Three broadcast networks have rejected an advertisement from the United Church of Christ, deeming the ad’s message of tolerance to be too controversial.
Citing the Bush administration’s proposal of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, CBS and UPN have refused to run a UCC commercial that advertises the church’s acceptance of all people, including gays and lesbians. NBC also deemed the ad “too controversial” to air (UCC.org, 11/30/04).
The ad depicts two bouncers in front of a church letting in two white girls and a white heterosexual couple but turning away others, including people of color, a man in a wheelchair, and two men holding hands. A message reads, “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” As the camera pans over a crowd of diverse UCC members, including a woman who puts her arm around another woman, a voiceover states, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
Because ABC has a policy against accepting any religious advertising, UCC did not attempt to place an ad on the network (San Francisco Chronicle , 12/2/04). Several networks accepted the ad, including ABC Family , Fox and TNT .
According to the UCC (UCC.org, 11/30/04), CBS explained the rejection in a letter to the group:
“Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations, and the fact that the Executive Branch has recently proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the [CBS and UPN ] networks.”
CBS spokesperson Dana McClintock elaborated on that explanation two days later (Newsday , 12/2/04): “If there is a public policy debate going on, as there is on the issue of gay marriage, we do not accept advocacy advertisements.”
CBS and NBC have certainly not been consistent in their rejection of advocacy ads. As Media Matters for America noted (6/18/04), CBS ran an ad during the 2003 Super Bowl from the White House Drug Control Policy Agency that suggested that casual marijuana smokers support terrorism– a controversial proposition, to say the least. And NBC in 1993 sold two half-hour blocs of time to Ross Perot to criticize President Bill Clinton’s economic policies (Media Matters, 12/1/04).
But a network asserting that it would reject an ad for expressing a political viewpoint is problematic in itself. Viacom, which owns both CBS and UPN , has explained its policy in various ways after coming under fire for refusing independent political ads on its networks in the past.
In October, Viacom’s MTV Networks blocked an ad from the progressive group Compare Decide Vote that compared the presidential candidates’ policy positions on issues important to young people. A Viacom spokesperson argued that it didn’t need to air such ads because “across all our properties, we talk about these issues every day” (Media Daily News , 10/13/04).
When Viacom blocked an ad from the anti-war group Not In Our Name prior to the Iraq War, CBS executive vice president Martin Franks argued that such an advertising policy was necessary for a national network (New York Times , 3/13/03): “How could you take an advocacy ad and have it reflect the values of the entire nation?”
As FAIR has argued before, Viacom’s position that its own coverage of important political issues renders political ads unnecessary is arrogant and unfounded (FAIR Action Alert, 10/18/04 ). And to argue that ads should reflect the values of the entire nation holds them to an implausible standard that the network’s own programming would be hard-pressed to meet– as, for that matter, would its non-political advertising.
But in this case, it’s hard to see how the UCC spot can even be considered an advocacy ad at all. CBS makes quite a leap to interpret the UCC ad as advocating for gay marriage or entering a public policy debate; the ad never mentions or even implies that the gay couples featured are or wish to be married, or that the UCC condones gay marriage. That the Bush administration’s opposition to gay marriage should lead CBS to block an ad that simply notes a church’s acceptance of gay people is astounding and troubling.
While NBC ‘s explanation of its rejection made no mention of the Bush administration, it did seem rather concerned with the reaction of other churches. ”The problem is not that it depicted gays, but that it suggested clearly that there are churches that don’t permit a variety of individuals to participate,” said Alan Wurtzel, president of research for NBC (Boston Globe , 12/2/04).
It’s true that the ad’s metaphorical message is that some groups are not welcomed by some churches–and that’s a reality that has been made clear in countless news reports on various Christian sects that have barred gays and lesbians from being ordained, prohibited gay marriages and proclaimed their opposition to homosexuality.
By blocking an ad that acknowledges the existence of homophobia in some churches, NBC gives extraordinary censorial power to those churches. Both NBC and CBS set a dangerous precedent by extending their advertising policies to block ads that might, without advocating any political position, contradict or offend the administration or its religious allies.
Please contact CBS and NBC and urge them to reverse the absurd policy that deems a church’s acceptance of all people to be ”too controversial” to air.
Chairman, CBS ; co-President & co-COO, Viacom
As always, please remember that your comments have more impact if you maintain a polite tone.