The White House, in quiet collaboration with the six major broadcast television networks, has reviewed the scripts of such popular shows as "ER," "Chicago Hope" and "Beverly Hills, 90210" and made suggestions on at least two dozen programs to help them convey an aggressively anti-drug message.
In exchange for their cooperation, a White House official confirmed yesterday, the networks were freed from obligations to provide $22 million in public-service advertising over the past two years, allowing them to sell the lucrative time to corporate advertisers.
Alan Levitt, who runs the program in the White House drug czar's office, said his office reviews television scripts "to see if they're on strategy or not" by portraying youth drug use in a negative light. If so, the networks are given credits that enable them to sell more air time to commercial advertisers rather than donating it for anti-drug and other messages.
The arrangement, first reported by the online magazine Salon, drew swift criticism. "If the public begins to believe that a message is only being put forward because of financial remuneration, there's strong chance of undermining the value of all our messages," said John Wells, executive producer of "ER."
Wells, who said he had been unaware of the cooperation with the White House, said the effort "implies that the programs you're watching can be influenced by those kinds of financial incentives, and that's simply not the case."
Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the nonprofit Media Access Project, said: "The idea of the government attempting to influence public opinion covertly is reprehensible beyond words. It's one thing to appropriate money to buy ads, another thing to spend the money to influence the public subliminally. And it's monstrously selfish and irresponsible on the part of the broadcasters."
Some network executives said their companies submitted scripts for review in advance, while others said the White House examined shows after they aired. But all those interviewed yesterday said they never allowed the government to dictate the programs' content.
Robert Weiner, spokesman for the drug control office, said the advertising credits are granted for a prime-time program "which is a very positive statement and has the proper message on drugs and is accurate. There's nothing wrong with that. They've given us positive programs. If you've got a good 'ER,' that's certainly as important as an ad."
The unusual financial arrangement stems from a 1997 law in which Congress approved $1 billion for anti-drug advertising over five years; this year's allotment is $185 million. Networks that agree to participate are legally required to provide a dollar-for-dollar match for each spot purchased by the government by carrying public-service ads by nonprofit groups working with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, or ONDCP.
After some networks balked, drug control officials worked out a compromise. They said they would credit the networks for each entertainment program with what they viewed as the proper message--up to three 30-second spots per show--enabling network executives to sell that time to corporate advertisers instead of using it for public-service ads.
For example, Levitt praised as "wonderful" a 1998 episode of ABC's "Home Improvement" in which the parents (played by Tim Allen and Patricia Richardson) confronted their oldest son about smoking marijuana, despite their own past drug use, after discovering a bag of pot in the back yard.
The White House has worked with more than 100 shows, which may feature such themes as "parents in denial" or "peer refusal skills," Levitt said. He said the office's experts reviewed scripts in advance in perhaps 50 cases, and that in two dozen instances a network asked for the administration's input. The contacts are generally with sales executives, not writers and producers, Levitt said, and each network can receive credit for up to 15 percent of its commitment for public-service ads.
Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the White House drug office, said: "I'm not going to be wringing my hands over the fact that we're getting some positive messages out." He said that "the networks were willing to have some consultations on scripts. . . . If they feel they're being strong-armed by ONDCP, they can walk away at any time."
Several network executives confirmed the government's financial incentives but said they knew of no scripts that had been changed as a result.
Julie Hoover, an ABC vice president, said the network aired more public-service announcements than was required and therefore did not benefit from the advertising credits. Hoover said ABC has sent the drug czar's office tapes of shows with anti-drug messages--including "The Practice," "Home Improvement" and "Sports Night"--only after the programs had already aired.
Rosalyn Weinman, NBC's executive vice president of broadcast content policy, said in a statement that the network "never ceded control to the ONDCP or any department of the government. At no time did NBC turn over scripts for approval from the ONDCP." An NBC spokeswoman explained that the network sent the White House scripts with drug-related plots for review before being aired, "but we didn't take input from them, absolutely not."
The spokeswoman would not confirm or deny Salon's report that NBC redeemed $1.4 million worth of ad time in exchange for several "ER" episodes that dealt with drug abuse.
A CBS spokesman said the network had been able to recoup advertising time for anti-drug plot lines on such hit shows as "Touched by an Angel," "Cosby" and "Chicago Hope." But, he added, "the notion that a Hollywood producer would change a script for the government is ludicrous. . . . All the shows we've put on were going to go on anyway. So I don't know what the problem is."
But producers at one CBS program, "Chicago Hope," resuscitated a script with a strong anti-drug theme because of a suggestion from a television executive. John Tinker, executive producer of "Chicago Hope," said he reworked a script that had been put aside after getting a call from Mark Stroman, then of 20th Century Fox Television, co-owner of the show, who requested a drug-related script. That show, broadcast last year, featured young partygoers who suffered a drug-induced death, a rape, a car accident and a broken nose.
While he didn't revise the plot because of the request, Tinker said, "I do feel manipulated. It's not so much this particular instance in which we seem to have been unwittingly involved. . . . I would have liked to be told. If the president wants us to talk about drugs--could I be told? I'd like to be told."
In one instance, White House officials said, CBS received advertising credit for a "Cosby" episode in which Bill Cosby ended the show, in character, by appealing to viewers to call a toll-free number for information about drug abuse.
Fox spokesman Tom Tyrer said the network did not redeem advertising credits for two shows--a "Beverly Hills, 90210" episode in which a character descends into addiction and an "America's Most Wanted" segment in which White House drug policy direct Barry McCaffrey was interviewed. Tyrer said the producers were aware of the government program but that no scripts were changed.
WB said in a statement that the network redeemed advertising credits after consulting with the White House on scripts for "Smart Guy" and "Wayans Brothers," but said it often talked to outside organizations in preparing programs.
Other cooperating programs, the Salon article said, include "Promised Land" on CBS; "The Drew Carey Show," "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," "Boy Meets World," "Sports Night" and "General Hospital" on ABC; "Trinity" and "Providence" on NBC; and WB's "7th Heaven."
"This has all been above-board," said Weiner, the White House spokesman. "We're very proud of the accomplishments of the campaign. . . . We plead guilty to using every lawful means to save America's children."
Waxman reported from Los Angeles.