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This Is Your Network on Drugs

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Everyone knows TV is all about sex and drugs these days. And, as it turns out, the drugs, at least, are brought to us courtesy of an unlikely sponsor: The U.S. government. According to an exposÚ in the Thursday edition of Salon.com, two years ago, drug czar Barry R. McCaffrey proposed a unique government subsidy for networks mired in a long advertising dry spell: The government would buy $2 billion worth of ad time for $1 billion, and that time would be used for new, "hip" antidrug spots. At the time, the money was welcome and the consequences didn't seem particularly dire; as one network executive told Salon, "Given the way ad spending had been going, we needed every category, particularly a growing one like government spending."

Over time, as advertising revenues increased, the networks soured on the bargain, and wanted out. That's when a new deal surfaced: The feds would drop some of their valuable time slots if networks would incorporate antidrug messages into a few of their most popular programs, like "7th Heaven," "E.R." and "Chicago Hope." And, oh, yes — the White House would take a look at the scripts before taping, thank you very much.

"In principle, the idea of a broadcast network essentially taking a payoff to change its content is at the least unseemly, gross and pathetic," says TIME television writer James Poniewozik. Is this little deal tantamount to censorship? Not exactly, says Poniewozik. "I wouldn't call it censorship since it's a voluntary arrangement on both sides." And no one is holding a gun to the collective head of network brass — instead, they're holding a hefty check. "And as we know now," says Poniewozik, "money can be far more persuasive than almost anything." Except, of course, for the thunderous "click" of 250 million television sets being turned off in disgust.