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Norman Lear Center partners with CDC to set health-related TV storylines straight

"Hollywood, Health & Society" will help writers and producers of TV and films to weave accurate public health information into the plots of shows

“Hollywood, Health & Society,” a new project of the USC Norman Lear Center, will help writers and producers of TV and films to weave accurate public health information into the plots of shows like Fox TV’s “Boston Public.” Here, Steven Harper (Chi McBride) steps in to teach on the “Chapter 37” episode.Weaving accurate public health information into the plots of shows of like “ER” and “Boston Public” is the goal of a new project of the USC Norman Lear Center and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Based at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, the “Hollywood, Health & Society” project will make it easier for entertainment writers and producers to access credible information on issues ranging from bioterrorism to the spread of HIV.

“We don’t really have an agenda we’re trying to push,” said Claudia Parvanta, the CDC’s director of health communication.

“We’re just really hopeful that whatever’s portrayed on the little screen or the big screen is as accurate as possible.”

As part of the project:

– thousands of health and medical experts from around the world will be made available;

– experts will make the rounds of shows like “The Practice” to conduct briefings on various topics;

– resources will be a click-away through the project’s Web site at www.entertainment.usc.edu/hhs;

– panel discussions will examine the implications of dramatizing critical public health topics;

– an award – the CDC Sentinel for Health Award for Daytime Drama – will honor soap operas that tackle issues like breast cancer or disability; and

– researchers will study TV’s impact on audiences in terms of how they respond to information they glean from the programming.

“What we want to do is make it as easy for writers and producers as possible,” said Annenberg Associate Dean Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center and the project’s leader. “We want to be a one-stop shopping center for information in the public-health realm.”

Because viewers learn things – either consciously or unconsciously – from the programs they watch, it would be good if the creators of programming were aware of the power they wield, Kaplan added.

“It’s not only good drama to be realistic, it’s also responsible to be realistic,” he said.

While this isn’t the first such effort by the CDC – it formed an Entertainment Education Program in 1997 – it is the first time the agency has partnered with an entity that has strong ties to both the entertainment industry and the public-health community.

USC has pulled together an advisory board made up of top public-health officials, academics and professionals from the worlds of TV, fiim and music.

The board includes (co-chair) Dr. Neal Baer, executive producer of “Law & Order: SUV”; (co-chair) Vicki Riskin, president of the Writers Guild of America, west; Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services; Jeffrey Koplan, outgoing director of the CDC; Norman Lear, producer and philanthropist; Hilary Rosen, president and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America; and Bryce Zabel, chairman of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

The project will be directed by Vicki Beck, who came to USC from the CDC, where she directed the Entertainment Education Program.

Hollywood, Health & Society’s first event is on April 2. Panelists will discuss bioterrism and address such questions as: Will writing about it alarm viewers or give terrorists ideas? Participants will include Baer; Michael Frost Beckner, writer and executive producer of “The Agency”; and the CDC’s Stephen Ostroff and Koplan.

Space is limited; for a reservation, call (213) 821-1343.

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Norman Lear Center partners with CDC to set health-related TV storylines straight

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