CBS Shows Ideological Bias in Accepting Super Bowl Ads

February 1, 2010

Last month CBS announced that it would air a "life- and family-affirming" television ad by the Religious Right group Focus on the Family during the Super Bowl on February 7.  The words "life- and family-affirming" are almost always code words for "anti-choice" or "anti-gay."  According to reports , the ad will feature 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam, and is "likely to be an anti-abortion message chronicling Pam Tebow's 1987 pregnancy.  After getting sick during a mission trip to the Philippines, she ignored a recommendation by doctors to abort her fifth child and gave birth to Tim." 

Right wingers were quick to defend Focus on the Family.  For example, through her Facebook profile, Sarah Palin urged CBS to "just do the right thing.  Don't cave.  Have the backbone to run the ad."

Although I object to the substance of Focus on the Family's message, I have no problem in principle with CBS's decision to air the advertisement.  In a nation that values Free Speech, the response to speech one dislikes is to answer it with more speech.  Censorship is for tyrants and autocrats.

The problem, however, is that CBS has effectively muzzled speech by rejecting ads for progressive organizations.  In 2004 CBS rejected a 30-second ad by President Bush , which Salon called "a low-key attack on Bush's fiscal irresponsibility that's unlikely to make anyone very angry."  That same year, CBS turned down the United Church of Christ when it wanted to air a Super Bowl ad that celebrated diversity and welcomed gay and lesbian Christians to the denomination.  Last week, CBS rejected a commercial for a gay dating site called  As Super Bowl commercials go, the commercial is rather tame.  It depicts two men excitedly watching the game; their hands brush as they reach for a bowl of chips; suddenly, the two begin kissing, much to the shock of the guy sitting next to them. The New York Post concluded that the ad is "no more racy than nearly any beer commercial not starring the Budweiser Clydesdales."  (You can watch it for yourself here .)

CBS has reasoned that it would not air ads where "substantial elements of the community [are] in opposition to one another."  Yet the Focus on the Family ad would appear to be at least as divisive and politically charged as ads that CBS has refused to air in the past. CBS's ideological bias is a reminder that speech can hardly be free when it is subject to the arbitrary decisions of those who control access to the media.

Read CFI's letter to CBS's executives about the Focus on the Family ad on our Office of Public Policy web site .


#1 SimonSays on Monday February 01, 2010 at 10:52am

Great post Derek. One addition. You say:

Censorship is for tyrants and autocrats.

I would also add based on the above “...and large corporations.”

#2 JohnnyCrash on Monday February 01, 2010 at 11:50am

CBS will argue they are merely catering to their audience, which is apparently seen as conservative Christian types.  It would be doubtful this supposed demographic of twenty-thirty-something, anti-abortion, anti-gay males would like Justin Timberlake or Janet Jackson’s music.  Perhaps their marketing department doesn’t communicate to their entertainment department.  Judging by the reaction of seeing Janet’s semi-clad breast and the insanity at such “immoral nudity,” perhaps CBS is right in assuming their demographic will go @pe$h!t at the mere sight of gay males.

As bad as religious influence is on media, it is even worse when it is found in government.  Prop 8 in California, anti-abortion legislation in the proposed healthcare bill, and the selecting of “proper candidates to vote for” from the pulpit affects every citizen’s rights - especially those rational enough to know religion is a farce.  CBS is only affecting our halftime commercial viewing.  Thank someone (not that fictional character named god) for the minor comfort of DVR’s/TiVo’s.

CBS’ actions are as disappointing.  Perhaps I will write a letter to CBS for offending me with anti-abortion ads.  Thank’s for this article Derek.

#3 SimonSays on Monday February 01, 2010 at 11:56am

IMO this should not even be a CBS decision to make. The airwaves are owned by the people, not CBS or any other channel (and they do not pay a single penny for the privilege of leasing their frequencies). This is why we have the FCC, which is where any letter writing should be directed.

#4 Max (Guest) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 at 3:56am

When a large corporation airs what it wants, that’s censorship, but having the FCC regulate what the corporation can and can’t air is not censorship?
You can argue in favor of some forms of censorship, but let’s call a spade a spade.

#5 SimonSays on Tuesday February 02, 2010 at 6:28am

Ok fair enough, when we’re dealing with broadcast television, it’s a limited spectrum which means that censorship will have to occur. What we see with CBS and the Super Bowl ads is industry “self-regulation”, the results of which Derek has made quite clear.

This is why I argue in favor of censorship that is done in an accountable and non-arbitrary fashion under rules and regulations that apply to everyone, and whose rules are in the public interest. The FCC has such a mandate, and could take a more active role this capacity.

#6 JohnnyCrash on Tuesday February 02, 2010 at 8:59am

What CBS is doing is deplorable.  At the same time, it is their choice.  The FCC should not be censoring (picking/choosing) Super Bowl commercials.  Commercials are how networks make money.  The FCC should be regulating for fair air time.

Derek has the solution:
“the response to speech one dislikes is to answer it with more speech.”

In most cases, these are commercials that are selling products so most times free speech doesn’t seem to be an issue in a network choosing what air time to sell to businesses for sell their products.  They’re ads/commercials.

The anti-abortion commercial, on the other hand, is NOT selling any product/service.  CBS is making money by selling air time, not to a business, but rather to idealogical, faith-based, propaganda.

It seems the solution for these non-commercial interests should be regulated in a similar way to political campaign ads - EQUAL AIR TIME to the opposing side of the debate.  Thereby, as Derek said, answering this speech with more speech and increasing a dialogue.

Unfortunately, this is not how TV commercial regulations currently function.  This is precisely why we have CFI, to lobby for change.

#7 asanta on Tuesday February 02, 2010 at 8:05pm

The Tebow story is a lie. His mother could not have gotten anything but an illegal abortion in the Philippines where he was born. Abortion was and still is illegal in the Philippines under any circumstances.

#8 TAllen (Guest) on Friday February 05, 2010 at 11:49pm


Great piece and I’m glad I found your blog here.  I’ve made sure to bookmark it.  Any chance you can put back on youtube your concise argument for secular humanism?  I’m guessing it was a clip of a speech you gave in NYC.  I thought it was a very eloquent summary of the argument.  Thanks in advance if it’s at all possible.

#9 gray1 on Monday February 22, 2010 at 3:42pm

Is it fear of the FCC or fear of a majority opinion backlash and the possible loss of some major sponsors?  Besides, isn’t an occasional crotch grab and breast baring “costume malfunction” enough?

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