Prime-Time Activism

These days,TV sells sex, soap, and social change

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For years, critics of all political stripes have been attacking network television producers for the sex and violence that increasingly dominate their programming. Yet, at the same time—and unbeknownst to most viewers—the oft-reviled medium has been an active partner with special interest groups working to bring about positive social change.

More than 150 organizations—from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation to Planned Parenthood to the Environmental Media Association—actively lobby television producers with story lines, prop placements, and character development ideas designed to get their message out to an audience that increasingly views TV as its window on reality. Nearly one-fourth of all American teens in a recent survey said they learn about pregnancy and birth control from television and movies, so what better vehicle for a message about safe sex? "I can't knock on every door in the country and discuss safe sex with teenagers," Marisa Nightingale of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy tells writer Jane Rosenzweig in The American Prospect (July/Aug. 1999), "but if Bailey and Sarah on Party of Five discuss it, that's the next best thing."

Television has always had its maverick producers, willing to risk advertisers and ratings to explore a controversial social issue (Maude's abortion in 1972 preceded Roe v. Wade; and Billy Crystal's gay character on Soap was a lightning rod for anti-gay activists in the late '70s), but the past 10 years have seen a dramatic proliferation of single-issue messages on network TV.

Much of that can be traced directly to the success of Jay Winsten and his 1988 designated driver campaign. In four network TV seasons, the Harvard professor and director of the school's Center for Health Communication managed to get his designated driver message inserted into the story lines of 160 prime-time shows. The results were astounding: Surveys showed that 67 percent of U.S. adults were aware of the designated driver concept a year after its introduction, and 52 percent of adults under 30 had served as a designated driver by 1991. Nationwide, drunk driving fatalities dropped by 32 percent between 1988 and 1997, and though some of that decrease can be attributed to tougher state drunken driving laws, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives most of the credit to Winsten's campaign.

"We promoted a new social norm," says Winsten. "The driver doesn't drink." But it's not as easy as it sounds. Winsten and his organization had powerful allies in the industry. Former NBC chairman Grant Tinker, a friend of CBS executive Frank Stanton, who sat on Winsten's advisory board, ushered the Harvard professor through doors that otherwise would have been impossible to open. "He wrote letters of introduction to the 13 largest production companies and asked them to reply. If they didn't call, he'd call them," Winsten recalls. "In one trip I met with all 13."

Of course, this access would mean little if Winsten didn't have a message that could be easily inserted into a prime-time story line. It wasn't a polarizing message; there were no economic interests opposing it. And it rang true to life: Many producers had teenage kids. (Winsten reinforced his message by sending producers Plexiglas paperweights with a card inside: "Choose a Designated Driver." A lot of them are still sitting on producers' coffee tables today, he says.)

Still, Winsten and his organization didn't rely solely on right-thinking Cheers episodes to move public opinion. They ran public service advertising nationwide and organized community events around the country. "This isn't a magic bullet," he says. "It's one component of a larger strategy."

For more and more special interest organizations, that larger strategy involves building ongoing relationships with Hollywood producers and writers. Groups like the Kaiser Family Foundation's Program on Entertainment Media and Public Health provide a variety of resources for the networks: briefings, research services, even a hot line for writers looking for quick answers to health-related questions. While writers were putting together a recent two-part Felicity episode on date rape, they sat down with Kaiser representatives during rewrite sessions to better understand how to accurately portray the situation and its aftermath. It's at sessions like these that the organization can best influence content.

"You have to approach them as storytellers," says Robert Pekurny, an assistant professor of communications at Florida State University and a writer for the 1970s hit show Happy Days. "You've got to prove that you're making their jobs easier."

Of course, dropping in a line or two about date rape or drunk driving or morning-after contraception is easy compared to educating the masses about global warming or rainforest destruction. And for years, environmental groups had a difficult time making any inroads with the networks. Recently, though, groups like the Environmental Media Association (EMA) are beginning to wield more influence in Hollywood through the use of props and occasional story lines. As Kivi Leroux reports in E Magazine (July/Aug. 1999), EMA briefs television writers on environmental issues each year, offering information and story ideas. But it also provides T-shirts with environmental themes to be worn on the air, posters, recycling containers, and cloth grocery bags. When producers were searching for an electric car for the final episode of Mad About You, EMA steered them to a dealer.

Despite the gains made in the past 10 years, Rosenzweig concedes that TV will never be the ideal vehicle for social change. For every positive message on safe sex, after all, there are hundreds promoting reckless promiscuity. "As long as television remains a profit-driven industry," she writes, "the best we can hope to do . . . is to work within the existing system to make it better."