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Michael Rowe

Michael Rowe

Posted: January 20, 2010 05:10 PM

CBS to Air "Pro-Life" Focus on the Family Superbowl Spot

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In a curious reversal of its policy against accepting "advocacy" commercials, CBS has announced that it will air an anti-abortion commercial from the right-wing, anti-choice, evangelical Christian activist group Focus on the Family during this year's Super Bowl broadcast.

The commercial will feature Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow and his mother.

Pam Tebow was advised by doctors to have an abortion when she was pregnant with her fifth child, Tim, for fear of complications with the birth, when she and her husband were missionaries in the Philippines. Her "personal story" of how her faith convinced her to carry the baby to term will form the centerpiece of the commercial, which is said to have "Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life" as a central theme.

The Denver Post reports that "declining donations" to Focus on the Family over the years has resulted in the loss of 275 jobs at the organization. Even so, Focus on the Family was still somehow able to scrape together the $2.5 to $2.8 million dollar fee for the commercials. They insist that the commercials were paid for by "generous friends" and "generous donors" who share their worldview and that it did not come out of the ministry's general fund.

The fact that CBS has agreed to air this commercial will doubtless come as a surprise to the United Church of Christ, whose own message--inclusiveness--was deemed too controversial for the network when they tried to air a series of commercials in December 2004.

The UCC commercials were rejected by CBS and NBC because they allegedly contained an "advocacy" message. One of the commercials in particular featured a male couple trying to enter a church to worship, but being barred by a tough-looking nightclub bouncer behind a velvet rope. In the ad, the bouncer denies them entry, but allows more "normal" parishonners (read white, middle-class, heterosexual) to pass freely.

The apparently too-controversial tagline of the UCC commercial was "Jesus Didn't Turn People Away. Neither Do We."

At the time, the Boston Globe cited a letter from CBS to the UCC in which the network stated that it refused advertising that

"touches on and/or takes a position on one side of a current controversial issue of public importance."

Writing on MediaPost News yesterday, David Goetzi noted that

[Focus on the Family] CEO Jim Daly is expected to conduct interviews to help draw further attention to the ad over leading up to the Feb. 7 kickoff. Over the years, CBS has rejected Super Bowl ads on the grounds that they advocate one side in matters where "substantial elements of the community (are) in opposition to one another." A pro-life spot would appear to fall under that umbrella.

Why was a commercial from the UCC stressing unity and mutual respect rejected by the network while a polarizing commercial from a right-wing Christian political organization like Focus on the Family is being welcomed onto the air, with apparently wide-open arms, during one of the most-watched television events of the year?

Any number of scenarios comes to mind here and none of them flatter CBS.

Is there some faction of CBS upper management that wishes to see the network aligned, in the eyes of its viewers, with a rabidly anti-progressive, anti-Democrat, anti-gay, anti-choice religious organization? Or is it simply that Focus on the Family has the necessary funds at hand to buy CBS's integrity to the point that they're prepared to offend tens of millions of their viewers for the sake of their bottom line?

Focus on the Family has a very long history of being virulently "anti," and the list of what they're against--feminists, gays, lesbians, liberals, progressive politicians, the separation of church and state, non-traditional religion, non-traditional families--reads like a veritable "who's who" of the rights that make up a civilized, progressive, safe, society whose members respect each other. Their sole raison d'etre is to take a divisive, evangelically-based position on social and political issues. The acceptance of one of their commercials by CBS would appear to be direct opposition to the network's previously-stated policy, as quoted to the UCC in 2004.

Last spring and summer, two media stories in particular caught my attention. There were a smattering of suicides and murders of gay and transgender young people in the United States, all preceded by peer harassment of the cruelest kind. What made last summer's deaths different was that they were widely covered in the mainstream media, prompting a dialogue about the deadly potential of prejudice-based bullying.

The other story was Dr. James Dobson's crocodile tears over Focus on the Family having "lost the culture war."

I wondered how the mothers of the dead teenagers whose brief lives were spent marinating in a social climate poisoned by Focus on the Family's obsessive anti-gay rhetoric felt about Dobson's "lost culture war." I wondered whether, as they buried their children, they felt Focus on the Family had "lost the culture war" at all.

Maybe it isn't really a "culture war" after all. Maybe it just comes down to who can cough up the biggest bucks to push their message on CBS and the other networks; either the inclusive church whose message was, "Jesus didn't turn people away, neither do we" or the evangelical activist conglomerate whose implicit message is, "We turn people away all the time. Please send money."

Or is it that, somehow, the image of the all-American mom of an all-American football hero, pushing an all-American anti-abortion position in a Superbowl spot on behalf of Focus on the Family, is deemed more palatable to CBS's viewers than a Christmas commercial highlighting the message of Jesus' universal welcome to one and all, regardless of race, creed, or sexual orientation?

If so, CBS ought to clarify its policies and clearly indicate where its prejudices lie.

Where can the real families who've been destroyed by Focus on the Family's catechism of rejection and exclusion find themselves in the "Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life" Super Bowl theme?

Thanks, CBS. I wonder what else is on television on February the 7th?

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