John M. Phelan
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Framing Terror

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"Selling Consent," Communication and Citizenship. P. Dahlgren and
C. Sparks. (Eds.) London: Routledge, 1991.

The sociological and public policy implications of establishment information compliance campaigns.

Selling Consent:
the Public Sphere as a Televisual Market-place

Public Spheres: Journalism and the Market-place

The broadcast system of the United States, of which television is a principal part, is commercial; it is fundamentally an advertising medium. Although there are small or seeming exceptions to this systematic characteristic, they are inconsequential. Television news is considered the primary source of public information about 'world and national events' for the overwhelming majority of Americans. Current events in the American system are packaged in a variety of ways: in straight newscasts, in talk and discussion shows featuring officials and experts who discuss pressing issues of the day and in many localized discussion formats which deal with matters of public concern, such as the alleged AIDS epidemic, or the mounting death and damage toll from drunken drivers, or the widespread illegal use of debilitating narcotics and addictive substances.

Although actual policy decisions that form as well as merely affect the public sphere may be made behind the closed doors of government agencies and commissions,the board rooms of major corporations, and the conferences of establishment 'think tanks' like the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation, the publication of these policies and the persuasion, or what Ellul has called the integrative propaganda, that ensures their legitimacy - all this takes place in the public sphere created by news media and particularly the dominant television forms of news and issue coverage.

As a result, the public sphere in the United States is overwhelmingly dominated by the cultural forms of television and those cultural forms are in turn shaped by the political economy of mass-production-advertising-consumption; in short, by the commercial system of advanced capatalistic communications. News and views, to use the cliche, are commodities, to use another cliche.

The agora, the Greek market-place, where the few free like Plato and Socrates met to discuss the politics of their polis, was at the narrow beginning of the western tradition of democracy. Bacon called the received public wisdom of his time, 'the idols of the market-place'. John Stuart Mill conceived of the free discussion of ideas in an enlightened public realm as 'the market-place of ideas'.

In this chapter I propose to follow this tradition by examining how:

  • new technologies of communication affect the market-place of television;
  • news and 'journalism' play a central role in the market strategies of American television entities;
  • a special cultural form of packaging news and views in a consciously integrative propaganda form, the public service/community campaign, shapes the public consciousness and the public agenda: the public sphere.

Finally, I will indicate why these campaigns, which usher in an era of unabashed 'activist television', are an inevitable result of the political economy of the advertising market-place, the cultural diction of mass media and the determining conditions of advanced industrial technology.



Technology and the Public Market-place

Technology has radically altered the roles of major players in the television world. Networks are steadily feeling the pressures brought about by cable and satellite access, with a number of alternative paths being opened for national distribution of programming, their former oligopoly. At the same time, the replacement of film with videotape and ever smaller instruments for live on-the-spot coverage have made the production of local news much more attractive for affiliate stations and independents, lowering the need for 'clearance' of network offerings further.

These same technologies of accessible and affordable production have added new encouragement to local stations to produce shows of such caliber that they can be sold to or otherwise shared with other outlets.

However, just as the networks are less necessary to local stations, so too are local stations less necessary to the local television market. The technology that has helped local broadcast stations has also enabled out-of-market 'superstations' to beam in on many lucrative markets all over the country. Low-power television stations and other methods of expanding the available spectrum have been added to the multiple channels available through cable, whose share of market has catapulted in recent years. San Francisco, for instance, has gone from five to twenty-two television outlets in the eighties. All of these factors are added to the burgeoning home use of VCRs, not only for rented videocassettes but for time-shifted viewing and commercial zapping of broadcast fare.

The net result of all this technological innovation is radically to reduce the market share of each outlet and to even more seriously to undercut the revenue base of advertiser-supported television media, whose rates are not only based on raw numbers but increasingly on demographically targeted market segments.

A further pressure on broadcast stations, at a time when revenue is being squeezed, is a demand from ownership for ever higher return on investment. This obsession for maximum profits in the immediate term is a broader disease of the entire corporate American economy, fueled by crushing debt service created by leveraged buy-outs. Although the effect on networks, all three of which are now part of far larger corporate conglomerates with a great demand for cash flow, has been widely noted, the effect on individual stations, whether independent, affiliated with networks, or parts of chains, is enormous.

Despite increasing deregulation, stations remain the most highly regulated node in the many-stranded television web. They not only are the primary responsible agents for programming liability, they also are under pressure to serve the local community by both the terms of the license and the public interest tradition from the original Communications Act - an obligation not shared by other program producers and distributors.

Enlightened management has over the years seen the obligation of local service as the advantage of local identification, the characteristic which a station can use as a classic 'unique selling point' against all those other competitors (except for other local stations, of course). This is achieved in practice by building on traditional avenues of community involvement, adapted to broadcasting realities.

It should be noted that 'identity' for any medium that exists in time, rather than space, takes the form of 'continuity'. Although the local station obviously has an address on a real street in a real town, it is presented to its market on screens everywhere, along with other entities from New York, London, Tokyo, even outer space. Thus the repetitive display over time of the station logo, the network mark, the series 'billboard', is the fundamental tool of establishing identity, just as scheduling is the fundmental programming tool for reaching specific audiences.

Since the enormous appetite of a 168-hour broadcast week requires that most production be imported from the tape factories that have replaced the film factory of Hollywood, the only window the local station has to establish its continuity is the local news window. Its news presenters are the electronic equivalent of a magazine cover or a newspaper masthead and its coverage of local news is the way the station is 'present' locally.

As a result, most stations have early evening news programs that are often at least two hours long and late news from thirty minutes to one hour. More stations are inaugurating hour-length audience participation shows in early morning and late afternoon, to which some even provide van or bus service. In addition, regularly scheduled or 'special' programs, usually on weekends or in fringe times, are focused on specific local issues.

What sort of content characterizes these local programs, whatever the format? In 1983, the Television Information Office (TIO), as research arm of the television wing of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), conducted a survey on precisely this and allied questions. The sample was large and representative, 257 stations from every region, including Alaska and Hawaii, 111 of them from 47 of the top fifty markets and 60 from 37 of the second fifty.

Local news can be divided into three parts: hard, soft and feature. Hard news concentrates on spontaneous events, like floods and fires, and as such cannot be part of a planning process. Most news is, in fact, soft: planned occasions of interest to the community.

The TIO Survey found sports was at the top of the list, followed by ethnic festivals, local government affairs, neighborhood and church activities, awards, Chamber of Commerce meetings, school matters and cleanup drives. The performing arts and any occasion that raises funds for charity, like the Special Olympics, form the second tier. Minority activities such as local celebrations of Martin Luther King Day came last. About 10 per cent of such coverage was in the form of specials, in addition to regular local news programming.

Feature news treatment consisted of discussions, specialist-interviews and often exhortation, about crime, drug abuse, good health practices, family conflict, education, sexual problems, employment, the environment and consumer complaints. Since these topics are perennial, they are recycled regularly, sometimes in the form of a short series, or a monthly 'drive' that orchestrates various formats, from specials to short announcements to news segments. Although many of these topics raise heated controversy, such as abortion or nuclear hazards, the overwhelming tendency is to preserve an atmosphere of upbeat optimism. If hard news is bad news, then local public affairs features tend to be good news, or at least comforting information.

Controversy can be addressed in editorials, which are usually one- or two-minute talking heads, the head often that of the station manager or the public affairs director, if there is one. Another NAB survey, with a sample of 422 stations, found that less than one-third bother to editorialize and that of these, less than 3 per cent will actually endorse a candidate in a contested election. So, although the occasional station, like KPIX-TV in San Francisco, may occasionally take an unpopular position it believes in, most stations play it safe for fear of alienating viewers or of triggering equal-time rebuttals from sources that will surely alienate viewers, for whose loyalty all this localism is expended.

Boosting the status quo cannot be left to on-air activities. General managers, like executives of any business that depends on public acceptance, spend a great deal of time attending civic affairs, visiting schools, speaking at ceremonies. The better stations make sure that their on-air talent, which is the key to news and public affairs ratings, is visible in the flesh for public affairs and local charities. Stations themselves sponsor dinners for the elderly, music concerts, park and zoo days for families, fund-raising ball games with their own employees participating. Weather reporters are increasingly fitting a central casting type of the all-purpose warm community person, visiting schools and hospitals with some sort of science or health presentation.

Since all of these strategies, on- and off-air, are often common within the same market, the competition for ratings among local stations revolves around two intangibles: the personalities of the talent and the perception of the station as 'the' local station. Hiring charismatic talent is still much of a mystical operation, with successful producers referring to ineffable visceral cues as the determining factor. Scarcely open to rational discussion, the star factor is thus underemphasized in studies of programming strategy. The other factor - competitive edge in local identification of the station as a whole - admits to some logical planning.

The key to this planning is a special form of one of the oldest methods of organizing a variety of forces against a variety of obstacles in order to focus on one objective: the campaign.

Flowing from a creative transformation of an alleged weakness into a strength, the public or community service campaign manages to mobilize all the strategies local stations have mustered to meet their obligations to owners, advertisers, viewers, government, and, of course, the local community in one policy gesture. It seems almost too good to be true.



Persuasive News: the Campaign

For the last fifty years, a significant part of the study of communications has been the study of campaigns. Communication campaigns have been employed in three principal areas: (1) politics, (2) public health, safety and welfare, and (3) product promotion and corporate image enhancement.

An overwhelming amount of specific case study has been commissioned by the customers for product promotion and corporate image enhancement and is in fact the bulk of what is known as market research. Media advisers and political pollsters are performing an increasing amount of research on elections and referenda.

Although government and varied public service-agencies, from the New York Public Library to the United States Army, have commissioned research into effects as well as other research called 'formative' (analysis of the needs and vulnerabilities of the target before designing the campaign), for the most part research into American public or community service campaigns has not been nearly as abundant. It is nowhere near as thorough, for instance, as the research commissioned by India into the effectiveness of its population control campaigns. The reason for this may be that in many instances the campaign involves a so-called 'preventive innovation' such as not taking drugs or not starting to smoke. How does one count the number of dogs who do not bark in the night?

Total campaigns are indeed an outrgrowth of the long-established practice of using broadcast facilities to get the public to do things in general. For instance, it has been the mandated and voluntary practice of stations to provide free air time for a given number of public-service announcements (PSAs), most of them produced by the interested parties (like the Post Office urging use of zip codes) or the National Association of Broadcasters, as an aid to member stations. Currently, both taxpayer and freely contributed dollars have provided a large number of such announcements directed against drug abuse, which broadcasters show without charge as their contribution to the Reagan Administration's 'Just Say No [to Drugs]' campaign. But this is a government campaign that uses broadcasting among other means. Broadcasting is on board, but not in the driver's seat. If the PSAs are orchestrated by station management into a larger plan that uses other formats of on-air programming, plus off-air activities, then it is a communications community campaign. Stations often do this: the latest NAB survey indicates that when it comes, for instance, to AIDS issues, local stations not only show PSAs (85 per cent), use local news stories on the issue (57 per cent), feature it on their own public affairs programs (27.7 per cent), and locally produce their own PSAs (17.7 per cent), they also participate in community outreach activities off-air (22.1 per cent). It should also be noted that 23.1 per cent of all such programming focuses on strictly local matters that often include fund-raising for charities.

Just as the NAB does, network and group owners often provide packages of PSAs on a given theme, the current favorites being drug abuse, drunken driving and AIDS. Some local stations might not have the facilities to produce acceptably slick spots or access to national celebrities who often donate their time to nationally distributed PSAs. But another important reason is to protect the local station from being deluged with requests for free time by plugging the holes with unimpeachably 'safe' spots for 'safe' causes. Saving the saved, of course, is the essence of integrative propaganda.

Local stations also often contribute time for fund-raising announcements from area charities. These activities are often called campaigns, but they are not usually tied to any organized station effort beyond themselves.

The focused orchestration of a variety of marketing tools toward a particular goal, and one that could gain underwriting from commercial sponsors, is one that naturally arises in a commercial system. But nothing happens without leadership. One of the chief American executives responsible for creating the commercial campaign is Lawrence Fraiberg, now President of MCA Broadcasting and formerly head of television for Group W, or Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, which today is the only syndicator (packager for other broadcasters) of public-service campaigns. In an interview he recounts how the idea developed while he was at Group W:

[When I was] at GW I felt we should consolidate all the dollars we were spending here and there into one focussed program so that we had more dollars to do better programming and do it more effectively; to promote those [public-service] programs, to do it over at least a year and finally to find some way to measure our impact. The worst thing you can do is dissipate time, energy, money, anything.
We try to pick a specific issue or problem peculiar to a given market and make our station the champion in that area. If we do something, I think we should own it, if you see what I mean. We started in Boston with YOU GOTTA HAVE ARTS right after Reagan came in and chopped the National Endowment for Arts, then the Mass. [Massachusetts] legislature also reduced subsidy to arts. Boston being a cultural hub had a strong identity with arts. We started by having the company make a contribution to the arts of 75 thousand dollars, as a basis for the campaign so that in the end we would have a foundation of sorts for continuing support for the arts. We owned it. Any other station who later wanted to get involved with the arts would be confused with [W] BZ [TV]!
My role was inspiration. The station people focused in on it and did a fabulous job. Then they started the Anti-Crime Team (ACT) and used the station to focus on community activities - using car decals. Lots of off-air meetings we handled and a lot of collateral [non-broadcast material such as posters, stationery, outlines for local strategies, etc.]. We owned them and continued to live with these projects and programs. The Police Chief said the crime rate went down about 8%. Well, if it only went down 2%, we were still doing a lot. These programs were devices for converting members of the station staff into evangelistic enthusiasts. Management at KDKA [in Pittsburgh] were quick to pick up on what was going on in Boston and they got the idea. It started from the chance event of a letter being read with a check on the news from someone who wanted to help create food for the poor. As a result, a flood of checks hit the station - this led to the creation of KD's Army,[the groups of volunteers who pitch in for station-supported programs] sending barges up and down the river collecting food; station folk worked joyfully seven days a week, lots of volunteers.
Earlier on we had a market research study which placed KDKA behind the competition, with a perception of a cold operation. KD's Army changed all that.

The most focused campaign to date and the one most directly tied to news is 'AIDS Lifeline'. AIDS is a topic that inhabits a vital place in the public sphere of both small communities and global politics. How has the 'mass media treatment' affected the way people think and act about AIDS?



Going Public with AIDS

On 26 August 1987 the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences granted KPIX-TV its 1986 Community Services Award, from a field of two hundred entrants and fifteen finalists. For the same year, 1986, KPIX also won the Peabody Award. Both occasions of professional kudos were in recognition of KPIX's extraordinary local campaign effort, 'AIDS Lifeline', which started with one spectacularly successful documentary in 1983. By 1986 it had blossomed into a massive campaign of ten Eyewitness News special segments, sixty-two PSAs using forty-five celebrities and a number of sixty- and thirty-minute specials. Eight months after the period judged, KPIX was still at it, having aired Heterosexuals and AIDS, a live studio call-in discussion, two weeks before the announcement of the award.

'AIDS Lifeline' is a true community campaign focussed narrowly on a special subject but reaching and holding the attention of the widest possible audience. It is a terrifying, unpleasant subject that in many of its particulars impinges on controversial political questions which raise tempers to a boil. Not the ideal selling environment. Yet KPIX began this campaign because it wished to be the San Francisco station and San Francisco has in relative terms the largest gay population in the country and without doubt, irrespective of size, the most organized and politically active gay population in the world, in terms of its impact on community awareness, civil services, electioneering, and municipal hiring practices. KPIX anticipated the AIDS 'story' as worthy of major coverage by at least a year in the broadcast news media.

Sceptical critics can point out that although AIDS is hardly upbeat, it wields a powerful fascination for a mass audience, mixing the perennial dramatic themes of sex, death, forbidden fruit and apocalyptic plague. It is thus a topic easily open to exploitation, like that of serial murder or pornography, on the one hand, and like that of miracle cancer cures and 'Florence Nightingale' tear-jerkers on the other. Both facets, the terror and the triumph, are proven box-office hits.

Whatever the courage required to begin coverage of AIDS, the orchestrating of a campaign, one might argue, can be totally explained in terms of sheer good business. That first one-hour special in 1983, Our Worst Fears: The AIDS Epidemic, turned out to be the highest-rated public affairs show in the history of KPIX, sparking the most hotline calls to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation since it began. After the program was repeated, more than one million people viewed it locally, an enormous number for public affairs in the fifth-ranked US broadcast market. This program was broadcast by all the Group W stations and was successfully syndicated from New York to Honolulu. Requests for videotapes came from as far as Australia and it was ultimately shown all over the world and domestically by over one hundred companies, schools, local governments and service associations.

From this beginning KPIX went into an all-out effort by 1985 called 'AIDS Lifeline': over a four-year period (up to the announcement of the Emmy) the station presented over 1,000 news reports, not only from California, but from their own crews filing stories from Australia, Brussels, Geneva, as well as domestically from coast to coast. The different celebrity PSAs were expanded to a roster of over sixty. All this time talk shows, call-ins, additional documentaries were produced as part of the campaign.

These on-air elements were complemented by an unusual number of off-air activities. Not just a flyer, but a hefty booklet about AIDS with lists of helping agencies was published in co-operation with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and went into over one-half million copies in several languages. A further co-operative effort with the Foundation and a new twist on off-air collateral was the production of an educational videotape about AIDS made available at local video rental stores (the Captain Video chain).

Off the air, KPIX was a senior partner or instigator of many local events, from huge walkathons to school 'safe sex' programs. KPIX made sure that its own employment practices did not discriminate against AIDS patients in terms of workplace, insurance, or workmates.

By 1985 WBZ-TV in Boston hooked into this campaign and began doing its own version of the blanket coverage and community outreach that it had applied so well to other subjects. The national interest led KPIX to head a national co-op of ultimately over one hundred stations which shared AIDS-related news stories by satellite feed.

Authoritative testimony to the campaign's local effectiveness is offered by Ron De Luca, Development Director of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, who readily declares that KPIX is easily the single most important outreach tool that local AIDS helping agencies have. He points out that in San Francisco the annual care per AIDS patient costs $75,000 less than the national average. Although this cannot be attributed to one cause, he believes the greater community of San Francisco, which has responded magnificently to the special needs of the gay community, is the major factor - volunteers have replaced paid professionals. De Luca credits KPIX's outreach programs and awareness campaign as indispensable in raising volunteers of various kinds to help AIDS patients.

On 28 July 1988 the AIDS Foundation, Herth Realty Company, radio stations KGO and KPIX sponsored 'AIDS WALK San Francisco', which raised in the neighborhood of one million dollars for the following local agencies: AIDS Emergency Fund, AIDS Health Project, Asian AIDS Task Force, Black Coalition on AIDS, Instituto Familiar de la Raza-Latino AIDS Project, Mobilization Against AIDS, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, STOP AIDS Resource Center, Visiting Nurses and Hospice of San Francisco. The catalogue of sponsors and beneficiaries is a testimony to the broadness of KPIX's community base and the integrated local nature of the campaign.

As with all such events, KPIX featured the walk prominently on its news programs before the event and with follow-up, and of course covered it live with the same style of celebrity and people-on-the-street interviews, with cutaways to prepared 'up-close-and-personal' related features. The night before the walk, the station broadcast Talking With Teens, a half-hour guideline for parents on the subject of talking about AIDS, hosted by Jane Curtin, an actress starring in a popular CBS melodrama (KPIX is a CBS affiliate). (This particular program as aforementioned was also distributed as a rental videotape).

The style, attitude and level of discourse in this slick video is typical of this entire campaign, and of TV campaign 'texts' in general.

In this half-hour program, which is intended as a serious guideline for parents who wish to protect their children from AIDS, the word homosexual is not mentioned once. The word 'gay' is mentioned once, in a joking manner, by an actor portraying a straight male teenager: 'Gee, Dad, I'm not gay or anything.' To which the father replies, 'Fine, son, but the AIDS virus doesn't know that.'

The film begins with Curtin in an empty classroom, thinking about her days as a teenager, when her generation didn't have to worry about AIDS. We cut to a matronly Hispanic school counselor who sympathizes with Curtin about the difficulty parents have accepting that their child is a sexual being, who may well be in the intimate hands of some stranger (to the parents).

Curtin then voices over a series of billboarded simple statistics: that seven girls and eight boys of every ten are sexually active as teens, that one in ten teenage girls becomes pregnant, and that one out of seven of either sex get some sexually transmitted disease. There is also the figure of 200,000 intravenous drug users among all American teenagers, cited as a low estimate. No AIDS statistics are introduced at all. But after these general statistics there is a cut to Dr. Robert Scott, a black internist who practices internal medicine in Oakland and specializes in AIDS cases. He states flatly, on the heels of these statistics, that 'The potential for getting the disease [AIDS] in that population is going to be explosive.'

We then cut to a group of teenagers having a discussion in school about sexual activity in general with random references to AIDS. The discussion leader, Ms. Kim Cox, 'health educator', then says to Curtin and us, 'Sex is a natural way of living. Unfortunately, it is becoming a common way of dying.'

After this melange of statistics and random comments, about teen sex in general and pointed dire predictions and statements from authority figures about AIDS, Curtin states: 'Accurate information is the best defense.' There follows a short graphic depiction of virus invasion of the body's immune system cells with a voice-over stating that the AIDS virus is 'very hard to catch. It is a fragile' - and here the face behind the voice, that of Dr. Mervyn Silverman, Director of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, fills the screen - 'virus; it can be destroyed by soap and water. . . Study after study shows that you don't easily get AIDS.'

The good doctor is interrupted so that Curtin can voice-over large billboard statements to the effect that AIDS cannot be contracted from casual contact, which is defined as sharing a glass of water, hugging, handshakes, even kissing, if it is not deep open-mouth kissing. Dr. Scott reappears to indicate that one can care for a person with AIDS and even have skin contact with urine, feces, and vomit without being in danger, provided one is careful.

Curtin then asks the rhetorical question, how do you get it? Graphics return in the shape of male and female having genital-to-genital heterosexual intercourse while Curtin intones 'Any unprotected sexual contact, sharing of semen and vaginal fluids with someone who has AIDS, male or female.' There is a brief mention of sharing of needles. Dr. Silverman returns to point out that abstinence is a sure way to protect yourself, but short of that, a condom and a spermicide should be used during sex, 'from beginning to end.' He points out that one should not take drugs, but if one does, at least do not share a needle.

This part of the video constitutes the accurate information part. There follows the advisory examples of how to talk to your teenage child about the problem.

First we are shown the Stone family, a white professional middle-class couple who have lost their only son, Michael, to AIDS. Stills of Michael reveal a strikingly handsome young man. The parents say they knew he was sexually active, but wish they had talked more. The Stones are an attractive and brave couple, who are unusually articulate and frank about their experience. We cannot help but admire and feel for them.

From this we are exposed to three little dramas that illustrate situations in which parents may inject their values about sexual activity and the dangers of AIDS into conversations with their children.

The first situation takes place in a kitchen, an affluent middle-class kitchen similar to those used for commercials featuring kitchen products, in which a very young black girl (who talks like a 'valley girl') has a friendly and very quick chat with her substantial, earth-mother mom. With some embarrassment, the girl reels off rote instructions from school on how to have safe sex. The mom does not reveal any technical knowledge, but rather urges her daughter to be careful and wait for someone who has respect for her ('I am not telling you what to do, I am telling you how I feel').

The second situation takes place in a parked car where a divorced Dad is meeting his son. He urges the son to be careful because of AIDS and because he should have respect for the girls he goes with. This is the context for the remark about being gay and its seeming irrelevance to the AIDS question. The final scene is in the living-room, again white and middle-class, where a young teenage girl is about to go off 'with friends' until midnight. There is an embarrassed series of little jokes that show the unease of all three with the topic, but it frankly deals with the concern of the parents that their little girl not have sex with anyone nor take drugs nor drink and drive. In the course of the conversation, the threat of AIDS and the need for precautions are emphasized.

Although there is not one untruth in Talking With Teens, the film editing and comparative weight given to different facets of the topic by graphics, authority figures and the settings for parent-teenager interchange, are misleading.

Is the subject AIDS and how to guard against it or how to deal with your child's first steps into sexuality? The video never made up its mind.

Furthermore, two juxtapositions seem to be deliberately misleading. After giving prominence to the statistic that one in seven sexually active teenagers will contract a sexually transmitted disease, there is a cut to a doctor who claims (we do not know the context of the interview from which this snippet was taken) that there is a potential for an 'explosion' of AIDS in that population. When another authority figure is pointing out how difficult it is to get AIDS, the sound is fighting graphics of the AIDS virus vividly succeeding in infecting an immune system. Immediately after the correct information of how weak the virus is, the script jumps to the conclusion that it is casual contact (not the virus) that is 'weak', that is, hardly likely to spread the disease. This distortion is followed by a description of how one does get the disease, with graphics displaying normal heterosexual intercourse. The true parts add up to the false, and seriously false, impression that there is a serious risk of contracting AIDS from normal heterosexual intercourse.

As for the tone of the parent-teenager interchanges and the sad story of Michael Stone, the clear implication is that middle-class heterosexual non-drug users with caring affluent parents are at serious risk of AIDS. Although we can all use sex education and although drug abuse in the non-intravenous forms of crack, speed, and marijuana, unwanted teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases like herpes and clamydia (which are not laughing matters) are certainly not unknown among the affluent, mostly white middle classes, AIDS is rare in this group. It was rare two years ago, when the film was shown, and it remains rare today, two years into the epidemic 'explosion'. AIDS is on a rampage, however, among those who practice the risky behavior of anal and oral sex promiscuously and among intravenous drug abusers who share needles. This risky behavior is particularly prevalent among homosexuals, who are the overwhelming majority of victims of the disease, and drug abusers, who are beginning to catch up with the homosexuals (as are the children of women, mostly drug abusers, with AIDS.) Although both groups can come from all walks of life, intravenous drug abuse accompanied by sharing of needles is overwhelmingly a practice in racial and economic ghettoes; put another way, such self-destructive behavior is most often the consequence of poverty and racial discrimination. Any kind of unprotected sex with someone who has AIDS does put one at risk, but the question is among what populations does one have a significant risk of meeting someone who has AIDS. With this in mind, it would seem the choice of Jane Curtin and the atmosphere of the safe suburban school is aiming at the wrong target.

Furthermore, if the threat were as serious as one is led by innuendo to believe, the facile and fleeting encounters in kitchen, car and living-room that are shown as models would hardly suffice, nor would a string of such superficial verbal joustings between embarrassed teenagers and unconfident, unknowledgeable and tentative parents. Given the real statistics, parents should want to know if their children are homosexual and/or intravenous drug users, which would put them at serious risk. Yet these questions are not addressed at all.

This video does not reach those at risk but does reach those who can misread the message as not for them (about AIDS) so they can ignore the rest (about parent-child communication and sexual responsibility in general).

Like any aid to family communication and any video that deals frankly with sex, especially in a general population scared out of its wits by stories about AIDS, Talking with Teens was enormously popular.

Metropolitan Life has underwritten 'AIDS Lifeline' for Group W to the tune of one million dollars. As a result, John Creedon, CEO of Metropolitan Life, presents the Group specials through a brief tape made in his office, in which he declares how important Met Life feels proper information and public education about AIDS is. In this context he then states: 'We believe the AIDS epidemic may be the most serious health issue facing our nation and the world in this century.' Not malnutrition, not toxic and radioactive pollution, not even smoking and alcoholism, all of which either actually do or seriously threaten to, kill far more humans? No one can make light of the seriousness of a fatal and loathsome disease for those who have it and those likely to get it. A large variety of cancers are such diseases. But hyperbole and fear are not helpful. To paraphrase Jane Curtin, accurate information is the best defense.

AIDS is a complex disease involved with all the psychological twists and turns we associate with sex and with sexual deviance. Its major victims are a controversial group who have a huge political stake in distancing themselves from a disease which might be labeled 'the gay disease', and thus add to the motives for discrimination they already suffer. The heart-breaking slow course of the disease and its pandora box of secondary infections and other diseases makes AIDS a treatment nightmare which severely taxes health resources at every level, a factor that attracts significant interest from hospitals, insurance companies and caring agencies in any campaign effort that might alleviate a strain on their resources.

It pays to be aware that AIDS is among the top three topics for all national public-service announcements on television, in or out of Group W's 'AIDS Lifeline', a further testimony to its mainstream relevance, if not to its marketability. But precisely because of this relevance, as Edward Brecher and John Langone have pointed out conclusively, the mainstream media have seriously misreported the AIDS problem, as they did with radon and as they often do with science and health stories.



Mobilizing Markets

At this point, the research community and evaluators of campaigns in general are still stuck with the effectiveness model that dominated all communications research until recently. Concrete measurable effects, on the model of billiard-ball causality - how many boxes of cereal? how many people recognize a name? - was seen as the 'real' measure of what media do. In the same vein, the number of volunteers or checks or generous partners resulting from a campaign are seen as the 'real' significance of a campaign. From a management point of view, this can hardly change because the bottom line is the last ball on the billiard table (to mix metaphors). From a research point of view, however, the contemporary television public-service/community campaign raises questions of politics and culture and thus fundamental questions of values.

Local campaigns adapt causes to the mass culture milieu of mainstream television programming. Syndicated public-service/community campaigns, since they are reaching for a much wider market, adapt causes more radically and thus must deal very carefully with problems of adaptation. If areas like AIDS that require some scientific understanding can cause trouble, it is even more true in the realms of politics and religion.

Television campaigns are above all messages of their medium, and they have more in common, in form, with commercials and sports coverage than with church meetings or lecture halls, to say nothing of inspiring texts read in solitude. Different as they are, televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have far more in common with entertainers like Johnny Carson and Phil Donahue than they do with Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa.

Broadcasting in effect is the American Ministry of Culture. Whatever the form, radio and particularly television programming are the premier vehicles for American mass culture. Increasingly, this mass culture is not just a matrix for sports and entertainment; it has become the arena for much of politics and religion. Whereas there are legitimate concerns for people becoming passive couch potatoes who no longer go to church or vote, there can also be concern for people who all too eagerly follow calls to action and advice on how to care for their health from those who may not be qualified to lead or advise.



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