Just don't say anything
A Drug-Ad Deal Goes Bad
By Richard Lacayo
January 17, 2000
Web posted at: 12:05 p.m. EST (1705 GMT)
Even before Nancy Reagan first uttered the phrase Just say no,
Washington was putting out the word against drugs. Now it turns
out Washington has also been slipping the word quietly into some
popular TV shows. Last week the online magazine Salon reported
that the Clinton Administration has accomplished a kind of
ideological product placement. For more than a year, networks
have submitted scripts for some of their shows to the White House
Office of National Drug Control Policy. When that office was
satisfied that effective antidrug messages had been written into
episodes of ER, Chicago Hope and the Drew Carey Show, among
others, it gave the networks points in a complicated
public-service-announcement matching-grant deal.
It all started in 1997, when the TV ad market was slower.
Congress okayed $1 billion over five years to buy antidrug spots
on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the WB. As part of the deal, the
networks agreed to donate additional antidrug public service
announcements for each minute the government purchased. By 1998,
with the economy hot, the nets were having second thoughts.
That's when the White House proposed that they could reduce their
public service commitments by having their programs denounce
drugs and alcohol abuse.
The little noticed antidrug deal was not secret. Drug czar Barry
McCaffrey had described it in an appearance before Congress, and
the WB bragged about it in a press release. After the controversy
broke last week, the networks, which are usually under attack for
assaulting family values, were exasperated to find themselves
under attack for promoting them.
But the idea of government quietly taking a hand in shaping TV
programs is also one of those slippery slopes. If Washington can
offer financial incentives to work antidrug dialogue into Drew
Carey, why not induce NYPD Blue to have Sipowicz plug gun
control every time he plugs a suspect? Even worse, depending on
who runs Congress, Buffy the Vampire Slayer could end up
pro-life one season and pro-choice the next.
Lacayo. With reporting by Jay Branegan/Washington and David S.