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How the networks went into the drug peddling business

How the networks went into the drug peddling business

When, sometime 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. By the year of 1997, top executives at the major TV networks were gazing uneasily 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 dreadful night, Jan. 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, plus direct lobbying of the FDA by media companies such as Time- Warner. The miracle went by the name of Direct-to-Consumer Advertising, or DTC. Broadcast advertising of prescription drugs in the United States 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 amphetamines, 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

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