Harlots High and Low: a Foul Saga in the History of Netwook TV

When I was a lad of fourteen, at school in Scotland, a news mogul tycoon called Roy Thompson used five simple words to describe the higher purpose of commercial television. 1955 was the year the BBC lost its monopoly on TV provision in Britain. The government handed out licenses to new broadcasting companies which, unlike the BBC, could run ads. This privilege was, Thompson publicly rejoiced, “a license to print money”.

That’s the bottom line. Any time you see a TV proprietor or executive talking bravely about freedom of expression, and the public’s right to know, just remember the essential freedom the man has in mind is exactly what Thompson was happily hailing: the freedom to coin money. When, some time in the 1960s, the late Frank Stanton, overseeing news operations at CBS, asked his boss William Paley, the network’s founder, for more time for newscasts, Paley shook his head. “The minute’s just too valuable,” he told Stanton, meaning he wasn’t prepared to surrender one more second of commercials in the prime time slot.

Let us now move to a fateful moment in 1997.

Already by that year top executives at the major TV networks were gazing aghast at the trend lines. Inexorably, it seemed, they were pointing down. The networks were losing audience share, as people surfed to new choices on the remote. As with newspapers and magazines such reliable sources of revenue as auto commercials and detergent ads, were suddenly looking frail as companies like GM and Procter and Gamble (America’s two biggest advertisers)  began to plan shifts of their advertising outlays to new-media channels. Consumers were starting to have increasing recourse to the internet to figure out which car to buy, and where to buy it. Shadows were looming over network revenues, maybe darker even than on that fearful night, January 2, 1971, when the Congressional ban on advertising tobacco on radio and tv came into effect.

And then… a miracle! A very American kind of miracle to be sure, being the sort of miracle achieved by the usual megatonnage of campaign contributions from the drug industry dropped into the pockets of the relevant FDA overseers in Congress in Clinton’s slush-sodden second term, plus direct lobbying of the FDA by media companies such as Time-Warner. The miracle went by the name of DTC: Direct to the Consumer Advertising.

Broadcast advertising of prescription drugs in the U.S. had actually been legal for years, but in 1997 the FDA “clarified” the rules about alerting consumers to any risks in a number of deft ways that suddenly made the game a whole lot easier for the drug companies. Thirty-five years after Congress moved to curb pharmaceutical company advertising of amphetamine antidepressants and barbiturates, the floodgates were opened once again. Through them poured the drug companies and their advertising dollars.

Soon prime-time tv viewers were listening to the drug peddlers telling them to make haste to their doctors to request prescriptions for medical conditions from depression to high blood pressure, by way of allergic reactions supposedly requiring Claritin. This prescription antihistamine was the subject of the first huge prescription ad campaign after the FDA opened the door in 1997. Its sales promptly shot up from $1.4 billion in that year to $2.6 billion in 2000.

At the end of each ad, risk advisories to the consumer would come in the form of an 800 number or the familiar cautions gabbled out at a speed probably intelligible only to ultra-sensitive equipment at the National Security Agency.

Back at the start of the 1990s the drug companies were spending $55 million on DTC ads. By 2003 the outlay had soared to $3 billion, and by 2005 to $7.5 billion. DTC sales-pitching of prescription drugs has been a huge boon to the networks, whose revenues from this source have surged since 1997. 2005 saw NBC, ABC and CBS pull in $1.4 billion in prescription drug advertising, with CBS leading the pack with its $$592,694 million, well ahead of ABC’s $411,949 and NBC’s $405,633.

For the drug lords in the big pharmaceutical companies – America’s most profitable industry – the FDA’s 1997 decision has indeed been a license to print money, bales of it. There are plenty of credible surveys establishing that as much as a third of consumers see a ad for some prescription drug on tv and then go off and talk to their doctor about it. Half of the people asking for the drug they’ve seen advertised end up getting a prescription for it. One Kaiser study cited by the Lehrer News hour disclosed the gloomy news that almost half these drug ad-watchers believe what they’re being told…

But now I must suspend this absorbing narrative and tell you that  the full sweep and ripe detail of my narrative of how some of network TV’s mightiest news reporters  prostituted their reputations to hawk dangerous drugs for the drug industry  is to be found in the latest edition of our subscriber-only CounterPunch newsletter, which we can rush to your computer in pdf form or to your mailbox at a speed dictated by the US Post Office’s relaxed concept of what constitutes  “first class mail”. All you have to do is click right here to subscribe.

Also in this new edition is an unsparing  portrait of the man for whom Rush Limbaugh threw over Sarah Palin. The Oxycontin Kid touted the masterly political skills of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who duly humiliated himself and his party in his reply to Obama on network tv on February 24. From Louisiana CounterPuncher Donald Juneau gives the lowdown on this contender for the Republican nomination in 2008.

There’s more. One of America’s greatest environmental writers, Doug Peacock —  author of Walking It Off, of Grizzly Years, legendary model for Hayduke in Edward Abbey’s Monkeywrench Gang — gives CounterPunch newsletter subscribers a dazzling essay on Yellowstone country across the millennia since the era of the gigantic short-faced bear.

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.