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Hurray for Hollywood
Prime-Time Television Show Offers NIH Opportunity

By Carla Garnett

On the Front Page...

Striding purposefully down a bustling city street, a business-man stops suddenly in mid-cell phone conversation and collapses to the sidewalk. Up close, his complexion takes on a bluish tint. Moments later the man is seen in an isolation unit of an emergency room, an oxygen mask affixed to his face. In walk several physicians, barking orders sharply to the hospital's staff and interrogating the patient. Sounds like a medical mystery NIH researchers solve on a routine day at the Clinical Center, right? Perhaps not, but when NBC decided to develop its new prime-time drama Medical Investigation, the show's writers and producers deliberately chose the National Institutes of Health as the government agency employing its fictional team of physician-detectives. The story of how — within a few short months — NIH came not only to welcome the drama and aid in its development, but also to embrace the power of Hollywood is something of an ongoing mini-documentary itself.


NIH Star Rising?

The first hints that a show relating to NIH was in the works came early last summer when press officer Don Ralbovsky of the NIH Office of Communications and Public Liaison took a call from television researchers who wanted to know what kinds of vanity plates might be displayed on the vehicles of NIH staff. The request was thought unusual, but was answered and filed like every other inquiry. Next, however, promotions for the show began to appear as well as tidbits and ads in various entertainment media. When Calvin Jackson, OCPL public affairs specialist, was contacted by NBC publicists working for Medical Investigation, the vanity plate query took on new meaning.

"They wanted to do some filming on location here," Jackson says, "and they wanted to do an interview with [NIH director] Dr. [Elias] Zerhouni." Although NIH Associate Director for Communications John Burklow nixed the interview — fearing it might be interpreted as a federal endorsement of a television show — he recognized that "such interest in NIH presented a potential opportunity to educate a substantial number of viewers about medical research and the nature of the work done here." He assembled a team to look into the show and its implications for NIH.

NBC's web page for its show Medical Investigation includes links to NIH and CDC web sites (lower r), which provide factual information on the show's fictional stories.

"We knew we had two choices…do nothing or do something," says Judy Stein, communications director at the National Eye Institute. "We decided to do something. We felt that if we had the opportunity to help the show with information about the NIH and the many diseases and disorders we deal with, important public health information might get out through the show."

Once Jackson obtained a copy of the show's pilot, titled "Blue Man Syndrome," NIH communication officials were even more convinced that it would be in the agency's best interest to take an active role in helping to inform the show's writers and producers about NIH.

Attention to Details

"It became very clear that much of the show's portrayal of NIH staff and activities really more resembled that of CDC," Stein says. "This made us uneasy, and we knew that the folks at CDC were not happy about it either."

In addition, several specific images and scenarios needed correction or at least clarification, if the show was to reflect NIH more accurately.

"There were some things about the pilot that made us squirm," Stein admits, recalling the initial episode. "There was the NIH helicopter that the NIH team jumped into to fly off to where the disease outbreak was taking place. The NIH logo appeared, but it was upside down. In a hospital scene with people who might be very contagious, no one even wore masks. But on the other hand, we thought that the TV program made the NIH staff look a lot cooler than they actually are. And, at the beginning of the pilot, words on the screen read, 'The National Institutes of Health, the nation's foremost medical research center, has for the last hundred years been on the cutting edge of disease prevention, diagnosis and cure.' You can't buy publicity like that."

Mutually Beneficial

Communication specialists at the National Cancer Institute had already seen the wisdom of cooperating with Tinseltown, says science writer Michael Miller, NCI project officer overseeing Hollywood, Health and Society (HH&S). HH&S was launched in 2002 by the University of Southern California and provides the entertainment industry with accurate and timely information for health storylines (see sidebar).

Begun in partnership with the USC Annenberg School of Communication's Norman Lear Center, HH&S is funded via an interagency agreement between CDC and — since 2003 — NCI. Miller says the arrangement offers several communication benefits, including "increased awareness of issues related to cancer by millions of TV viewers, and a chance for NCI to proactively correct misinformation and to advance important health messages."

HH&S invited Jackson, Stein and CDC representatives to visit L.A. and get acquainted with several of the minds behind the scripts for Medical Investigation. By the date of the meeting, the show had already filmed seven or eight episodes, and was doing well in the ratings for its Friday night time slot. Before the show created indelible and potentially misleading images of the agency, NIH's team wanted the opportunity to give writers and producers an accurate NIH overview and pitch realistic story ideas about medical research topics.

"The show staff was medically well informed, serious about their work, interested in what we had to say, and anxious to get the episodes medically and scientifically correct," Stein recalls. "When asked why the show was about 'NIH' as opposed to CDC, the producer explained that they wanted to use NIH because it was a 'blank slate,' that many people were not familiar with it and most people already knew about CDC. So, they felt that they could present it to the public without any preconceived notions."

The NIH'ers also offered source material such as the NLM web site MedlinePlus and contact lists for information on specific health conditions and disorders.

"They knew a lot about some of the separate entities, but didn't realize they were all part of NIH," Jackson says. Within hours of the meeting's end, email inquiries and phone follow-ups confirmed that Hollywood's avid interest in NIH — and medical issues and research topics, in general — is strong and growing stronger. In fact, Investigation storylines have aired in the past few weeks on anthrax and on infections stemming from use of spa products, two concepts within NIAID's expertise. HH&S also recently requested details about an NIMH-related plot, NBC's ER has included segments featuring NCI's 5-a-Day Program and the upcoming ABC-TV program Gray's Anatomy has also worked through HH&S to develop its storylines.

In just one indication that the interest is mutual, NIH added a special link to its web site for facts about Medical Investigation, offering in-depth information about diseases highlighted in the weekly show and introducing real medical investigators at NIH and CDC. Late last year, the successful show was picked up for another season — more than a dozen new occasions for NIH to be centerstage during prime-time.

"Overall NIH involvement in the entertainment industry is important," Stein concludes, "and an expanded and more proactive role is being considered, one that provides all NIH institutes with the opportunity to help the industry get factual scientific information and important health messages to the public."

HH&S-CDC-NIH Partnership

Helping Hollywood Get It Right

Although the formal partnership between NCI, CDC and Hollywood, Health and Society (HH&S) is only a few years old, the results and impact of the relationship have already been duly noted — and put under the microscope.

Information compiled by HH&S from January 2003 to June 2004, for example, lists nine major and six minor storylines about cancer — and that's counting only prime-time shows. According to a 2001 Porter Novelli survey, "57 percent of regular TV drama viewers learned something about a disease or how to prevent it" from such a show. Add the recipients of the 2004 Sentinel for Health Awards (given to writers/producers by HH&S and judged by dozens of medical and health education professionals; this year's finalists include soap operas such as The Young and the Restless, sitcoms like Grounded for Life as well as prime-time dramatic series such as Law & Order: SVU and Judging Amy). Then, factor in the more than 30 additional inquiries or consultations HH&S logged between September 2003 and October 2004. Multiply that by millions of viewers and the formula amounts to exponential opportunities for NIH to disseminate health research and disease-prevention messages.

Owing to the public's ever-increasing health consciousness and to the growing popularity of shows featuring medical issues, NIH is vigorously pursuing more ways to help the entertainment industry present the topics realistically and accurately. Recently, NCI held a symposium on HH&S to enlist more NIH'ers in efforts to reach out to Hollywood and to help identify experts who can speak authoritatively on various topics of interest to show executives.

"We've found pretty conclusively that if we have experts to meet with the entertainment community, to visit with the staff of ER or Medical Investigation, for instance, then we have a much better chance of educating them, making sure that they get the stories right, that what they present in their dramas is accurate, and also get some of the messages that we feel are important incorporated into their shows," said Michael Miller, a science writer in NCI's press office and the NCI project officer overseeing HH&S. NCI helps fund HH&S through an interagency agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To learn more about HH&S, visit the organization online at

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