Campus & Community

KSG forum proves TV viewers can call the shots

6 min read

Keep those cards and letters coming.

That was the advice from a group of television producers who addressed ethics in the entertainment media last week at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. The four-member panel discussed issues ranging from diversity of television show casts to the depictions of AIDS and teen pregnancy on the tube.

And if viewers don’t like what they see, the panelists advised, let the networks know.

“The networks and network executives need to be held to a high level of accountability because these are the public airwaves, even if they [the networks] are privately owned companies,” said Susan Fales-Hill ’84, co-creator and executive producer of the show “A Different World.”

The panel included Fales-Hill; Neal Baer, co-executive producer of “ER,” executive producer of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” and a Harvard Medical School graduate; Loretha Jones, executive producer and director of the Warner Bros. Network series, “The Parent’hood”; and Jay Winsten, associate dean for public and community affairs at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the School’s Center for Health Communications.

The panel discussion, held at the Kennedy School’s Arco Forum on April 4, was moderated by David Wilkins, Kirkland and Ellis Professor of Law.

During their hour-long talk, the group pulled aside the curtain around the creation of a television episode to give the audience of about 100 a behind-the-scenes look at how writers, producers, advertisers, and network executives handle social and ethical concerns.

The picture they presented wasn’t always pretty, but it did offer hope. The panelists discussed several occasions when they fought for a particular episode or character because of the good they thought it would do – and won.

Fales-Hill talked about a 1989 episode of “A Different World” that dealt with the subject of AIDS. In the show, one character, a 21-year-old woman, considers losing her virginity to her boyfriend. Network executives, nervous about the subject, submitted the script to advertisers, who said they didn’t think a 21-year-old woman having sex was appropriate.

Ironically, that was the same character the network wanted to have lose her virginity two years earlier for May sweeps, Fales-Hill said. Sweeps are when a show’s audience is measured in order to set advertising rates.

“A mere two years later this is unacceptable, when we’re doing it for a real social purpose,” Fales-Hill said. “The advertisers felt the nation had put its panties back on. It was more conservative and didn’t want to see this kind of thing.”

After some negotiation, Fales-Hill said, they agreed to air the show unchanged, but with a warning that parents should watch with their children. The show, it turned out, had the second highest rating in the series’ history, Fales-Hill said.

“We received letters from Planned Parenthood chapters across the country saying that the very next day hundreds of people had walked in, wanting to be tested and asking for information,” Fales-Hill said.

A show’s popularity, of course, lends it some immunity from tampering by executives and advertisers, according to Baer, co-executive producer of NBC’s hit “ER” and executive producer of the new “Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit,” which deals with victims of sex crimes. With a powerhouse like “ER,” winner of Emmy, Peabody, and People’s Choice awards, Baer said they are pretty much free to tackle whatever subjects they like.

Over the years since “ER” premiered in 1994, Baer said it has become apparent that viewers pay attention to the medicine that is practiced there. The show has even generated a medical journal article saying that “ER” was misleading patients into believing that CPR is more successful than it is.

“A lot of people get their health information from TV. We really try hard to be accurate because we see how people learn,” Baer said.

Even “ER” has not been completely free from the effects of advertisers. In a show in which a suicidal patient overdoses on Tylenol, which can cause liver damage in high doses, the network wanted the actors to say “acetaminophen” – Tylenol’s active ingredient – rather than using the brand name. Baer said they fought over it, and ultimately wound up silently mouthing the word during the episode.

“We just always say if it’s a good story and it’s honest … then we feel we should tell that story,” Baer said.

Recent trends in television have led to fewer shows with minority actors, a trend the panelists said is disturbing. Another problem, they said, is that concern about political correctness and offending minority groups can curb creativity and lead to unrealistic situations – such as the parade of women and minorities that have replaced white men as judges on television though not in reality.

While enough letters from upset viewers can have an effect on content, a more direct course was taken by the School of Public Health’s Center for Health Communications. Winsten, the center’s director, said that in 1988 he began working with television producers in Hollywood, asking them if they could help support the national “designated driver” campaign by including the concept in shows wherever appropriate.

Despite some resistance, Winsten said, many producers thought it was a good idea, as it reflected an ongoing trend in society. Ultimately, 160 prime-time television episodes used the term, boosting the campaign’s visibility nationally.

Today, Winsten said, he’s approached the filmmaking industry to see if they would curtail teen smoking in the films. He said Hollywood isn’t responsible for teen smoking in this country, but its depiction in major films, especially those aimed at a teen audience, can be an obstacle to fighting it.

“There’s no way we can reach teen girls if Leonardo DiCaprio is smoking in every film,” Winsten said. “The responsiveness is considerable and I think we’re going to see some movement.”

When an aspiring writer in the audience asked for advice about breaking into the business, Jones said it is important to keep in mind the hard reality about television – that it is the advertisements, not the shows, that keep the network on the air.

“The reason the shows are on the air is to sell soap or hair products. We’re lucky enough to have our show placed between these two advertisements,” Jones said. “[The networks only want to know] can you come up with a story line that will hold the audience for the seven minutes it takes to get to that first commercial.”