US: War-Hero Drug Czar Under Fire in TV Ploy

URL: Newshawk: Sledhead
Pubdate: Mon, 24 Jan 2000
Source: New York Post (NY)
Copyright: 2000, N.Y.P. Holdings, Inc.
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Gen. Barry McCaffrey is used to winning — but the U.S. drug czar is nursing war wounds for giving networks big-bucks incentives to insert anti-drug messages in TV shows.

The four-star general was forced to beat a hasty retreat after TV producers charged him with censorship and congressional officials said his policy allows networks to cheat the government.

Even as President Clinton defended McCaffrey and denied he had tried to regulate TV content, congressional officials said hearings into his anti-drug message deals are likely.

The sudden threat of an investigation stands in sharp contrast to the applause that greeted his 1996 appointment to lead the nation’s battle against drugs.

McCaffrey, then 56, was the most highly decorated general on active duty and a hero of the Gulf War.

The general hoped to translate his battlefield successes to the drug war.

In 1997, he got Congress to allocate $1 billion for a five-year program “to fashion anti-drug messages” in movies, TV programs and other media.

Under the program, McCaffrey’s office bought TV air time for anti-drug public-service announcements and in return, the networks agreed to match each paid ad with free anti-drug PSAs.

But as the economy began booming, the networks started to resent the free matching ads, especially during prime time, so McCaffrey offered to give the networks a break if anti-drug messages were incorporated into actual shows.

The deal, which involved two dozen popular shows, gave networks an estimated bonus of $25 million in valuable air time to sell to advertisers last year.

Anti-drug messages in episodes of “ER” are reported to have recouped $1.4 million in ad time for NBC to sell elsewhere, while ABC’s “The Practice” recouped $500,000.

A Fox “Beverly Hills, 90210” anti-drug episode was worth between $500,000 and $750,000.

Last week, McCaffrey’s office agreed to stop reviewing scripts and programs before they’re aired, and to stop offering financial credits to networks or producers who ask for advice on how to incorporate anti-drug messages.

But McCaffrey may not recover as quickly from charges that he allowed the networks to defraud the government by not providing matching PSAs. A spokesman for the House Commerce Committee, which oversees broadcasting policy, said the situation demands a proper investigation.

“There’s been a lot of head-shaking around here,” he said.

“There’s definitely interest on Capitol Hill in looking further into the issue.”