In an attempt to address ad-revenue shortfalls during a tough economy, CBS — in hot water for accepting a controversial Super Bowl ad from Focus on the Family — said Tuesday it would finally accept the United Church of Christ's 2004 request to air ads that advocate welcoming all people, including gays and lesbians, into the church.
For the United Church of Christ, CBS' decision comes six years late and $2.8 million short given the denomination's current fundraising priority focused on long-term recovery in Haiti.
Not surprising, the UCC doesn't have extra millions lying around for Super Bowl ads. In fact, it never did. Back in 2004, the church spent a full year in grassroots fundraising — eliciting contributions from supporters and preparing our congregations — in advance of a media campaign intended to convey an all-inclusive welcome to people who feel marginalized by institutional religion.
Tested widely on various channels in multiple markets, including CBS affiliates, the church never once heard a peep of concern about our ad's content or message. Then CBS dropped the bombshell only days before the ad was to air nationally, writing, "Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations, and the fact the Executive Branch [Bush Administration] 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."
We were dumbfounded.
But now, when CBS needs the money and the church has moved on to other mission priorities, the network announces a change in its policy, saying our ad is just fine.
CBS' about-face only underscores the arbitrary way the networks approach these decisions, and the result is a woeful lack of religious diversity in our nation's media. Such flip-flops only lead the public to believe that broadcasters own the airwaves when, in theory at least, they do not.
The UCC encountered a similar situation in early 2005 when the denomination sought airtime on the ABC network, only to be told that ABC did not accept any religious advertising. The very next month, Focus on the Family was allowed primetime advertising on ABC's SuperNanny show.
The denial of the UCC's ad in 2004 prompted the church to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, a petition never given full consideration by FCC Commissioners because it was dismissed by FCC staff in 2007. Obviously, broadcasters still stand in need of some clear FCC guidance.
What concerns the UCC is the appearance that one religious viewpoint is continually accommodated by the TV networks. There is a common misunderstanding in this country that all religious people hold a monolithic view on certain issues, such as reproductive choice or same-gender marriage equality, and this is not the case.
This April, in an attempt to reach newer audiences, the UCC does plan to unveil a new 30-second commercial with purchased spots on internet sites; however, our media-buying plan, at present, does not include national TV. But the larger issue of access remains, not just for the UCC but for all religious groups. When and if the UCC does return again to CBS or another network, will our distinctive religious viewpoint be heard or will there be yet another policy change?
The Rev. J. Bennett Guess is director of communications for the 1.1.-million-member United Church of Christ, based in Cleveland. This op-ed originally appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on January 29, 2010.