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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.
"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."
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."
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