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Friday, December 03, 2004

So What's the Real Controversy?

For those who haven't yet heard, there's a controversy a-brewing over a new commercial for the United Church of Christ, which has been rejected by NBC and CBS. The ad shows several people, including a presumably gay couple and several people of color, being turned away by "bouncers" at a large, imposing church...while a narrator promises that "no matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey," you'll be welcome at the UCC. Protests to the network refusal are coming fast and furious, including an informative petition drive by People for the American Way .

In addition to the obvious issues stirred up by this situation, I think there's a lot more to it than meets the eye. For example, an article about the controversy , which appeared in the LA Times yesterday, was interesting on several levels.

On one hand, it fairly pointed out that the networks claim not to accept any "advocacy" ads that touch on "controversial" subjects, and that the networks were only following this policy in rejecting the UCC ad.

The story also points out, however, that the two networks that refused the ad showing people being turned away from a non-UCC church did accept another ad that showed the same kinds of people being accepted at a UCC church. The difference, they said, was a "positive" versus "negative" tone. But if that's true, it definitely begs the question of what the networks consider "controversial" these days -- although CBS cited the White House's campaign to ban gay marriage as a sign that ads about acceptance of gays are too hot to handle, apparently they may be willing to deal with the subject when someone says, "We accpet gays," but not when someone says, "Those guys over there don't accept gays, but we do." So perhaps it's insulting the closed-door policies of conservative organizations - and not publicly stating more liberal acceptance policies - that's "controversial" now? If so, that's also a pretty scary development.

Also, the story notes that several other "advocacy" commercials have been rejected this year, and gives examples...all of which bore liberal messages. But is it possible that there were simply no commercials submitted in the past year which advocated conservative positions and insulted liberal positions on the same issues? Kind of hard to believe, given the nasty election season that just concluded. (Also, a United Church of Christ response in today's LA Times notes that the networks do accept armed forces recruiting commercials, which could quite easily fall into the "controversial" category for "advocating war.")

Next, the whole idea that the goal of network advertising departments is to avoid controversy, although definitely true, should ring a bit quaint these days. After all, CBS is the network that aired (and built a huge reputation with) Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame," exposing the mistreatment of migrant workers, in 1960...unleashed Archie Bunker and "All in the Family" in 1971...let "Maude" have an abortion in 1972...and, also in '72, launched "M*A*S*H," perhaps the most blatantly anti-war show ever, while the war in Vietnam - fully backed by the Nixon White House - was still going strong. Unfortunately, however, those days seem to be long gone. This year's primetime lineup on CBS includes no such meaty material, and is completely dominated by either politically neutral shows such as "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race," or more definitely conservative items such as "JAG" and "Joan of Arcadia" (of which I am a fan, by the way). Nary a trace of controversy, or even so much as a mildly debatable issue, to trip up modern audiences...or advertisers.

Finally, the other noteworthy item in yesterday's LA Times article was the writer's notation that:

Creating controversial ads and then publicizing their rejection from the airwaves is an often-used tactic by advocacy groups to gain wider exposure for an issue and then free ad time as the rejected ad gets repeated over and over in news reports.

...which pretty much accuses the UCC of creating a straw-man ad, knowing it might never air, simply to reap the publicity benefits. But aside from noting that the church has launched a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign, the article/reporter never attempts to verify, in any way, whether the publicity-hound accusation might be true or not, and simply damns the group with an offhand comment (not exactly fair journalism, in a story about media fairness).

Anyway, this has been sort of a long rant, but as someone who makes my living as a writer, was trained as a journalist, and is a lifelong media-watcher, this whole issue has really galvanized my attention.

posted by Elizabeth 11:11 AM

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