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Music Cues: Government and the Media
Scott Simon
January 15, 2000

audio on the mutual fascination between Hollywood and the official Washington, D.C.

Many people have remarked on the mutual fascination between Hollywood and official Washington D.C. Both cultures, after all, seem drawn to the flame of celebrity. But something more substantial may bind them -- money, and the art of the deal.

It was revealed this week, initially by the web magazine Salon, that for the past year, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has given financial incentives to commercial television networks to work anti-drug themes into their prime time shows, including ER, Chicago Hope, and Home Improvement.

I guess I missed the episode of Home Improvement in which Tim Allen hammers his thumb, grimaces at the camera, and says, "Just say no."

A 1997 agreement authorized the Office of National Drug Control Policy to buy a billion dollars of commercial time over five years at cut-rate public service prices. But when the economy began to boom, the networks were chagrined at having to let prime-time commercials minutes go for half-rate public service prices. So a deal was struck: if the networks wove anti-drug themes into some of their shows, they would be permitted to sell those slots at higher commercial rates.

Yesterday, the networks denied that the government censored scripts. However, they conceded that a network would not receive commercial credit unless the White House Office approved of a given program.

What's the difference between censorship and approval? It might take a Hollywood or Washington lawyer to tell.

John Tinker, the executive producer of Chicago Hope, said the revelations made him uncomfortable; and that Fox studio executives had suddenly and inexplicibly urged him to put an anti-drug themed script that had been under consideration for several years into production.

While journalism watchdogs growled about the networks stretching a line that ought to separate government agencies from entertainment programs, many network and government officials professed delight. Anti-drug messages, they said, were much more subtle and effective when scripted into popular shows, not relegated to public service announcements -- which are often signals to raid the refrigerator.

Of course, being "more subtle and effective" is exactly what worries critics about government involvement in entertainment.

Worry and outrage may be premature. For the moment, you almost have to marvel at the way the networks evaded an agreement they reached in the public interest to make themselves even richer.

So I want to urge everyone to pay their taxes fully and promptly. And I hope that the Internal Revenue Service realizes that making this statement on our program is much more valuable than actually paying my taxes.