Did the Federal Government Once Secretly Pay TV Networks For Having Anti-Drug Messages in Shows?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: The federal government once secretly paid TV networks for having anti-drug messages in episodes of their shows.

We are all familiar with TV shows working with the United States government to have special “Anti-drug” episodes. This was particularly the “in” thing to do when Nancy Reagan was the First Lady, as she made a big deal about appearing on popular sitcoms among kids to promote her anti-drug programs. Here she is with Gary Coleman from an anti-drug episode of Diff’rent Strokes…


And here’s an episode of Punky Brewster that tied in with the First Lady’s “Just Say No” campaign…

That’s all well and good, but what if the government got involved more surreptitiously? That was the case with an anti-drug program that came about towards the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency that unintentional led to a bizarre situation where the government was effectively secretly paying TV networks for having anti-drug messages in their shows. Read on to see how it all went down!

It all began in 1997 when Congress approved a massive billion-dollar campaign where they would spend $200 a year on anti-drug advertising for the next five years. This ad campaign was the one that introduced the following memorable Rachael Leigh Cook anti-drug ad (right before she became a famous actress)…

The other part of the deal, though, was that Congress would spend the $200 million each year, but the networks would then agree to air each ad twice, while only charging for the first airing. This took a lot of swaying from the government, as obviously no one liked to give away ad space for free like that. The most popular network at the time, NBC, dragged their feet the most. Ultimately, though, the five networks that the government came to (they excluded the low-rated UPN) all agreed. In part because it WAS easy money. They didn’t have to actually sell the ad space, which was nice.

This went on for a year, but then the economy changed and the dot com boom led to an increased demand for ad time which led to record prices for ads. Now the networks really did not like the fact that they were giving the government two ads for the price of one. So the agency running the program, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), came up with a fascinating compromise. Networks could instead include anti-drug messages in their shows and each usage would be valued by the ONDCP based on things like A. how significant the message was, B. How on point the message was and C. how popular the show was that had the message and then that price would be deducted from the cost of the second ad. In other words, if the ad time was worth $300,000, the networks had to provide $300,000 worth of anti-drug messages (as determined by the ONDCP) before they were allowed to then sell that ad space to someone else.

Fox notably just did a two-episode arc of Beverly Hills 90210 where a character spiraled into drug addiction. That arc paid for most of what Fox owed.

Not only would the networks have to run their scripts by the ONDCP to see how much the episodes were worth, but the ONDCP would tell them what they could change to get MORE money. A notable example was this episode of the sitcom Smart Guy, where there was a house party with kids drinking. Initially, the kids were presented as “cool kids.” The ONDCP asked if they could change it so that the kids were seen as “losers” and were off in a separate room…

(Go to the 9:01 mark for the scene)

A bunch of notable shows participated in the program, including ER, Home Improvement, The Drew Carey Show, 7th Heaven and Boy Meets World.

When the news broke in 2000 in a great feature by Daniel Forbes for Salon, people freaked out and ultimately the FCC junked the practice.

One of the most interesting things of the Forbes article was when he interviewed the producer of one of the shows involved, Chicago Hope, who was told by the network to do an anti-drug episode but didn’t tell him that they were getting ad breaks out of it.

The legend is…

STATUS: Basically True (it wasn’t like they were just handing money to the shows, but you get the idea)

Thanks again to the great work by Daniel Forbes and Salon.

Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of television.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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