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Two Networks Bar Religious Commercial

CBS, NBC Turn Down United Church of Christ's Ad Touting Its Inclusiveness

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2004; Page A08

The CBS and NBC television networks have rejected an advertisement for the United Church of Christ that shows two beefy bouncers turning away a gay couple, a Latino woman and a disabled man outside a church.

Officials of the Cleveland-based denomination, which has nearly 6,000 congregations and 1.3 million members, said the 30-second ad is intended to emphasize its inclusiveness. "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we," the ad says.

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In a written explanation to the church's ad agency, CBS linked the ad to the issue of same-sex marriage and said it does not accept advertising "on one side of a current controversial issue of public importance."

"Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups . . . and the fact that the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the Networks," it said.

NBC's rejection notice simply called the ad "too controversial," without elaboration.

The Rev. John H. Thomas, president and general minister of the United Church of Christ, said the ad has nothing to do with same-sex marriage and generated no complaints or controversy when it was test-marketed on NBC-affiliated stations in six regional markets in the spring.

Thomas said he believes that since the presidential election, the major broadcast networks "are nervous about an ascendant conservative movement."

"Rather than uphold a kind of freedom of the airwaves, they're deciding it's wiser to censor some perspectives than to court reaction from the right," he said.

The church announced the networks' decision and provided copies of their rejection notices as it kicked off a $30 million, four-year advertising campaign to boost its name recognition and attract new members.

Church officials said they did not attempt to buy time on the third major broadcast network, ABC, because it has a blanket policy against religious advertising. But they said the bouncer ad will air on numerous other networks and cable channels, including ABC Family, AMC, BET, Discovery, Fox, Hallmark, Travel, TBS and TNT.

The rejections mean "it's going to be a little more difficult to reach the percentage of the population and the age range that we want," said Ron Buford, the church official in charge of the campaign. "But we will get our message out."

CBS and NBC officials said the timing of the church's announcement suggest that it is milking the controversy for free publicity. Both networks said they had rejected the commercial nine months ago, though they had entertained appeals from the church until recently.

Both networks noted that they had approved a second commercial emphasizing the UCC's diversity. It shows a little girl playing the hand game of "Here's the church, here's the steeple; open the doors and see all the people."

"If the church wants to say they are inclusive and open, that's a very positive statement that we are very happy to have on the air," said Alan Wurtzel, NBC's head of broadcast standards. "These folks are giving the impression that NBC is anti-church, anti-religion, anti-gay. It has nothing to do with that."

The problem with the bouncer ad, Wurtzel said, is that it "throws down the gauntlet at a variety of unnamed other churches" that allegedly do not accept gays or minorities. "It violates a long-standing NBC policy, which is that we do not accept commercial advertising that deals with issues of public controversy," he said.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company