CBS, NBC rejected United Church of Christ ad as “too controversial,” despite networks' past airing of advocacy ads

Despite their past willingness to air advocacy ads, CBS, UPN, and NBC have refused to run an advertisement for the United Church of Christ (UCC) that promoted inclusion of gays, racial minorities and people with disabilities because they consider it “too controversial” and “unacceptable for broadcast,” according to a UCC press release. The ad depicts bouncers outside a church turning away gay, minority, and disabled parishioners, followed by the text: “Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we.” Both CBS and NBC have aired advocacy advertising in the past -- including an ad put out by the George W. Bush administration and political infomercials by former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot.

According to UCC, CBS cited the current political controversy surrounding the issue of same-sex marriage -- noting in particular the Bush administration's endorsement of the Federal Marriage Amendment -- as justification for not airing the ad on CBS and UPN (both owned by Viacom). From the UCC press release:

“Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations,” reads an explanation from CBS, “and the fact 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.”

It is not clear from the excerpt quoted by UCC what CBS could possibly think is the connection between the administration's endorsement of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and the promotion of inclusiveness by a church. But even if there were such a connection -- that is, even if the UCC's “position” could be reasonably deemed in opposition to that of the administration -- the question remains: How does CBS justify rejecting an ad that purportedly conflicts with the Bush administration's views, given CBS' apparent willingness to air advocacy ads that support administration policies? As Media Matters for America documented, in criticizing the network for refusing to run a progressive group's ad critical of the administration during the 2004 Super Bowl, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) noted with approval that CBS ran a “risky, edgy, controversial” but “important” ad sponsored by the Bush White House-operated Office of National Drug Control Policy during the previous year's Super Bowl broadcast.

A statement from NBC deemed the UCC spot “too controversial,” according to the UCC press release. But NBC's approach to advocacy advertising has previously been described as “flexible,” since the network “twice sold [former presidential candidate H. Ross] Perot 30-minute blocks, in March and April 1993, to attack [former president Bill] Clinton's economic plans. 'It's a matter of discretion, when we have the time available,' NBC general counsel Rick Cotton said.” [Memphis Commercial Appeal, 7/22/94]

According to the UCC press release, the ad “has been accepted and will air on a number of networks, including ABC Family, AMC, BET, Discovery, Fox, Hallmark, History, Nick@Nite, TBS, TNT, Travel and TV Land, among others.”