Saturday, March 11, 2006

Showbiz and Health Education

I went to “Miracle Mile” on Wilshire Boulevard recently to visit (right) and (left) at the headquarters of their project, “.” Though it’s part of the University of Southern California, it’s right smack in the middle of in a high, elegant suite that bears no resemblance to the university campus, which is on the other side of Los Angeles.

But considering its mission, their organization is located right where it belongs. Vicki and Mandy are proselytizers. They are enlisting Hollywood in educating viewers about issues in their scripts. Since that’s one of my objectives too, I’d sent them my book and they invited me in to chat about our common cause. Our enthusiasm was mutual.

Health, Hollywood and Society (HHS) is based at a center that the producer originated within USC’s . Vicki, the director, collects information and experts to help TV and film writers develop stories with accurate information about health issues. She creates tipsheets that are displayed on a web site, and upon request offers briefings to teams of writers working on a TV show. Mandy, the project manager, specializes in outreach to the industry, actively contacting them and encouraging the incorporation of accurate information into their plots. Their remarkable work is funded by the , the , and another agency whose name I don’t recall because I didn’t recognize its acronym. It’s apparently a new government body that aims to regulate and encourage organ donations for . Apparently nowadays screen writers are so familiar with their service that they call Vicki without being prompted to ask for her help.

I mentioned a recent episode of that had involved a story about organ transplants. They grinned and announced proudly, “We worked with them on that!” It seems that the writers had intended to write a story about the , but Mandy and Vicki told them that there is no such black market in the United States, but they went ahead with the story they'd already written about foreigners being imported for their organs. However, HHS was gratified about the last two minutes of the episode when the Eppes brothers are discussing their desire to donate their organs if the occasion should arise. Both Don and his father announce that they are carrying signed cards with pink dots in their wallets, but Charlie expresses his misgivings. {“Maybe they’ll take some part of me before I’m dead,” he worries.) But Don and Dad laugh and assure him that they will be around and won’t let that happen. That two-minute scene is far better than a .

I think I also recall a recent episode of about organ donations. One fellow was suing because a wealthy guy jumped the queue and got an organ that the plaintiff might have received otherwise. This topic is apparently a rich vein of gold that scriptwriters are now mining.

Besides cancer, the project has offered help with stories about , , , AIDS in Africa, in China, a bioterrorism threat, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, school violence, worker safety, , the impact of television on kids, the uninsured, youth mental illness, disease detectives, and the role of such as cancer. They bring in experts and real people with relevant maladies to chat with writers.

HHS already knows that their project is saving lives. Porter Novelli conducted surveys during 1999 and 2000 showing that over half of regular prime time and daytime drama viewers say they learned something about a disease or how to prevent it from a TV show. About one-third of regular viewers had even taken some action after hearing about a health issue or disease on a TV show.

In my follow-up note to Vicki and Mandy I suggested a new line of research that fits their mandate too: not just the educational, but also the direct, impact of TV and films on health. Besides informing people about diseases, entertainment stimulates emotions that are consequential for the viewer’s and systems. can make you sick, whereas love, erotic feelings, and laughter can make you healthier – and films can either stress you or give you more positive emotions than you’d experience otherwise all month. As I suggest in my new book , we need research on exposure as a public health issue. I hope the Norman Lear Center will sponsor such research.


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