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Television Programming


Television programming refers to a wide range of non-news, entertainment-oriented productions provided by the broadcast networks and by cable providers, including talk shows, entertainment programs, prime-time serials, soap operas, and programs directed toward young people. Much, although not all, of television programming is driven by market forces in the United States, with financial rewards as the principal goal. Given the amount of time many Americans and others in the developed world spend watching such programming, television is generally considered to be one of the most powerful media for the communication of cultural norms. AIDS issues have appeared across the entire spectrum of the medium, with portrayals varying according to the type of program and resulting in representations that differ in accuracy, sensitivity, and integrity.

Critics often cite television's reluctance to deal accurately with taboo issues in AIDS stories and its reliance on familiar dramatic formulas for the stories that are portrayed. Aspects of gay sexuality and life are only rarely represented and, when presented, are tightly circumscribed. For example, gay partners are often marginal figures who are allowed little or no affectional or emotional range. Similarly, issues such as social stigmatization are typically over-moralized and safely resolved by program's end. The complexity and variety of thought, feeling, and experience are routinely reduced to oppositional images such as those of victim and victimizer. In short, the range of experience and depth of pain and loss associated with AIDS finds limited expression in television programming.

Most of the major daytime talk shows have produced segments that take a distinctly "human interest" approach to AIDS. During the June 21, 1995, Day of Compassion, for instance, Geraldo, Jenny Jones, Marilu, Rolonda, Montel Williams, Richard Bey, and Mike and Maty joined the leaders of the genre, Oprah, Sally Jesse Raphael, and Donahue, with programs dedicated to AIDS. Driven by their need to be provocative, talk shows typically traffic in tension created by guests chosen for their opposing viewpoints and antagonistic attitudes. In these settings, emotions routinely overwhelm information, creating shows that are noted more for their cathartic effect than their insight. For example, a rather sensationalized installment of Charles Perez (May 23, 1995) featured a 21-year-old college student who received his HIV blood test results on the air.

Reflecting the interest in AIDS causes among some musical celebrities, AIDS entertainment programs began appearing in the latter half of the 1980s. In 1987, the A&E channel aired the first of several benefit concerts entitled Reno's Cabaret Reunion. In 1988, the Showtime cable channel taped That's What Friends Are For, a Kennedy Center AIDS benefit. The first of the Red Hot series appeared in 1990 on ABC. In April 1992, Fox and MTV broadcast the Concert for AIDS Awareness from Wembley Stadium in London, and in July of the same year, ABC premiered the first of three annual information and entertainment specials entitled In A New Light. VH1 joined the lineup with Lifebeat in August 1995. Although most of these programs included brief expository segments that were well crafted, and although celebrity interest created positive role-modeling and aided in raising funds, these programs were constrained from doing little more than increasing the level of awareness.

Much AIDS-related television programming has been directed at young people. A January 26, 1988, CBS afternoon special, An Enemy Among Us, told the story of a teenager and his family's ostracization after word spread that he was infected with HIV from a blood transfusion. CBS's 1991 entry, Dedicated to the One I Love, tackled teenage drug abuse and AIDS. PBS's 3-2-1 Contact, a science-for-kids series, opened its 1988 season with "I Have AIDS: A Teenager's Story," a report about Indiana teenager Ryan White, who contracted HIV as part of transfusion treatments for his hemophilia, told through direct interviews and sequences from his daily life.

Cable channels have also made contributions. The USA network aired Youthquake: AIDS Special (August 18, 1990), a half-hour of Saturday morning programming that featured a 19-year-old, heterosexually active youth dying of AIDS. In 1992, Nickelodeon presented a frank discussion about AIDS in A Conversation with Magic [Johnson] (March 25).

MTV led the way in bringing AIDS messages to young people. Its Sex in the '90s series (1992-1994) dealt with changes in attitudes and practices among young people precipitated by AIDS. Its 1994 half-hour special, Smart Sex, was a serious and frank program designed to break through the "it can't happen to me" attitude of young people. In 1995, The Goods Presents: Think Positive took AIDS programming a step further by focusing on the courage and dedication of young people with HIV/AIDS.

MTV's most compelling entry came in its third season of The Real World (1994), a "reality-based soap opera," featuring Pedro Zamora, a Cuban-born 22-year-old whose charm and candor about being gay and having AIDS clearly affected his housemates and viewing audience. Zamora's death shortly after the series was aired brought the reality of AIDS to millions of people who came to know him through the program's frank installments.

Television's evening entertainment has provided consistent inclusion, if uneven portrayals, of AIDS in its prime-time serial lineup with over 50 programs and close to 100 individual episodes. Television's dramatic programming vacillates between AIDS narratives that privilege heterosexuality and promote notions of "innocent victimhood" and those that reinforce images of prurience, fatality, and criminality. Industry reticence in dealing with taboo issues appears to have constrained television's dramatic reach and narrative integrity.

The first serial program to include an AIDS plotline was St. Elsewhere (NBC), with an episode broadcast on December 21, 1983, and entitled "AIDS and Comfort." Several noteworthy episodes followed, beginning with one on January 29, 1986, entitled "Family Feud," where a heterosexually active hospital physician learned he had HIV during a routine preoperative blood test. In a later episode, "Family Affair" (February 6, 1986), he abandoned treatment and moved to California to live out his apparently numbered days, reflecting the popular presumption of the swift fatality of AIDS. Another early medical drama, Trapper John, M.D. (CBS), presented an episode, "Friends and Lovers" (November 3, 1985), that was curious for its treatment of HIV seropositivity as cause for celebration because the condition was not full-blown AIDS. Ten years later, NBC's ER included AIDS in eight of its 25 first-season (1994-1995) episodes. These episodes contrasted with early AIDS portrayals on medical dramas by the routinized, fact-of-life treatment AIDS received.

The earliest crime drama to deal with AIDS was Hill Street Blues (NBC) with an episode entitled "Slum Enchanted Evening" (March 27, 1986). A widely noted episode of Midnight Caller, "After It Happened" (NBC, December 13, 1988), sent the show's retired-detective-turned-radio-talk-show-host searching for a man on an HIV-infection spree. A leaked script caused San Francisco AIDS activists to interrupt production and gain script alterations of the episode's portrayal of an AIDS-infected person as a sociopathic murderer. A subsequent episode, "Someone to Love" (November 14, 1989), was noteworthy for its consultation with AIDS organizations while drafting the script. A 1990 episode of Law and Order (NBC), "The Reaper's Helper" (October 4), included a problematic portrayal of a gay man who unrepentantly committed euthanasia for friends dying of AIDS.

In the legal genre, LA Law (NBC) contributed several AIDS episodes after 1986, most involving fear and blatant prejudice. An exception was a March 15, 1990, episode, "Blood, Sweat, and Fears," which raised issues about the comparative worth of a relatively late-stage AIDS patient and that of a doctor who risks infection by performing surgery on the patient. Another episode, "Since I Fell for You" (May 16, 1991), took on a medical insurance company's refusal to pay for "experimental" drug treatments.

Several drama series have weighed-in with AIDS stories. The best was the family drama Life Goes On (ABC), which devoted much of its final season (1992-1993) to the story of a high school senior's romantic relationship with a classmate who became infected from a prostitute. The series' extended treatment developed numerous issues with sensitivity and accuracy. Two episodes of the 1992-1993 season of Sisters (NBC) and thirtysomething's "Closing the Circle" (ABC, April 16, 1991, cowritten by Paul Monette) explored issues of privacy and supportive friendship with AIDS-infected people.

Situation comedies have also taken on AIDS issues, the first being Showtime's cable comedy Brothers (October 23, 1985). Designing Women (CBS) took on homophobia and safer-sex education in "Killing All the Right People" (October 5, 1987), an episode about a gay man who asked the women to design his funeral. A 1990 episode of Golden Girls (NBC), "72 Hours" (February 17), presented the agony of waiting for HIV test results. The December 1, 1990, final episode of Hogan Family had AIDS interrupting the free-spirited adolescence of one of the show's lead characters. "If I Should Die Before I Wake," the April 11, 1991, episode of Different World (NBC), took a frank look at sex and AIDS.

Prime-time serials directed toward young people have also made entries. FOX's 21 Jump Street took on both AIDS-phobia and homophobia in "Big Disease with a Little Name" (May 14, 1989), an episode about a high school student with AIDS who claimed he was a hemophiliac to hide his gay identity. Other AIDS entries included Beverly Hills 90210 (FOX) in "Isn't It Romantic" (January 3, 1991) and several episodes of PBS's DeGrassi Jr. High/DeGrassi High.

Since the late 1980s, daytime serials have presented AIDS plotlines within their ongoing stories. In 1988, CBS's The Young and the Restless, ABC's All My Children, and NBC's Another World added AIDS story lines. All three programs have presented women as the exclusive embodiment of AIDS, and each portrayal has reinforced conservative mores. More positively, One Life to Live presented a show in 1992 about homophobia that used 248 panels of the NAMES Project Foundation's AIDS Memorial Quilt as part of its set; and in 1994, General Hospital became the first soap to employ an openly HIV-positive actor to play the role of an HIV-positive character.

The history of AIDS coverage indicates that television representations frequently fall into two extremes. AIDS portrayals either emphasize the sensationalistic aspects of the disease that elicit fear and anger, or they favor palatable scenarios that evoke pity and regret. The resulting picture of AIDS presents two often antagonistic classes of citizens: the "guilty" -- gay men and injecting drug users -- and the "innocent" -- white women and children. Although exceptions exist, they remain too few to counter the composite and distorted message communicated by "the most mass of the mass media."

Related Entries

Artists and Entertainers; Arts Community; Dance and Performance Art; Film; Literature; Journalism, Print; Journalism, Television; Media Activism; Music; Pornography; Radio; Sports and Sports Figures; Symbols; Theater; Visual Arts; World AIDS Day; Writers

Key Words

broadcast, documentaries, networks, prime-time series, soap operas, talk shows, television, TV

Further Reading

Baker, R., The Art of AIDS, New York: Continuum, 1994.

Hartinger, B., "TV Takes the AIDS Test," Emmy 15:5 (October 1993), pp. 36-43.

Landers, T., "Bodies and Anti-Bodies: A Crisis in Representations," The Independent 11 (January/February 1988), pp, 18-24.

Rist, D. Y., "Fear and Loving and AIDS," Film Comment 22:2 (March/April 1986), pp. 44-50.

Treichler, Paula A., "Seduced and Terrorized: AIDS and Network Television," in A Leap in the Dark, edited by Allan Klusacek and Ken Morrison, Montreal, Quebec: Vehicule, 1992.

The Encyclopedia of AIDS: A Social, Political, Cultural, and Scientific Record of the HIV Epidemic, Raymond A. Smith, Editor. Copyright © 1998, Raymond A. Smith. Carried by permission of Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.

Encyclopedia of AIDS $25 US/832 pp/Illustrated

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It is a part of the publication The Encyclopedia of AIDS.
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