A top ABC executive stoked a Washington-to-Hollywood controversy Saturday, saying the network stopped participating in part of a federal program after a policy change put the government in a position to influence the content of ABC's programming.
The remarks, made by ABC Television Network President Pat Fili-Krushel at a seasonal media gathering in Pasadena to promote ABC shows, appeared to contradict statements earlier in the week by officials of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Under the federally funded program, networks could gain financial credits in exchange for weaving anti-drug themes into their shows.
The issue, which emerged last week, has embarrassed both officials at the drug policy office and the broadcast networks, all of whom are distancing themselves from the suggestion that government officials had a direct line to influencing network programming.
In a statement Saturday, retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who heads the drug policy office, said it would "reexamine the media campaign's processes for assessing program content to ensure that there is absolutely no suggestion or inference that the federal government is exercising any control whatsoever over the creative process."
The office "does not veto, clear, or otherwise dictate the content of network television or other programs," the statement from the so-called drug czar added.
In the 2-year-old program, which is generating attention because many were unaware of its existence, the government buys ad time for anti-drug public service announcements on the networks. In turn, the networks are required to match the dollars with their own public service announcements. But a network can earn credits for a portion of that time by including anti-drug story lines in its shows. ABC said it had submitted a number of shows for credit during the 1998-99 season, the first year in which the program was operating.
In the spring, however, ABC said it was told by Alan Levitt, director of the anti-drug media campaign, that, instead of submitting tapes of finished shows, this season it would be required to submit scripts before airing them. "It wasn't something we were comfortable doing," Fili-Krushel said, so ABC decided to match the government ad buy rather than seek the financial credits.
ABC said it wasn't told why the drug policy office wanted to start seeing scripts in advance. But the policy change potentially set up a tangled web under which the networks could feel compelled to pressure producers to adjust plots to meet government approval.
For their part, studio executives and producers said they were unaware that the program even existed.
Fili-Krushel's comments run counter to strong denials from rival networks that the drug policy office sought to influence programming by obtaining scripts in advance to monitor show content. ABC said it was told last week that the program was being changed again and that the network could submit finished shows instead of scripts. However, ABC said it is still unlikely to participate in the content portion of the plan this season.
Reached Saturday, Levitt said that "there must have been some confusion" when he met with ABC sales executives last spring because the policy had never been changed. "Certainly we never in any way asked to see scripts to suggest changes for the pro bono match," he said.
CBS continues to maintain that the independence and creative integrity of its programming has not been compromised.
NBC and Fox echoed that response Saturday, though one network source, reacting to Fili-Krushel's comments, said: "Every network has a different relationship with the ONDCP."
Meanwhile, Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), head of the 21-member House Entertainment Task Force, said he was "deeply offended by the process by which we would ask people to deliver scripts to any governmental agency for review."
Times staff writer Eric Lichtblau in Washington contributed to this story.