Washington, 90210

Defenders of the White House-network drug-ad deal lost the battle of spin.

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By Sean Elder

Jan. 21, 2000 | NEW YORK -- When is a scoop not really a scoop?

In the week since Salon exposed the unseemly financial relationship between the White House and television networks, the arrangement's boosters tried a novel defense: that the story wasn't news, because it was already known to the public.

The attempted backlash began last Friday, when on ABCNEWS.com, "White House wag" Josh Gernstein challenged the notion that there was anything secret about the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy getting involved in TV features.

"Faithful readers of the New York Daily News may remember an op-ed piece that [ONDCP head Gen. Barry] McCaffrey wrote in that paper 14 months ago," wrote Gerstein. He then quoted the general's editorial: "Stations have begun running shows against illegal drugs as part of the advertising 'matching' system inaugurated by Congress," McCaffrey had written, adding "some of the anti-drug programs have taken the form of documentaries or features on drug-related issues." Of course, even attentive readers could be forgiven if they inferred from McCaffrey's op-ed that networks were broadcasting informational shows about drugs, not slipping "Just say no" messages into "ER."

Then Daily Variety ran a Monday story with the headline "Is TV-drug scandal just smoke?" Under Michael Schneider's byline, Hollywood's steadfast trade paper claimed, "The Great Drug Scandal of 2000 has been completely overblown," and insisted that the program -- which allowed the networks to satisfy federal public service broadcasting requirements, opening up additional advertising time they could sell at a premium, if they included White House-approved anti-drug messages in their programs -- was a matter of public record.

"We've been very open about this," Variety quoted ONDCP Deputy Director Donald Vereen saying. "We testified [to Congress] three times last fall, once specifically on this issue." The tone of the piece could be best summed up by quotes from various TV big shots. "It's a slow news day story, a boondoggle," said Dick Wolf, producer of "Law & Order." "This is the biggest non-story ever," remarked UPN CEO Dean Valentine. And Studios USA programming chief David Kissinger dismissed it as "much ado about nothing."

Think they doth protest too much? Schneider explains their vehemence in classic Variety shorthand: "Industry players said they were taken aback by the rabid coverage, which probably grew because it came out as TV journos were meeting with network execs at the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour." Network execs do their damnedest to spin upcoming programming, and the last thing they want the assembled "journos" jawing about as they gather 'round the pool is some story that says the networks lay down for the feds.

Wolf, for his part, was offended by the very suggestion that he would let some bureaucrat monkey with his scripts. But he didn't have a problem with submitting tapes of existing shows to the ONDCP, he added, because "they're not subliminal messages. They're entertainment programs that carry a positive social message."

Let's ignore the fact that, in a very non-subliminal fashion, Wolf's "Law & Order" -- and its more odious spinoff, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" -- has sent more messages than Western Union. What seems to have goaded the assembled industry players in Pasadena was the suggestion that they had submitted their scripts for approval, as if they were ... children!

"It would never happen on my shows or David [E. Kelley's] shows or Tom [Fontana's] shows or Steven [Bochco's] shows," Wolf fumed to Variety on behalf of all of prime time's alpha dogs. Indeed, at a press conference at the gathering on Friday, ONDCP's Vereen swore that the agency had never asked the participating shows -- which included such popular programs as "ER" and "Beverly Hills, 90210" -- to submit scripts for approval.

Buried in Variety's account, though, was what the publication delicately referred to as "one new wrinkle." ABC President Patricia Fili-Krushel told those same "journos" in Pasadena that the network had been asked to submit scripts for approval rather than finished programs and that ABC had declined.

"It wasn't something we were comfortable doing," Fili-Krushel said, adding that the network would fulfill its commitment to the government's anti-drug policy with ad time instead.

Naturally, Variety played this "wrinkle" down.

Ultimately, of course, the White House decided Wednesday to stop reviewing scripts to vet their drug messages, chastened by the revelations about -- and outraged editorials against -- this supposedly "public" relationship.

But after a week of spin and counter-spin, it's worth sorting out the media's mixed messages about whether this story mattered, and why.

New York Times television reporter Bill Carter was one of those who jumped on the story right away. He shared the byline (with Marc Lacey) on the paper's front-page report on Friday. "Our coverage speaks for itself, I think," Carter said Tuesday. "But let me tell you something. It's a complicated story, a really complicated story. [The story of] who knew what was happening [and] when became rather confusing in the whole process."

Furthermore, he felt Salon had been heavy-handed. "The tone of the story was sort of like there was a gigantic scandal, a violation of the First Amendment and payola, etc., etc. That might have been a little overselling it. We wouldn't write it that way."

On the other hand, New York Times media reporter Felicity Barringer saw the story as following a pattern common to other recent media scandals. "In '98, we had all the sins of lying and plagiarizing," she said. "The things that have gotten people into trouble recently are all related to branding, in the case of the Los Angeles Times; and related to revenue, in the case of the TV scripts; and related to competitiveness in other instances. The sins all come from a business ethos."

But to blame the media's reaction to the story as the result of a "slow news day," as "Law & Order" producer Wolf did, seems to miss some of the story's larger implications as well.

True, interest on the Washington end of the Hollywood-to-Washington saga seemed to have fallen off by the weekend -- the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses and the plight of Eli�n Gonz�lez had pushed it off the map of most of the Beltway media, with the exception of C-Span's "Washington Week in Review."

Outside Washington, others still identified profound implications.

The editorial pages of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune all ran ringing denouncements of the deal in unambiguous language. "The harm, of course," the Trib's editors argued, "is the awful precedent set by any arrangement in which government confers financial favor on selected media based on content."

The stench of favoritism and greed will not wash away easily -- even after McCaffrey's announcement Wednesday that the ONDCP will no longer review episodes until after they have aired. (Besides, the agency -- working with the advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather and the P.R. firm Fleishman Hilllard Inc. -- has created lots of other venues for its messages.)

And finally, if the White House must tamper with TV content, couldn't they do something about "The West Wing"?
salon.com | Jan. 21, 2000


Propaganda for dollars

When the White House and the TV networks got together to put anti-drug messages in prime-time television, were they breaking the law?

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By Daniel Forbes

Jan. 14, 2000 | Has the federal government embarked on an illegal payola scam with the nation's television networks? And has the nation's drug czar blown smoke at Congress to escape ongoing congressional oversight?

A Salon exclusive published Thursday described a hidden government campaign to insert anti-drug messages into TV programs. The arrangement was concocted by the office of the nation's drug czar, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, and its ad buyer and was carried out by the six networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, the WB, Fox, and, this TV season, UPN.

As disclosed Thursday, the scheme began in fiscal year 1998, when Congress appropriated nearly $200 million a year over five years for paid anti-drug advertising. But there was a catch: Congress said the networks had to give the government a two-for-one deal on the ads. Instead, the networks and government officials decided that anti-drug themes and stories in prime-time TV shows could take the place of the free ads. Ultimately, promulgating government-approved propaganda afforded the networks the opportunity to earn buckets of extra cash.

The arrangement raises legal questions. Some observers think the government may have run afoul of the nation's anti-payola regulations. Payola entered public consciousness during the 1950s, when rock 'n' roll impresarios were convicted of bribery for paying DJs and radio stations to play specific records.

The payola laws that followed require broadcasters to reveal any financial considerations, direct or indirect, that yield on-air exposure. Today, in the arrangement uncovered by Salon, the networks are earning millions in financial incentives from the government in exchange for inserting anti-drug plots in TV shows.

Is the practice illegal? Perhaps.

Clearly federal law requires that anyone financially influencing or contributing to programming content be revealed at the time of broadcast. That's why game-show credits include disclosures like, "Joe Game-Show Host's suits provided by Botany 500." The drug-policy office's financial incentives certainly could be construed as, to quote the law, "matter for which money, service or other valuable consideration is either directly or indirectly paid or promised to, or charged or accepted by such station ..."

Andrew Jay Schwartzman of the Media Access Project says there's a "rigid requirement" to disclose direct or indirect sponsorship. While he couldn't say for certain, Schwartzman believes "It's likely it's a violation."

An FCC enforcement bureau official says, "I was not aware [of the ONDCP financial incentives]." He adds, "We haven't received any complaints yet. If we do receive a complaint, we'll proceed from there."

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Whether or not the deal is illegal, it's clear that it wasn't exactly what Congress had in mind when it authorized the drug-ad funding. And until recently, no one in Congress knew much about what the drug czar's office had been up to -- and many still don't.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chair of the House subcommittee that appropriates funds for the drug office, says he had no idea until late last year that anti-drug shows were being used to free up half-priced ad time owed to the government. Alan Levitt, the official who runs the campaign for the drug-policy office, can name no members of Congress who knew of the arrangement prior to this fall, two years after the campaign's initiation.

In the past, before both the House and the Senate, McCaffrey has referred to the deal only obliquely, making reference to "entertainment venues" or "pro bono programming." In March 1999, for example, he called the arrangement "an equal added dollar's worth of anti-drug public service, pro bono activity." Nowhere did he tell Congress that his office was horse-trading valuable advertising time for TV shows that promulgated the government's anti-drug messages.

After Kolbe learned of the deal from this reporter, he summoned McCaffrey for explanation, and the snow job continued. McCaffrey appeared before Kolbe's appropriations subcommittee in October 1999. There McCaffrey made his most direct, if brief, statement yet: "We allow public affairs and programming to count as part of a network's public service contributions," he said. But even this was buried in a complex discussion of formulas, and he did not make it clear that the practice frees up millions of dollars in advertising time for the networks.

Following the hearing, Kolbe declared himself "satisfied that it's legitimate." Nonetheless, he marvels at the unusual Hollywood-government pact: "I never thought of it before, and I'm still not sure that Congress intended it."
salon.com | Jan. 14, 2000


Washington script doctors

How the government rewrote an episode of the WB's "Smart Guy."

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By Daniel Forbes

Jan. 13, 2000 | Like much of network television aimed at a youthful audience, "Smart Guy," a WB network sitcom that went on the air in April 1997 and was cancelled this past spring, was full of lessons about growing up. It told the story of T.J. Henderson, played by Tahj Mowry, a genius of sorts who finds himself in high school at the age of 10, grappling with the pressures that beset his older peers.

But in the case of one episode, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) thought "Smart Guy's" moral instruction could be made even more explicit -- and, with the active cooperation of the show's producers, the government proceeded to do just that.

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The original script of the episode, which eventually aired May 19, 1999, placed T.J. at a kids-only party, where he encounters two older boys he'd known before he skipped several grades in school. As first conceived, the two boys were the life of the party, their coolness evidenced among other things by their precocious ability to score some beer.

They convince an impressed T.J. to indulge. He returns to the party sloshed, makes a fool of himself and spills a soda all over a girl he's trying to dazzle. Hung over the next day, he compounds his sins by lying to his father about his condition. Later, his new friends drop by with some peppermint schnapps. Dad walks in on their debaucheries, and all hell breaks loose.

The episode was written primarily by freelance film and television writer Steve Young. Young first pitched the alcohol-themed story in 1997. It was rejected, he believes, at least in part because Disney (the show's partial owner) recoiled from having its young character involved with booze. But well over a year later, Young suddenly received a phone call from "Smart Guy" executive producer Bob Young (no relation), who told him, "Remember that show we said we're never going to do? We're doing it."

The booze-themed script was revived after WB senior VP for programming John Litvack suggested a drinking or drugs episode to the "Smart Guy's" producers. (While most of the shows that the drug-policy office influences deal with drugs, the office permits about 10 percent of them to be alcohol-related.)

Says "Smart Guy" creator Danny Kallis: "The WB came to us and asked if we'd consider doing a drugs or drinking show." Tahj Mowry's mother would have objected to a show concerning drugs. But fortunately, the producers had on hand Steve Young's previously rejected script.

Once the script was resurrected, Kallis recalls that the WB "put us in touch with the White House, with Alan Levitt [the drug-policy point man for the media campaign]." "Smart Guy" producer Young says that show staffers spoke to three or four outsiders on "the most effective way to reach teens," including Levitt and other social-marketing experts whom Levitt referred them to.

ONDCP and its consultants offered "a few dictates," Young says. No mention of beer brand names. T.J. had to be "clearly inebriated" and the negative consequences of drinking had to be emphasized, including -- worse even than T.J.'s embarrassment with the girl -- his breach of trust with his father. And father and son had to (eventually) have a heart-to-heart talk.

Writer Young recalls that the scenes in which T.J. is counseled by his father were crafted with the government consultants' input. He says the show's producers were "concerned that we didn't say anything that diverges from" the consultants' paradigm.

Among the consultants Levitt steered Kallis, Young and their writers to was George Carey, president of Just Kid Inc. of Stamford, Conn., an expert on effective youth marketing. Carey says he consulted with ONDCP on "a couple of shows." Around last February, a couple of months after the decision to revive the beer episode, Carey participated in a conference call with the producers of "Smart Guy." He says, "The holding company [the WB] was looking for ways to fulfill the match" -- i.e. make the show palatable to the drug czar's office.

In that phone conference, Carey delineated a few more specific themes dear to the drug-policy office's heart: Parents need to take an active role, not just assume kids can handle these issues on their own; "resistance skills," that is, saying no to drug or alcohol inducements in a face-saving way, are crucial; and, as always, the overall negative consequences of drugs and under-age alcohol use.

Producer Young recalls two or three other ONDCP contractors augmenting Carey's ministrations to "Smart Guy." By the time everyone was done shaping the script, it had changed significantly. The two older boys were turned into goofy and unappealing clowns, one of whom T.J. remembers from the "slow-reading class." Instead of trying to ingratiate himself with a couple of winners, as the original script had it, T.J. finds himself dragged down to their inferior level. A second drug-policy office contractor who worked on the script says, "We showed that they were losers and put them in a utility room [rather than out in the main party]. That was not in the original script."

Asked whether it's proper to have government consultants shaping a TV program's scripts, WB programming chief Litvack says, "Sure, absolutely. It's a good idea if he knows more than we do."
salon.com | Jan. 13, 2000