Educational TV

Medical dramas, soap operas and even comedies have turned into a source of health information_and writers are working to make sure they get the facts right

November 17, 2006|By Susan Brink | Susan Brink,Los Angeles Times

Americans more than believe the health information they get from fictional television shows. Spurred by what they see on shows such as ER and The Bold and the Beautiful, they take action. They go to the doctor, surveys suggest. They tell a friend to have that cough checked. They ask a lover to use a condom.

Fans develop trusting relationships with the characters who come into their homes each week, and industry insiders say they can't betray that trust.

"I'm aware of the number of people who are paying attention to the facts around the fiction," says Jan Nash, executive producer of Without a Trace.

Thanks in part to the Internet, where health sites consistently make the most-visited lists, more and more viewers know when something on TV doesn't ring true.

They're getting more chances to make such calls. Science is invading scripts. Disease is increasingly a backdrop to plots. The woes of the nation's health care system are punch lines. Heroic characters have mental diseases or incurable neurological disorders.

Behind the scenes, researchers and an eager network of health and policy advocates are working with writers and producers to get the facts right.

Shows that milk medicine for back stories or main plot lines aren't limited to the medical genre such as ER, Grey's Anatomy or Scrubs. Sick, damaged or dying characters are showing up in shows about crime, politics, law or wacky families and friends.

But seeing how profoundly true prime-time television can be was a shock nonetheless for Robert T. Brennan, a statistician at the Harvard School of Medicine, and his daughter, Emma Brennan-Wydra, 13.

Early this year, they were watching Law & Order, as usual, when they realized that the episode, titled "Infected," was hitting closer and closer to home. It was about a pupil who, after seeing his mother shot to death, killed her murderer and went on trial as an adult.

Actress Annie Potts, playing the defense attorney, quoted, statistic by statistic, a study Brennan had published in the May 27, 2005, issue of the journal Science.

"She talked about kids being two to three times more likely to commit gun violence after they've been exposed to gun violence," he said, and mentioned the number and location of study participants.

"Emma and I looked at each other in total disbelief," Brennan said. "The exact details of the study were on television. And the accuracy of it was really amazing. I hate to say this, but it was more accurate than anything I've ever had covered in a newspaper."

How did it wind up on TV? Neal Baer, a pediatrician and executive producer of Law & Order: SVU, says the study, which he called "wonky policy stuff," triggered the idea for a plot.

"Just as you're exposed to flu when someone sneezes on you, this boy was exposed to violence. He was infected, and he committed a violent act," Baer says of the TV character.

What Baer did with a dry study illustrates the challenge to television writers: Take timely, important topics and make them entertaining. Accuracy and responsibility matter, industry insiders say, but their job is to attract and hold viewers, not lecture or teach.

"Ultimately, our responsibility is to the drama of the show," Nash says. If writers start getting preachy, she says, viewers change the channel.

At a time when reliance on traditional news media is slipping, health advocates say it makes sense to put the information where people are likely to get it. And the emphasis on the human and emotional drama behind the science is exactly what helps messages stick with viewers, researchers say. Done well, the messages play out in the lives of familiar characters, and viewers learn something.

One of the first proofs that popular shows can educate large numbers of people came in 1977, when broadcast pioneer Miguel Sabido used the theory in a Mexican soap opera called Acompaname or Accompany Me.

The characters, including a poor but strong young woman who had two children and didn't want any more, grappled with family planning.

In the show's first year, the Mexican government's National Population Council reported that monthly phone calls requesting family-planning information increased from next to none to 500. Contraceptive sales increased 23 percent, compared with an increase of 7 percent the previous year.

After Mexico's success, the entertainment-education movement spread to India, China and Africa, where people in even the most remote villages tune their portable radios to soap operas.

"You put up a billboard saying `AIDS Kills, Use a Condom,' and it doesn't tell a woman how to approach her husband to talk about condoms," says Sonny Fox, whose Studio City, Calif., consulting company advises media and public health advocates. "In a radio drama, you put that right into the story. The listener has to be able to say, `If she can do it, I can do it.'"

Power of soaps

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