COMES NATURALLY #93
February 11, 2000
Copyright © 2000 David Steinberg
THE GOVERNMENT AND ANTI-DRUG TV; A GOLDEN GLOBE FOR BRANDON TEENA
WHEN THE PRICE IS RIGHT
I think this sort of thing started back in 1949. At least that's the earliest example I can remember just now. What I remember is that back then, at the dawning of what was to become the pastel 50's, Ralph Edwards, host of the radio game show Truth or Consequences, came up with the idea of offering a prize to any city willing to rename itself Truth or Consequences after the show. The reward was to be an annual celebration, hosted by the network, and a nationwide broadcast of the show from the town every year.
It was a pretty bizarre idea. No one had ever heard of naming a town after a radio show, let alone naming a town anything as cumbersome as Truth or Consequences. The media jumped on the strangeness and audacity of the whole thing, and pretty soon everyone was talking about it and waiting to see what would happen next.
It was Hot Springs, New Mexico, a small town tired of being confused with Hot Springs, Arkansas, and titillated at the thought of national media attention, that decided to seize the opportunity. On March 31, 1950, after voters had approved the idea in not one but two general elections (the first having been challenged by 295 residents offended at the idea of dancing to the tune of radio network moguls), the name of the town was officially changed from Hot Springs to Truth or Consequences. And indeed, there are to this day road signs on New Mexico Highway 51 and U.S. Highway 85 informing travelers that they are about to enter a town called Truth or Consequences, New Mexico -- long after the radio show has passed into history to be remembered only as the show that got the little town in New Mexico to change its name. These are the kinds of immortality that can indeed by bought, but only, of course, if the price is right.
The publicity stunt suited the spirit of those booming postwar times -- perfectly ludicrous and perfectly adorable, awful and wonderful, all at the same time. It was a quintessential example of that strange American ability to combine a healthy disrespect for stuffy proprieties with a more fundamental lack of concern for what others shun as simple bad taste. Whatever outsiders thought of the whole deal, the bottom line was that Truth or Consequences (the town) got its national celebrity and increased tourist traffic, and Truth or Consequences (the radio show) got much more than its money's worth in media ink.
I pay you to do something I want you to do, something that has precious little to do with the essence of who you really are, or anything that you really care about. You want my cash or my influence, so you do what I ask, figuring perhaps that what I'm asking you to do won't have much of a negative effect on you in the end. Call it employment. Call it product endorsement. Call it prostitution. Call it getting an allowance for doing what your parents tell you to do, or taking money from your brother to go outside to play while he and his girlfriend make out on the couch.
Whatever you call it, it is as American as apple pie, as patriotic as returning a favor to someone who contributes generously to your political campaign. Anyone who's got a problem with the frontier-driven American Way of Life that has built this Great Nation from nothing and made it what it is today should shut up and go back to Russia or Africa or Victorian England, where they belong. In this country, people like to help each other out. You do something nice for the community, maybe donate a little money or a little time, and the community shows its gratitude by... helping you make lots more money. Everyone wins; no one loses -- at least in one way of telling the story.
Thus we are all well accustomed by now to ballparks named after corporations and public highways that advertise businesses in return for organized roadside trash clean-ups. This year, thousands of San Franciscans will march in the "Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade." Some cities have even considered giving landmark bridges corporate names in return for generous contributions to the ailing municipal general fund. School districts let corporations run educational programs for them, programs that (naturally) also publicize those corporation's products, and school textbooks have begun to sell advertising as a way of keeping publishing costs down and thus help the budget crunches of the school districts they serve.
Everything, it would seem, is up for sale. The final question is not propriety, but price.
So maybe it's nothing new when the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) offers the following deal and five major television networks agree: We (the government) want to buy lots of advertising time from you (the networks) over the next five years, but we'll only do that if you agree to give away public service ad time equal in value to the time we are paying you for. If it sounds a little strange for us to take up twice as much air time for our money, don't get excited -- we're going to make the deal sweeter for you. If you include substantial anti-drug messages in the scripts of your regular programming, we'll compromise on the public service airtime. In fact, if you include enough anti-drug content in your shows, we won't hold you to any of the public service announcements at all.
We are not asking you to change the essential direction of your programming. We certainly won't try to tell you what you must or must not put in your scripts. This isn't Soviet Russia, for God's sake. We'll just review what you broadcast, and every time we feel your programming is sufficiently drug-negative, we'll give you credits that you can use to get out of giving away airtime for the public service ads.
For every half-hour show we like, we'll release you from ad time equal in value to three 30-second ads on that show. For every hour show we like, the reward will be the equivalent of five 30-second ads. What's more, if you show us your scripts in advance, we'll let you know what we think of them so you can know where you stand. We'll even offer suggestions on how you might rewrite the scripts to include the kinds of anti-drug messages we want to see without destroying the integrity, style, or quality of the shows in any way. It will always be up to you to say yay or nay to any suggestions we might make, and no one need ever know what's going on. We wouldn't want to be accused of interfering with anyone's artistic freedom. What do you say?
According to the results of six months of investigative journalism by Daniel Forbes, recently published in Salon magazine (the upstart online journal that keeps scooping the mainstays of print journalism), this is exactly what the ONDCP offered to networks in the summer of 1998, after Congress approved a $1 billion, five-year program of federally funded anti-drug advertising. And this is what they have been doing ever since, with increasing enthusiasm and influence.
Through this program, successfully kept under wraps until Salon broke the story in January, "ER" has recouped $1.4 million of ad time by joining the anti-drug crusade, "Chicago Hope" $500,000, "The Practice" $500,000, and "90210" something between $500,000 and $750,000. It's what Tom Lehrer once called doing well by doing good (he was talking about neighborhood drug dealers, actually): demonstrating how drugs are bad for people, modeling characters who just say no, or who become drug informants for the police, demonstrating circumstances where drug tests at work or on the athletic field are clearly the right way to go.
It's the reverse of censorship. Instead of punishing people for saying "bad" things, the government rewards people when they say "good" things. Think of it as DEA grants (Drug Endowment for the Arts?) for artistic endeavors that are certifiably good, clean, and wholesome. And, hey, just like with grants from the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), no one's forcing anyone to take the government's money.
But, guess what? When it comes to television networks, there's no shortage of people who take the government's money, however tainted. Five major networks -- NBC, CBS, ABC, the WB, and Fox -- cooperated with the ONDCP program in its first year, and a sixth, UPN, came aboard this last season. According to the Salon report, the number of television shows portraying anti-drug themes has increased from 32 in March, 1999 to 109. And now that advertising demand from all the new dot.com companies has pushed television ad rates to record levels (Super Bowl ads sold for 25% more this year than they did a year ago), the networks are hungrier than ever to win back government air time that they can then sell to the highest commercial bidder.
Who would dare object to such a reasonable way of saving Americans -- young Americans, we are so often told -- from the scourge of drug abuse? Bob Weiner, a press spokesman for ONDCP says proudly, "we plead guilty to using every lawful means of saving America's children," according a story in the New York Times. White House press secretary Jim Lockhart enthusiastically embraces the idea of finding "innovative ways to get the message [out], particularly to young people, about the dangers of drugs." Republican Congressman Jim Kolbe of Arizona, whose committee oversees the ONDCP program, is also unapologetic. "I'm not going to be wringing my hands over the fact that we're getting some positive messages out," he scoffs.
If lucrative bonuses for anti-drugs messages are already here, can an equally potent antisexual crusade be far behind? Already school districts across the country are receiving Federal funding for so-called sex education programs that heavily promote sexual abstinence but offer little information on how to have sex without getting pregnant and without passing around sexually transmitted diseases. Naturally, these school-sponsored programs spend even less time teaching students how to better understand and respect the real nature of their sexual desire, or how to better communicate with their boyfriends and girlfriends in order to be able to have better and more satisfying sex.
Would any senator or congressman dare stand in the way of a government program that would financially reward television networks for de-emphasizing sex in their programming, for minimizing the importance of sexual pleasure, for shows with characters who just say no to pre-marital, or extra-marital, sex? In the press flurry that followed Salon's release of the story, Bill Clinton has already commented that people in the entertainment industry "like the idea... that they might be involved in all kinds of public service efforts" along the lines of the ONDCP program.
Admittedly, it's fun to think about what kind of good propagandistic use could be made of television programs if people like you and me were in charge of these sorts of government manipulations. We could give the networks tax credits each time we decided that one of their sitcom episodes was sufficiently sex-affirming, each time a sexual woman refused to let someone denigrate her as a slut, each time someone was shown using a vibrator, each time masturbation was mentioned in a positive light, each time a plot line truthfully portrayed some stigmatized sexual minority, each time someone who bashed gays or transsexuals was tracked down, apprehended, and thrown in the slammer. (Drug abuse, after all, is not the only social evil destroying good people's lives every day.)
Television is indeed a powerful tool that can be put to good use as a means of social education. The Thai government has actually turned that country's AIDS epidemic around, in part by requiring every television network to advocate for condom use through their programming every hour. Unfortunately, when it comes to sexual issues, people like us don't run the government, at least not yet. And hopefully, if our sort of people ever do have the power to orchestrate this level of public re-education, we'll have the integrity to do it above board where everyone can see and comment on what's going down.
Happily, the Salon revelations have been treated as significant news by most of the major media. The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times all ran the story on the front page. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune also all editorially condemned the ONDCP program in no uncertain terms. After a week of heavy journalistic attention and attempted spin control, the ONDCP took a step back and announced that it will no longer review television scripts before they are aired. If this actually comes to pass, it will mean that network advertising execs and script doctors will at least have to guess what the government is looking for and do their textual accommodations on spec. Maybe that will make them a little less quick to tinker with plotlines for the benefit of the people behind the puppet strings. On the other hand, these people do tend to keep in touch with each other -- informally, if they can't do it officially -- so knowing how to give the Feds what they want won't really be all that difficult as long as the program continues.
* * * * *
THANK YOU, BRANDON TEENA
You probably know by now that 25-year-old Hilary Swank has won this year's Golden Globe award for best actress in a dramatic film. Swank's was given the award for her moving portrayal of transgendered Brandon Teena in Kimberly Peirce's excellent film, "Boys Don't Cry."
"Boys Don't Cry." tells the story of Teena, a female-to-male transsexual who was raped and murdered in 1993 after his biological gender was discovered by people he had befriended in the backwater town of Falls City, Nebraska. Rejecting one-dimensional premises and easy answers, "Boys Don't Cry." paints a complex picture of the way gender role definitions limit and distort the lives of all of us -- women as well as men, traditionally gendered people as well as those whose gender identities fall outside the conventional male-female dichotomy.
The relatively unknown Swank was chosen by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association over Hollywood notables Julianne Moore, Sigourney Weaver, Annette Bening, and Meryl Streep. In her acceptance speech, Swank described playing the role of Brandon Teena as an "incredible journey." She emphasized how many people had "come up to me and said how this movie has touched them," and also stressed both the personal and political significance she attached to drawing public attention to Teena's "very important story." Not insignificantly, she validated Teena's chosen gender identity by referring to him with masculine pronouns, as countless reviewers had proven unable or unwilling to do.
"I want to thank Brandon Teena for being the hugest inspiration," Swank said with great emotion. "He will always, always be in my heart. He has given me the courage to be myself, to look within to find myself, and not to look for society to define me. Thank you for that gift, Brandon. This [award] is to you."
Swank's Golden Globe recognition should give "Boys Don't Cry." a major boost at the box office, helping it bring awareness of transgender issues and the violence often experienced by transgendered people to an even wider audience than it has already reached. Since its release by Fox/Serachlight in October, "Boys Don't Cry." has been doing quite respectably for a small-budget film. As of January 16, it had grossed just over $3 million in U.S. box office receipts.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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