In its zeal to infuse anti-drug messages into the consciousness of televiewers, the Clinton administration has sneaked into their subconscious.
There's more plot to the plot than television program fans realized. It's not in the credits, but credit the White House with a major role.
With eager cooperation of commercial TV, the White House drug czar's office came up with a scheme that puts millions of dollars of found money into the networks' pockets and at the same time subliminally slides the administration's message into the minds of the viewing masses.
Viewers haven't even been aware of it, but as many as 100 of their favorite programs – from "ER" to "Home Improvement" to "Beverly Hills 90210" – have been programmed right out of the White House.
Story lines and plots have been "suggested" by the White House. Scripts have been submitted by networks for review in advance to the drug czar.
And, what at first may sound innocent enough, the nets have shown their work to the White House after the doctored programs were aired.
The rationale is: "We knew what you wanted us to have the program get across, and here's the proof."
Why the need to show proof? The answer: to be paid.
The details are in the deal the White House has cut with the five largest networks – ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and Warner Brothers – according to Salon.com, which broke the story:
• In 1997, in response to President Clinton's campaign to deploy taxpayer dollars to fight drug use, Congress approved spending $1 billion for anti-drug advertising over five years.
• Under that law, networks that got paid by the government to run those commercials had, in effect, to charge only half-rate.
• Uncle Sam paid the full rate for the spots, but the nets then had to give away a dollar-for-dollar match of free air time for public-service anti-drug ads by non-profit groups that were also working hand-in-glove with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
• Networks were not thrilled to see millions of dollars of potential ad revenues evaporating into the free time they were giving away.
• The president's drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, devised one of those win-win ways out. He would give the nets "credits" from having to give away free spots in return for anti-drug messages their producers would weave into program plots.
• If the program plot wasn't sufficiently "on message," the White House would withhold the credits.
• The nets got that message. To win those credits – thus freeing up precious air time it then sold to commercial sponsors at the full rate – the nets made sure their programs got the desired White House message across in their plot lines.
Among those whose episodes were suggested and/or approved by the White House were "Cosby," "The Drew Carey Show," "The Practice," "General Hospital," "7th Heaven," "Chicago Hope," "Beverly Hills 90210," "Providence," "Touched by an Angel," "Home Improvement," "ER," "Promised Land," "Boy Meets World," "Trinity," "The Smart Guy," "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" and "Wayans Bros."
The money the nets made on this plot-tinkering is not chump change. The New York Post said the White House "valued the programming messages it had approved at $22 million."
The nets can't see why this isn't all well and good – after all, a socially worthwhile message is getting across (drug users are losers in the virtual life of the doctored TV dramas) and the nets are getting richer. What's wrong with that?
If anyone has trouble with taxpayers' money going into the sit-com business, it hasn't made the news.
But those who worry about bureaucrats in Washington engaging in mass-comm mind-bending are speaking out.
"This is the most craven thing I've heard of yet," one of the media watchdogs, Andrew Schwartzman of the Media Access Project, told the Post.
He termed it "turning over content control to the federal government" and denounced it as an outrageous abandonment of the First Amendment."
"It's one thing to appropriate money to buy ads, another thing to spend the money to influence the public subliminally," he was quoted by the Washington Post. "And it's monstrously selfish and irresponsible on the part of the broadcasters."
• Robert Weiner, a spokesman for the drug control office in the White House, thought it a great idea for the government to ghost-write 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."
It all raises the question of where the government can, and should go, in influencing attitudes and actions of people toward a desired goal – with or without their knowledge it's being done.