The U.S. government has spent $5.4 million during the past two years to finance a children’s television show about postal inspectors – and it could spend millions more over the next two years. Currently filming its second season in Charleston, SC, CBSThe Inspectors is the only show on commercial television that’s paid for by a governmental agency.

The show, which is part of the network’s three-hour block of Saturday morning kids programming, features actors in the roles of fictional crime-fighting postal inspectors. Inspired by real-life cases of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, each episode concludes with a crime-prevention message from the real-life chief inspector of the USPIS, Guy Cottrell.

The show is produced by Litton Entertainment, which in recent years has come to dominate children’s television programming. It produces three-hour blocks of “educational and informational” shows for CBS and ABC; a five-hour block for The CW; and, beginning in October, another three-hour block for NBC.

U.S. Postal Inspection Service logo
U.S. Postal Inspection Service

Responding to a Freedom of Information Act request, the USPIS told Deadline: “In reference to your request for how much money the USPIS has spent on the The Inspectors in direct financing, you are informed that the United States Postal Service has contracted with Litton Syndications Inc. to develop, write, produce, and air a consumer awareness and crime prevention 30-minute campaign titled, The Inspectors. The contract was awarded for $5.4 million and the period of performance is 9/15/2014 to 9/14/2016, with potential to extend the contract for an additional two one-year option periods.”

The USPIS stressed that none of the money used to fund the show comes from taxpayers or the sale of postage stamps. “The total awarded amount,” the USPIS said, “has been paid to the supplier … from the asset forfeiture and consumer fraud awareness funds, designated for specific purposes which include consumer fraud and prevention education. USPS rate-payer dollars are not involved in the production. The United States Postal Inspection Service is the sole agency within the Postal Service that uses this fund and it is not a part of the overall Postal Service operating fund.”

Paul Krenn, national public information officer for USPIS, told Deadline that the agency helps the show’s writers develop storylines based on the agency’s case files. He said that the USPIS also allows the show to use its many trademarked logos and insignia and has technical advisers on set “to make sure the law-enforcement procedures are as close to real as we can.” But he insisted that “creative control remains with Litton.”

“It’s an NCIS-style show, but we don’t have to worry about the more mature subjects,” he said. “We have an arrangement; we help contribute content – the case files – and we are also on the set as technical advisers to make sure that the law-enforcement procedures are as close to real as we can make it for this television audience.”

The Navy doesn’t pay the NCIS franchise for positive portrayals but gets script approval and minders on the set in return for granting the shows access to military hardware, naval installations and personnel,

Government funding of TV shows is nothing new; the federal government has been underwriting public television for decades. But the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which underwrites NPR and American Public Television, has an independent Office of Inspector General to promote accountability and makes biennial reports to Congress about its activities.

Today, there’s only one commercial television show funded by the government, but there’s no law or FCC rule that would prevent other federal agencies — such as the IRS, CIA, DEA or EPA — from sponsoring their own shows and spreading their message.

fbi
ABC

Internal FBI memos show that J. Edgar Hoover got a hold of a popular TV show in the 1960s and ran it with dictatorial authority for nine seasons. The show was The FBI, starring Efren Zimbalist Jr., and FBI documents reveal that he controlled every aspect of its production: approving the cast and crew, writers, directors and every word in every script. Anyone with a criminal background was banned from working on the show, as was anyone suspected of being a “pervert” or of being remotely connected to the “worldwide Communist conspiracy.” Hoover even controlled who could advertise on the show.

Government sponsorship of TV shows came under fire in 2000 after it was disclosed that the White House’s Office of National Drug Control had been secretly paying the networks to embed anti-drug messages into their programs, including such shows as Beverly Hills, 90210, ER, 7th Heaven and The Drew Carey Show. After reading the scripts, if the ONDCP felt that the shows contained a sufficiently anti-drug message, it reduced the networks’ obligation to provide free airtime for anti-drug public service announcements.

Alan Levitt, who was then the ONDCP’s associate director in charge of running the program, estimated that the networks received nearly $25 million in benefits between 1998 and 2000.

Following a media uproar, the FCC held hearings and determined that the networks should have disclosed that the government had sponsored the shows. The pay-for-play relationship between the government and the networks quietly was scrapped in 2001.

Speaking before the Wisconsin Broadcast Association in January 2000, then-FCC commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth, now a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, said that the program smacked of something more commonly run by “tin-horn dictators” in “repressive regimes.”

“Awarding government subsidies for certain kinds of scripts and programming undercuts the very core of broadcasters’ independence and blurs the line between programming and propaganda,” he told the Wisconsin broadcasters. “Perhaps most significantly, it reflects a certain governmental arrogance about what is the best type of programming for American viewers – and an apparent willingness to be less than forthright about that government role.”

The end credits of The Inspectors note that the kids show is sponsored by the USPIS, which should satisfy the FCC’s disclosure requirement. But the fact that the government is directly involved in shaping the content of television shows aimed at children is troubling to Furchtgott-Roth.

“Why they’re involved in television programming is very troubling,” he told Deadline. “Having the federal government involved in creating programming is not what you expect from the federal government.”

On one episode, the inspectors bust a conman who’s been ripping off a local church; in another, they arrest a crook who’s been scamming hurricane victims; in another, they stop a madman who’s been sending envelopes of deadly ricin in the mail. They solve crimes of identity theft, ivory smuggling and fake investment scams. Every episode is uplifting and educational, and every episode paints the USPIS in a positive light.

That the federal government pays for a TV show that portrays one of its agencies in a positive light also raises the question: Would it pay for one that portrays the same agency in a negative light?

There are no episodes about postal inspectors convicted of mail theft, like the one is San Jose who was sentenced to three years in jail for stealing prescription drugs that had been sent through the mail.

“I think if we objected to something, from a sound basis, there could be a discussion around that topic, but that hasn’t arisen,” Krenn said of working with the writers and producers of The Inspectors. “It’s a back-and-forth process. It’s very collaborative. They’re great to work with.”

The Supreme Court has long ruled that the First Amendment requires the government to treat all speakers equally, that it cannot favor speech — or TV shows — that it likes and not provide those same favors to speech it doesn’t like.

“It is axiomatic that the government may not regulate speech based on its substantive content or the message it conveys,” the high court ruled in the 1995 case Rosenberger v. the University of Virginia. “Other principles follow from this precept. In the realm of private speech or expression, government regulation may not favor one speaker over another. Discrimination against speech because of its message is presumed to be unconstitutional. These rules informed our determination that the government offends the First Amendment when it imposes financial burdens on certain speakers based on the content of their expression.”