A decision by CBS to allow a Super Bowl advertisement for Focus on the Family, a conservative religious organization, is eliciting concerns from leaders of the United Church of Christ, which sought to buy advertising from the network but had its ads rejected.
"While CBS is reportedly saying that a bad economy now necessitates changes in its policy on so-called advocacy ads, this decision 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," says the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, the UCC's director of communications. "Because of its own economic circumstances, CBS is affording time to one religious organization while having suppressed another. This sounds as if the broadcasters think they own the airwaves when, in theory at least, they do not."
Speaking to a National Public Radio station in Los Angeles on January 21, Guess said, "The issue for all of us should be why one religious viewpoint is continually accommodated by the TV networks when there is a common misunderstanding in this country that all religious people hold a monolithic view on certain issues, such as reproductive choice, such as homosexuality, and this is not the case."
Guess pointed out that the UCC encountered a similar situation in early 2005 when it sought airtime on the ABC network, only to be told that ABC did not accept any religious advertising. The very next month, Guess said, Focus on the Family was allowed primetime advertising on ABC's SuperNanny show. "That's what concerns us, the issue of access," Guess said.
In 2004, CBS said it was rejecting the UCC's "Bouncer" ad as "too controversial" because it allegedly advocated same-sex marriage. The UCC maintained this was a gross mischaracterization of the ad's intent which, instead, was to demonstrate that all people, including gay and lesbian people, should be welcome in the church. The church quickly filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, a petition that was dismissed by FCC staff in 2007 and never given full consideration by FCC Commissioners.
The UCC's second ad, "Ejector," which debuted in early 2005 was also rejected by the networks and their wholly-owned cable networks, including LOGO, a channel that targets lesbian and gay viewers.
Focus on the Family says its Super Bowl ad will feature Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam. CBS has confirmed approval of the preliminary draft of the script which purportedly will touch on issues faith and abortion.
The apparent hypocrisy in the CBS decision has sparked a number of blogs and a Facebook group to wage campaigns telling CBS to reject the Focus on the Family ad or agree to air the UCC's ad.
"While the UCC does not have plans to purchase network spots at this time, the larger issue of access remains, not just for the UCC but for all religious groups,” Guess said. “When the UCC does return again to CBS or another network, will our distinctive religious viewpoint be heard"
The UCC’s Stillspeaking Ministry — the denomination’s marketing and identity campaign — is producing a new commercial that will launch on social networks and in a broad internet ad buy on April 16.