Washington -- As it turns out, broadcast networks
weren't the only ones to earn special benefits from President Clinton's
drug-czar office for airing programming with anti-drug messages.
VH1 and ESPN also racked up nearly $1.7 million in such
credits for running shows ranging from biographies of drug-shooting rock stars on Behind
the Music to news coverage on New York Yankee Darryl Strawberry's cocaine
VH1 and ESPN were included in a recently released list of
networks that have received so-called programming-content credit from the White House
Office of National Drug Control Policy. The ONDCP came under fire once against last week,
at a congressional hearing, for its practice of giving networks ad-giveback credits.
The office staunchly defended its actions, which first
flared into a controversy last month.
During the past few years, the ONDCP has spent millions of
dollars to buy time on TV networks to run anti-drug commercials. As part of those deals,
the networks must also match the ad buy by airing the equivalent number of anti-drug
But networks have another option: They can fulfill that PSA
obligation by airing programming with anti-drug messages. The ONDCP has dubbed that
"programming-content credit," and a brouhaha over the practice flared up when
online magazine Salon.com did a story on it headlined "Primetime Propaganda."
According to the ONDCP, VH1 received $903,700 in such
credits for the 1998-99 TV season, while ESPN got $796,800.
VH1 earned its programming-content credit for various
episodes of two of its popular series, Behind the Music and Legends. Those
shows tell the life stories of rock musicians, often including segments on the
artists' past drug abuse and addiction.
The specific episodes that VH1 got special credit for
covered musicians and groups such as Milli Vanilli, Mötley Crüe, Keith Moon, Led
Zeppelin, Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton, David Crosby, The Who, Alice Cooper, David Cassidy and
A VH1 spokesman said the ONDCP never reviewed any scripts
for those shows. "The ONDCP in no way influenced the content of our programming,
because we submitted already-produced shows," the spokesman said.
ESPN might seem to be an unlikely candidate to receive
ONDCP credit for anti-drug programming. But it did in fact get such credit, mainly for SportsCenter
and ESPNewscoverage of the drug-abuse travails of a variety of sports figures such
as Strawberry, former New York Giant Lawrence Taylor and University of Connecticut
basketball player Khalid El-Amin.
ESPN denied that the ONDCP had shaped or influenced the
programming for which it received credit. "There really was no quid pro quo, and this
did not affect in any way our coverage," an ESPN spokesman said. "ESPN covers
drug stories as they relate to sports in the normal course of business."
Alan Levitt, director of the ONDCP's National Youth
Anti-Drug Media Campaign, said ESPN was entitled to credit for that programming because,
as the ONDCP saw it, those segments were entertainment pieces. "It really was not
news," he added. "It was more feature stories."
But Levitt added that the ONDCP is reviewing its guidelines
as to exactly what programming should qualify to get networks credit for their PSA
Public debate on the programming-content credits continued
at last week's hearing. Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House
Telecommunications Subcommittee, said the arrangement looked as if a rewards system had
been set up to hand out government favors to networks that produced "politically
He added, "If such a deal exists," it was
unconstitutional, and it violated Federal Communications Commission policies, as well as
the law that created the ONDCP's anti-drug media campaign.
"I believe that it puts the government on a horrible
slippery slope of interference with First Amendment rights, the likes of which I have
never witnessed in my tenure in the United States Congress," 20-year Capitol Hill
veteran Tauzin said.
Senior Democrats on Tauzin's panel did not share his
concern. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said the program was necessary to educate children
about the harms of drugs. "It's a noble thing that the networks have done in
beginning to examine their own programming," he added.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) pointed out that from the
program's inception under a 1998 law, news accounts stated that TV networks could
obtain credit for scripts that included anti-drug messages and themes.
Dingell mocked the idea that the program had become a tool
for the federal government to manipulate TV content. "It seems that if the White
House really did control these television programs, it would first move to cancel Jay
Leno's monologues," he said.
Dr. Donald R. Vereen Jr., the ONDCP's deputy director,
testified that his office neither approved scripts nor used the program as a propaganda
tool. "We have never intruded in the creative process," he said.
First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere told the panel
he was not troubled by the ONDCP's purchase of TV time to air PSAs, nor by the
office's willingness to reach out to the entertainment community for help in fighting
drug use by children. "It's laudable," he said.
Separate from the cry over programming credits, the ONDCP
has also been under attack recently from Black Entertainment Television over ad dollars
the programmer was hoping to receive this year to run anti-drug ads.
For this year, BET submitted a proposal seeking a $5
million ad buy across various BET Holdings Inc. properties, from TV to print to online,
according to Louis Carr, BET's executive vice president of media sales. That proposal
was made after BET chairman Bob Johnson and Carr met with ONDCP officials last summer, and
"they said they wanted a true partnership with us," according to Carr.
But the ONDCP only offered to give BET an $800,000 TV-media
buy -- the same as last year -- which the network rejected.
Levitt said his organization has Ogilvy & Mather and
its ethnic agency, Muse Cordero Chen, do its media buying. And they couldn't justify
making a $5 million buy on BET, based on the proposal the network submitted, according to
In response, Carr said, "We feel that they have a lack
of understanding of our community and a lack of trust in African-American
Levitt also claimed that last year, BET only fulfilled
about one-half of its required obligation to match the drug office's ad buy with
PSAs. But Carr denied that charge, saying BET fulfilled its obligation with bonus spots,
"infobars" and programming such as a special teen summit.