Opinions flying about network drug-ad deal

TV: Many media types find the deal troubling and worry that it violates the First Amendment.

January 15, 2000|By Patricia Meisol and David Zurawik | Patricia Meisol and David Zurawik,SUN STAFF

Insidious? Deceiving? Savvy business?

Here's the deal: Congress forces TV networks to air anti-drug public service announcements and pays them half the usual price for on-air time. The networks, besieged by clients willing to pay full price, do a deal with the Cabinet-level Office of National Drug Control Policy. We'll show you scripts with an anti-drug message, they say, and if you like them, you can let us off the hook for these spots.

Since the deal was reported Wednesday in Salon, an online magazine, darts have been flying. Hollywood has denied submitting its scripts for government review, and on its face, the idea of the government getting into script writing strikes many people as silly.

But yesterday in Pasadena, Calif., Donald R. Vereen Jr., deputy director of the drug office, said in the past two years, he's visited Hollywood executives repeatedly to tell them how they could insert messages into scripts and avoid selling cheap time to the government.

Vereen said that since the program began in May 1998, 109 TV programs reviewed by his office or an outside advertising firm received credit. They include episodes of such shows as "Sports Night" on ABC, "ER" on NBC, and "The Simpsons" and "That 70's Show" on Fox.

Some say the drug-message/air-time deal is shadowy and underhanded. The government says it's been a matter of public record for years.

Either way, the program has engendered strong opinions. Here's a sampling:

Dale Herbeck, chair of the Department of Communications Department, Boston College, and an expert in political communication and media law.

"This is the First Amendment as we've never see it before. Instead of the heavy hand of the government, [government] is kind of a friendly Big Brother. This is pressure of a different sort, and it is standing the First Amendment on its head. Traditionally, you fear the overt hand of the government censor, but what we are discovering now is a much more subtle form of government manipulation. There are lots more examples of the government doing things exactly like this ... e.g., the V-chip, which Congress required in all televisions in 1996. For it to work, shows had to be rated. The government was saying, `Wink, wink, hint, hint. If you would voluntarily rate TV shows, we wouldn't have to do it for you.'

"What makes this sensational is not that the government did it, but that we didn't know the government did it. Ten or 15 years ago, Tipper Gore got in so much trouble for saying we should lable rap lyrics. Now the government is so much more clever.

"What's amazing about it, it means we have to rethink the meaning of the First Amendment. The "government shall make no law abridging freedom of speech and of the press" probably means the government should not be involved in shaping or influencing the media."

Robert Thompson, Professor of Television, Radio, and Film and Director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television, Syracuse University.

"If this is true as reported -- and it seems such an unbelieveably bad thing, I still want to see it confirmed from other sources -- it reminds me of Mr. Hand, on "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" -- `What, are you people on drugs?'

"This is an absolute travesty on how communications should work -- lack of prior restraint, censorship, the First Amendment, all of these issues come into play, and if these reports are true, the hubris of the drug czar and the federal government to think they can do this is astounding."

"If this wasn't such a dangerous thing and set such a dangerous precedent, one's response would be to burst out laughing -- that the federal government thinks somehow it could be script docs. I can think of few institutions in America less prepared to tell stories to the people.

"The second thing is, if true, the idea that there has been this mechanism unbeknownst to the viewer and presumably unbeknownst to some of the writers, whereby these things are submitted, much less by the government. The very fact that it is happening is scary. And the fact that it is happening with the federal government is even worse. We would be upset if they were passing things through the NRA or the tobacco industry, but this is even more upsetting. This isn't the marketplace. This is democracy, the government.

Peter Roth, president, Warner Bros. Television since 1999 and former president Fox network, from 1996 to 1999:

"I think I have a good perspective from running both a network and a studio. Neither while at Fox nor during my tenure at Warner Bros. was I aware of any this.

"While I read that one of our shows, `ER,' was specifically targeted as one of these shows, neither me nor John Wells, our executive producer, were in any way aware of anything like this. Never in my career have I ever been involved in a situation where, in exchange for an actual incentive, have we in any way changed the content of our episode or series. It just isn't done."

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