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In the ‘90s the U.S. Government Paid TV Networks to Weave “Anti-Drug” Messaging Into Their Plot Lines. Here Are the Worst Examples.
It wasn't your imagination: From ER to Beverly Hills, 90210, the Office of National Drug Control Policy subsidized major network TV shows in exchange for helping push harmful War on Drugs propaganda.
In the late 1990s, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which was established by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, made a deal with multiple TV networks to include anti-drug messaging in show plots. According to reporting by the New York Times and Salon in 2000, the roots of the deal can be traced to the fall of 1997 when Congress approved a plan to buy $1 billion of anti-drug advertising over five years for its National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. These purchases were contingent on a private-sector match in which each government anti-drug ad buy would be matched by another free anti-drug ad to be aired on the networks.
As major networks grew dissatisfied with the deal against the backdrop of a booming dot-com economy, in which ad space was increasingly cherished, the networks bargained with the government. As a way to redeem the second free ad slot that they had promised to the government, the networks could use the plots of their sitcoms and dramas to fulfill the requirement—effectively taking large sums of free money to weave in War on Drugs government propaganda into their plot lines. In this deal, both sides won out: While the networks were able to sell the commercials to the private sector that they would have given away for free, the government was rewarded with a much more insidious way to spread “anti-drug” content.
Put another way: If you’re curious why there were so many corny and ham-fisted anti-drug plot lines in your favorite shows growing up, they didn’t emerge from some organic social contagion about combating drug abuse. Instead, they were well-compensated, unattributed, and undisclosed commercials paid by the federal government that helped them sustain the requisite moral panic around its $50 billion a year “war on drugs” pursuant policy goals of caging surplus black and brown populations and maintaining a militarized presence in most of Latin America.
Just as the Armed Forces and the CIA have given Hollywood funds and access in exchange for positive coverage and the ability to review scripts, the exchange between the networks and the ONDCP was similar. Starting in the spring of 1998, networks would send advanced scripts and tapes to federal drug officials who assigned to them a monetary value depending on the content, ratings impact, and length of the episode. Given that the program was quite secret, it is often hard to figure exactly which episode was valued at what amount. However, drawing mostly from Salon and the New York Times’ reporting at the time, the clips presented here are from nine different series that each aired episodes from 1998 to 1999 that were submitted for government approval. When possible, the government’s changes to content and the monetary value of the episodes are noted.
In the end, the government’s National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign was extremely unsuccessful at its nominal goal of changing the drug habits of American teens. Nevertheless, as the content of the clips in this article shows, these plots reinforced Hollywood’s longstanding habit of portraying those addicted to drugs and alcohol as lunatics whose only cure can come from punitive measures, abstinence, and “tough love.” This deal not only made for horrible television—it also reinforced the supposed link between addiction and criminality that fueled the over-policing and over-imprisonment of users, and flew in the face of more effective harm-reduction approaches to dealing with addiction.
The first clip is from Season 8 of Fox’s “Beverly Hills, 90210.” These clips, which are from episodes 21 and 23, detail Donna’s downward spiral into addiction. According to Salon, based on the price of an ad on the show, this two-episode plot arc was valued somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000.
In Season 7 of “Home Improvement,” ABC was reportedly able to earn back $525,000 for episode 16 titled, “What a Drag.” After finding his son’s stash, Tim and Jill lecture their son about pot’s dangers.
This clip is from season 3, episode 4 of The WB’s less-well known “Smart Guy.” Here, the original script was changed to portray teens at a house party who had been smoking and drinking, originally framed as cool, to be losers.
Next is a clip from season 5, episode 5 of NBC’s classic “ER.” Here, two med students nearly overdose on ecstasy. This and other episodes with explicit anti-drug plots were redeemed by the network for $1.4 million worth of ads that it could sell elsewhere.
This next clip is from ABC’s Aaron Sorkin-created “Sports Night.” The network earned upwards of $450,000 of redeemable airtime for this monologue about “dope.”
The WB’s “Seventh Heaven” earned upwards of $200,000 for Season 3, episode 8, titled, “No Sex, Some Drugs, and a Little Rock and Roll.” Touching on everything from Keith Moon’s overdose to the dangers of ephedrine, this clip is a doozy.
Season 4 of CBS’ “Cosby,” which came after “The Cosby Show,” had an episode dedicated to a drug intervention over a friend’s cocaine habit. CBS was able to redeem ad time for this episode.
Season 5, episode 23 of “Chicago Hope,” which was worth a reported $500,000 for CBS, centers around a party in which multiple teens are poisoned by an unknown psychoactive rave drug called “Blue Nitro.”