug message.

The commercial matching program was required by Congress, which agreed to fund an ad campaign as long the media matched the effort, ad for ad. That effort kicked off in 1998 with a $152 million spending spree. About 70% of that money went to national networks, which the drug-policy office believed was the best way to reach its target audience of kids and teenagers, according to the agency’s Alan Levitt.

Alternative approach

The office decided to make it easier to meet the congressional mandate to match the ads by allowing broadcasters and other media outlets to devise alternative means of qualifying for the match. For instance, according to Levitt, after accepting ads from the drug control office, the New York Times published an anti-drug handbook for teachers and America Online created a Web page for parents.

Networks, said Levitt, were allowed to submit episodes of shows that included anti-drug plotlines in lieu of matching PSAs. The episodes were submitted to the ONDCP’s media agency, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, where they were evaluated to determine for how many PSAs a particular show would account. Networks have been allowed to substitute programming for some 14% of their matching obligation, Levitt said.

Some networks found other ways of meeting the matching mandate. For instance, 20th Century Fox, a unit of News Corp., has added anti-drug PSAs to homevideos. A spokesman at Fox insisted that episodes of TV programs were submitted to the White House for accounting purposes only, not content review.

“All discussions with the ONDCP about the depiction of drug use and its consequences have been conducted in the open, and from the outset all producers, network executives and others involved in producing Fox programming have been invited to participate in such discussions,” the company’s statement read.

The WB network also released a statement revealing that it had consulted with the ONDCP on two specific episodes dealing with drug and alcohol abuse: “This is not unusual — we also ask for ongoing input from a number of qualified groups.”

‘Ethical implications’

“ER” executive producer John Wells said he was concerned about the “ethical implications” of network officials trying to influence shows, but insisted that he never felt pressure from NBC officials to beef up the anti-drug storylines.

“We have never been influenced to do anything in a direction we opposed,” said Wells, who added that the real power of a network lies in whether a series makes it into the lineup and when it is scheduled to air. Once the show has a commitment from the network to air, network officials have relatively little influence, he said.

Like many producers and writers, Wells has met with White House drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey in Los Angeles. Several industry sources reported Wednesday that they were impressed by McCaffrey in meetings in which he urged the creative community to treat the ONDCP as a resource for information about drug abuse.

Meanwhile, because the networks did not meet the specific mandate of airing one PSA for each commercial bought by the ONDCP, questions have been raised about whether the government is getting its money’s worth.

Capitol Hill was relatively quiet on the matter: Congress is still out of town for its winter vacation.

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