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VH1, ESPN Are Also Drug Office Beneficiaries

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, February 4, 2000; Page C07

More on Your Brain on Drugs-gate: The White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy gave back to TV networks ad time worth millions of dollars not only in exchange for those "very special episodes" about the evils of drug use in your favorite sitcoms and dramas, but also for shows whose basic topic is drugs: VH1 bios of drug-addled rock stars, Fox's reality show "America's Most Wanted" and ESPN's coverage of baseball player Darryl Strawberry's cocaine woes.

Wasn't this media campaign supposed to be about getting more anti-drug messages on the air?

This information came to the attention of The TV Column at a Senate subcommittee hearing yesterday to grill the ONDCP about its ad-giveback arrangement with the networks. The ONDCP, you'll remember, is under fire for reviewing scripts of TV shows in its effort to dramatically increase the number of anti-drug messages being delivered on TV to American youths during hours when they're actually watching.

Congress mandated that for every minute of ad time the ONDCP bought on a network, the net had to kick in a minute of public service announcements to the campaign. But in spring '98, the ONDCP decided that if a network put anti-drug messages right into its programming, it would give the network credit toward its pro bono obligation and the net could then sell the PSA ad time to a paying customer or use it to promote its own lineup. In exchange for slipping those messages into programming, the networks were relieved of $22 million in public service advertising requirements over two years.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), who called yesterday's hearing, chairs an appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding of the 1997 law giving the ONDCP $1 billion over five years to buy ad time for an aggressive anti-drug campaign.

He says he didn't know about the credit-for-content arrangement until the news media dug it up in January. (His office really ought to start reading the Los Angeles Times, Ad Age and USA Today--all of which ran stories that referred to the ONDCP's cash-for-content arrangement between August and November '98--though it's true that all three stories did kind of bury the lead.)

Now that he knows about it, Campbell doesn't like it; neither does Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who was the only other committee member at the hearing. Both senators said they didn't think the overall ad campaign should be scrapped, but Campbell said the cash-for-credit relationship needs either to be more carefully regulated or eliminated.

Alan Levitt, the director of the ONDCP's National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, who had defended the campaign at the winter TV press tour in California last month, was at the hearing, again representing the drug czar's office. He had nothing new to say, but this time he brought audiovisual material, which listed the shows for which the broadcast networks received pro bono credit during the 1998-99 TV season.

For instance, the ONDCP gave VH1 credit for running biographies about rock stars who abused drugs.

Are there any rock stars that didn't do drugs? Does no one at ONDCP know that the only reason anyone watches "Behind the Music" and "Legends" is for the drug stuff? At The TV Column we call it the VH1 Bio Formula: Rocker becomes megastar . . . Rocker gets into some serious drugs . . . Rocker's career takes a dive . . . Rocker learns his/her lesson . . . Rocker gets into rehab . . . Rocker makes a career comeback . . . and they all live happily ever after . . . The End.

And ONDCP gave ESPN credit for covering the recent drug encounters of the New York Yankees' Strawberry and University of Connecticut basketball star Khalid El-Amin. Apparently the ONDCP thought that ESPN was not going to cover these two stories unless the drug czar dangled a financial carrot.

An ONDCP rep said afterward that these programs were not news coverage, they were feature stories. "Sports news is a guy shooting 40 points in an NBA final or batting over .500," the rep said. "It is not an athlete reflecting upon whether and to what extent drugs played a role in the demise of his career in a feature piece."

Apparently Strawberry did a lot of reflecting, because ESPN got credit for seven segments on him; El-Amin reflected only five times.

And, according to Levitt's document, the Fox network somehow was credited for an episode of "Chicago Hope"--which airs on CBS. True, it's produced by David E. Kelley at the Fox network's sister company, 20th Century Fox TV, both of which are at the 20th Century Fox studio.

Fox also got credit for eight broadcasts of its reality show "America's Most Wanted: America Fights Back."

But my personal fave: ONDCP gave NBC credit for episodes of its Saturday morning shows "Hang Time," "Saved by the Bell," "One World" and "City Guys." These are shows that NBC uses to fulfill another federal requirement, that its stations provide a certain amount of educational or informational programming for children each week. It appears that NBC was fulfilling that requirement and getting the federal government to pay for it. Way to go.

 
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