Pity the poor broadcast networks. The very morning a "scientific" study is released that--unlike all the other studies--says that the networks are not single-handedly responsible for the corruption of American youth, a report hits the media that they are involved in a deal with the very group that funded the study--the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

The White House confirmed on Thursday that six major broadcast networks were given financial incentives to provide programming that conveyed an anti-drug message. Under that pact, ad time is being given back to the networks for shows that include negative portrayals of drug use. So far, the broadcasters have received credit for 109 episodes of prime-time series, the ONDCP said, resulting in ad time being given back to them--which they can then sell to corporate advertisers.

Problem is, nobody seems to have told the producers and studio execs about the practice. A number of them expressed understandable outrage after reading about it in the newspapers. They used words like "appalling" and "inconceivable" and "troubling" and "never in my career."

But when asked if they would agree to insert anti-drug messages in their programs in exchange for millions of dollars from the federal government, they had to think about it long and hard before finally deciding they wouldn't, "even if they paid us."

According to the ONDCP study also made public today, illicit drugs are almost never shown on prime-time broadcast TV. And, on the few occasions they are, it's almost always with negative consequences.

"I believe the broadcast television industry is making progress in sending our kids the right messages about drug abuse," ONDCP Director Barry McCaffrey said today in a statement.

The study, "Substance Use in Popular Prime-Time Television," looked at the prime-time broadcast TV programs that were most watched by white, Hispanic and African American teens.

It found only 3 percent of the 168 episodes analyzed depicted illicit drugs. In 20 percent, illegal drugs were mentioned, but in almost all incidents, they were not glamorized.

One in five episodes included the use of tobacco, but never by a character under the age of 18. But 71 percent of the episodes showed the use of alcohol, including a large proportion of adult major characters. Only once, however, was it used by someone under the legal drinking age.

One of the researchers, Donald Roberts of Stanford University, said that many times pouring a drink was used simply as a means of moving a character from position A on a set to position B. He added that, as a parent and grandparent, he hoped producers in the future would instead have the characters move from A to B by kicking the cat.

Which would then give PETA an opportunity to present a study about the ill effects of prime-time TV to The Reporters Who Cover Television, who just can't get enough of this stuff.

McCaffrey, who conveniently couldn't make his scheduled appearance here because of a long flight from Switzerland back to Washington, instead sent his deputy. Donald Vereen was besieged with questions about the news reports on the ONDCP-network anti-drug deal.

According to Alan Levitt, director of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, which is part of the ONDCP, the networks' sales departments decide which episodes of shows to submit to the ONDCP, via its New York-based ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather. ONDCP then sends the episodes to its panel of experts, which decides which ones qualify for the ad credits. Those episodes are then sent back to Ogilvy, which gives the episode up to three points, determining how much ad time the network gets back. Keep in mind that 30-second, prime-time ad spots sell for six figures, so there's a lot of money at stake.

President Clinton came to McCaffrey's defense today in Washington, saying that the drug czar concluded that putting anti-drug messages in prime-time programs rather than little-watched late-night public service announcements was a "good thing."

"It's my understanding that there's nothing mandatory about this," Clinton said, "that there was no attempt to regulate content or tell people what they had to put into it--of course, I wouldn't support that. But I think he's done a very good job at increasing the sort of public interest component of what young people hear on the media, and I think it's working; we see drug use dropping."

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said at the daily briefing in Washington today that "this particular program, I think, is the result of looking for other ways to get the message out that allows networks in a robust advertising environment to sell to other people where they can make more money."

At the TV press tour, a reporter asked Peter Roth, the head of Warner Bros. TV, if he found any similarity between inserting the feds' anti-drug message in an episode of "Friends" and inserting subliminal Pottery Barn ads. In last week's episode, Jennifer Aniston's character, Rachel, keeps buying Pottery Barn household items on the sly to furnish the apartment she now shares with Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), who wants her digs furnished only with recycled items. The ruse blows up when Kudrow walks by a Pottery Barn store--on camera--and sees all her new furnishings in the window.

At which point, Studio USA's President David Kissinger--yes, Henry's boy--jumped to Roth's defense, saying that last he'd checked, Pottery Barn didn't represent as much a threat to our civil liberties as the federal government.

CAPTION: Barry McCaffrey, meeting the press yesterday about the anti-drug policy.

CAPTION: Drug policy adviser Barry McCaffrey explains the White House-network deal.