FCC faults networks for failing to reveal White House sponsorship of anti-drug shows

Wednesday, January 3, 2001

The Federal Communications Commission recently ruled that the major
networks should have disclosed the White House as a sponsor of anti-drug
programming in recent episodes of such popular shows as “America’s Most
Wanted,” “The Drew Carey Show” and “The Practice.”

Although the agency said federal broadcast regulations were not
violated and it did not impose a fine, it warned the networks that they must
identify the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy as a sponsor
when they receive government money for airing anti-drug programming.
The Wall Street Journal reported
that the FCC ordered any such sponsorship disclosed in the future when programs
are rerun.

“Listeners and viewers,” regulators wrote in the Dec. 20 decision
released later that month, “are entitled to know by whom they are being

The FCC’s investigation came as a result of a complaint filed by the
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, alleging that the ONDCP
offered millions of advertising dollars for anti-drug programming. The practice
was revealed in news reports more than a year ago.

“This was a sinister attempt by the drug czar to secretly alter
program content by offering millions of dollars to those willing to use the
programs for government propaganda,” said Keith Stroup, the group’s executive
director. “This FCC ruling clearly puts the incoming drug czar and the networks
on notice that this is a violation of federal law and will no longer be

Several network officials declined to comment on the FCC action. Calls
to the National Association of Broadcasters were not returned.

Congress approved the program in 1998, passing legislation that
required television stations, newspapers and magazines that accepted
government-financed anti-drug advertising to match them with an equal amount of
anti-drug public service announcements at no charge.

The ONDCP reached a further compromise with the networks, whereby it
would not use some of its free air time if the networks included some of the
messages within some of their prime-time shows. The networks were then able to
sell the ad time that had been allocated to the government.

But before the networks could get credit for the anti-drug messages,
the ONDCP had to approve the show scripts.

“In some cases the networks and the ONDCP would wrangle over the
changes requested,” said Tom Dean, NORML’s litigation director. “Thus, the drug
czar’s office has been directly influencing the content of TV shows.”

The practice came to light after a series of stories on the issue
posted by Salon, an online magazine, in 1999. The reports sparked congressional
hearings in which network officials said the arrangement never resulted in
altered scripts.

The hearings did reveal that the four major networks, ABC, CBS, NBC
and Fox, received some $25 million in compensation for including anti-drug
messages in their prime-time programming. The ONDCP reviewed more than 100
scripts that it determined worthy of compensation.

But the FCC declined to fine the networks, saying it wasn’t clear that
government compensation had been promised yet when the anti-drug programs
aired. The agency, however, cautioned the networks to pay closer attention to
disclosing the ONDCP as a sponsor in the future.