White House influence on prime time shows

By Reed Irvine and Cliff Kincaid

January 31, 2000

The Clinton White House has gotten itself into another new controversy, complete with a secret plan they carried out that raises many ethical and legal questions about the relationship between the government and the broadcast networks. In a story broken by Salon, an Internet newspaper, Daniel Forbes reported on a six month investigation detailing how the White House drug czar's office cut deals with the networks, rewarding them with millions of dollars in ad sales for spots that otherwise would have been used as public service announcements. In return, the networks would often shape their programming to meet the White House criteria to enable them to reap these multi-million dollar windfalls.

It began when Congress, in late 1997, approved a five-year, one billion dollar expenditure for network ads that promoted the anti-drug message. The ads were to be sold to the government, in effect, for half the going rate. The five participating networks were not thrilled with the deal, especially when a tight advertising market opened up with the new wave of dot com ads pushing demand, and price, through the roof.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, headed by Barry McCaffrey, then offered the networks a revised plan. They would turn back some of the ad time to the networks to sell for full price, in return for getting anti-drug themes incorporated into certain prime time shows. The drug-policy office estimates that so far the networks have benefited to the tune of about twenty-five million dollars in the first year and a half alone, while the number of shows with qualified anti-drug themes has more than tripled in one year from thirty-two to a hundred and nine.

Ironies and ethical questions abound. The producers and writers mostly claim to have been unaware of the collaboration, apparently not noticing the dramatic increase in anti-drug theme programming. This story broke the same week that the Clinton administration issued a study praising the TV industry for its treatment of substance abuse, as compared to the music and movie industries, in essence, patting themselves on the back for a job well done.

The White House office has denied attempting to influence program content, rather claiming to only assess the final product in determining how much financial credit to reward the networks. But ABC blew the whistle on that claim, while pulling out of the program. The LA Times reported that "the network stopped participating...after a policy change put the government in a position to influence the content of ABC's programming," and that "the networks could feel compelled to pressure producers to adjust plots to meet government approval."

We have often criticized the networks' excessive reliance on sexual and substance abuse themes, and the impact they have on society as a whole. Now they have discovered that if they play their cards right, they can become more responsible and be richly rewarded for it. Regrettably they never muzzled themselves because it was the right thing to do. But with financial incentives for politically approved programming, they're jumping right in.