Television

How does TV contribute to fight against AIDS?

MUMBAI: Let the message spread faster than the virus. That is the key point of the Entertainment Television Summit on HIV/Aids which is taking place today. The seminar is being organised by Heroes Project in association with the Kaiser Family Foundation.

 

Dr. Neal Baer who co-created the medical drama series ER and who is also the executive producer of Law And Order Special Victims Unit said that in 1995 on ER he introduced a nurse who has the HIV Virus. "I was struck by the fact that there were no characters who suffered from HIV on American television. We had the nurse portrayed by Gloria Rubin taking AZT and other drugs.

"Through this she was able to live a fulfilling life and help people. Interestingly at that time during meetings with the creative team, our highly educated team of writers all said that they would not want to be treated by her or send their children to her on account of her condition. That is when I realised that we had a compelling storyline. HIV need not be a death sentence. People took to this message strongly. A research conducted later showed that this storyline which went on for four years was the most popular one on ER. The second most popular one involved George Clooney and Julianna Margulies."

 

 

Baer added that the show was successful in bringing to light the fact that HIV need not be a death sentence. In fact Rubin's character broke through stereotypical notions by stating that HIV people can bring hope and help people suffering from other problems like drub abuse. An HIV affected person is not necessarily tragically sad and spending lots of time in bed. Interestingly when fans of ER met Rubin in real life they asked how she was not realising that she was only acting. On the show Rubin's character also spoke to pregnant teens.

Baer was also honest enough to admit that on one episode of Law and Order Special Victims Unit he wasn't as honest as he could have been when an episode called Download had an Aids story. Here a married man who is a closet homosexual gives the virus to his wife. Star executive producer Nilanjana Purkayastha said that the medical soap Sanjivani introduced an Aids afflicted character Dr. Omi. However the character had to be made larger than life and likeable first like Patch Adams before the issue could be introduced. The aim of the character was to address the social stigma that accompanies a person suffering from Aids. The show saw a drop in ratings but it was not as bad as feared. In fact at one point Dr. Omi is asked to leave the hospital when his seniors learn about his condition. Sony assistant VP marketing Nina Elavia Jaipuria pointed that an episode of Indian Idol had incorporated the concept. Aids activist and actor Richard Gere had come down.

So Sony arranged for him to speak to the finalists about the role they have to play in communicating the message. The finalists visited an HIV Care home in Delhi. They also composed a song about it. The challenge for Sony was to creatively weave the theme in to the show. In fact Heroes Project had approached Sony about creating awareness about the social cause. The Aids song Ek Jahaan is featured on Indian Idol winner Abhijeet's album.

Will And Grace executive producer Tracy Poust said that one of the episodes mentions that Grace got herself tested for being HIV positive. The aim was to break the notion that homosexuality and Aids go together. Right wing conservative Americans who watch the show have that view. So they feel that gay men deserve that fate not realising thsat the problem is far bigger. She said that Will and Grace was funny. Therefore it was easier for audiences to accept the fact that two characters are gay. However according to her some viewers even now are not aware of that. Baer maintains that it is important for a show not to focus on educating the viewer. After all people watch television to escape boredom.

"Law and Order focuses on tough stories with shades of grey. Not everyone will agree with what is going on but it will leave them with plenty to think and reflect on. The viewer might learn something in spite of him/herself. What is interesting on our show is that characters have different points of view on sensitive issues like abortion and why sexual crimes are committed."

In another session called Real Stories different speakers brought to life real life situations. Media needs to highlight the fact that HIV positive does not mean that life is over. Secondly issues of privacy should be clear. The privacy of people should not be invaded. The sensitivity should be there as there is prejudice and if the media is not careful it will add to the prejudicial atmosphere.

One of the sessions moderated by MTV's Cyrus Broacha dealt with how television shows can communicate the message about Aids in a creative manner.

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