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Just don't say anything

time cover

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.

--By Richard Lacayo. With reporting by Jay Branegan/Washington and David S. Jackson/Los Angeles


Cover Date: January 24, 2000

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