When Is Entertainment Too Political?

Don't Ask the Dixie Chicks or Arnold Schwarzenegger

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- As the hubbub mounts over negative political ads, another controversy is emerging over what should count as political advocacy on TV and what is entertainment. Just this week, a Democratic candidate for governor of California challenged an appearance by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on "The Tonight Show" as being akin to a political ad, and broadcast networks rejected an ad for a documentary film about the Dixie Chicks for being too political.
A new movie about the Dixie Chicks, as they appeared on the cover of 'Entertainment Weekly,' that examines censorship is itself the victim of network censors, the movie's distributor says.
A new movie about the Dixie Chicks, as they appeared on the cover of 'Entertainment Weekly,' that examines censorship is itself the victim of network censors, the movie's distributor says.

The Weinstein Co., which released "Shut Up and Sing" in a statement said NBC and the CW nixed ads for the film.

'Disparaging to President Bush'
According to producers, NBC said it "cannot accept these spots as they are disparaging to President Bush." The CW's reason for not airing the ads: It does "not have appropriate programming in which to schedule this spot," according to the Weinstein Co. statement. The documentary follows the three women who make up the country band the Dixie Chicks as they deal with the negative reaction to lead singer Natalie Maines' declaration during a concert in London that she's "ashamed the president of the U.S. is from Texas" just prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"It's a sad commentary about the level of fear in our society that a movie about a group of courageous entertainers who were blacklisted for exercising their right of free speech is now itself being blacklisted by corporate America," Weinstein Co. Co-chairman Harvey Weinstein said in the statement. "The idea that anyone should be penalized for criticizing the president is sad and profoundly un-American."

While the ads have been approved by CBS, MTV and Fox and approval from ABC is pending, a spokeswoman for the film company said NBC rejected the ads twice, the first time with the words "not acceptable, disparages President Bush" handwritten across the submission form and the second time with another handwritten note referring to the earlier rejection.

As bloggers and public interest groups blasted the media companies, Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, put out his own statement saying that if the reports are true, "a film about censorship now sounds as though it's being censored."

'Flat out inaccurate'
The CW in a statement said it didn't even know what the Weinstein Co. was referring to. "Their press release is flat out inaccurate," said Paul McGuire, a network spokesman. "The whole matter is a mystery to the CW."

NBC said in a statement: "While a spot was submitted to our broadcast standards-and-practices department and was rejected because it violated our policy of not broadcasting ads that deal with issues of public controversy, the Weinstein Company did not make a national media buy, nor did anyone from the company inquire about buying time on the network."

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission late yesterday ruled a rival to Mr. Schwarzenegger isn't entitled to equal time on NBC's California stations even though Mr. Schwarzenegger -- in the midst of a hard-fought gubernatorial campaign -- appeared for nearly 16 minutes on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." The FCC's Media Bureau said the Oct. 17 appearance was a "bona fide" news appearance rather than advocacy and was exempt from FCC requirements giving political candidates equal access.

'A serious question'
Mr. Schwarzenegger's rival, Phil Angelides, had complained that the appearance with Mr. Leno, who was master of ceremonies at Mr. Schwarzenegger's 2003 victory party, raised a "serious question" about whether it was based on "newsworthiness." The FCC said the Angelides campaign's assertion "is based on little more than speculation," and noted that it began taking a broader view of the "bona fide" news exemption in 1984 when it ruled interviews on "The Phil Donahue Show" weren't subject to equal-time requirements. Similar decisions were made about interviews on "Sally Jessy Raphael," "Jerry Springer," "Politically Incorrect" and "The Howard Stern Show."

"We are disappointed but not surprised that the Bush-controlled FCC has made a political decision over the use of our public airwaves," said Steven Maviglio, campaign advisor to Mr. Angelides. "The commission's tortured decision to try to certify Jay Leno as a modern-day Walter Cronkite is more laughable than one of Leno's monologues." He added: "'The Tonight Show' has failed to respond to multiple requests from the Angelides campaign to have Angelides appear on the show."
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