When It Comes to HIV, TV Can Be Good for Your Health

Kate Langrall Folb
Kate Langrall Folb

On December 6, TheBody.com joins forces with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and Hollywood, Health and Society (HH&S) to sponsor Powering the PrEPosition: (How to Get Away With) Murder, Media, Insight & Impact. Held as a satellite session of the National HIV Prevention Conference, participants will dive into the intersection of public discourse on HIV and PrEP in entertainment, the mainstream media and digital publishing.

For many years, Kate Langrall Folb, director of HH&S at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, has been central in efforts to bring accurate and influential HIV stories to mainstream television. As Powering the PrEPosition approached, we invited her to share her experiences, including recent work with the ABC hit show How to Get Away with Murder_._

In the 1990s, I worked for an organization educating TV writers on the realities of HIV/AIDS and encouraging them to help dispel inaccuracy and provide prevention information through their shows at a time when misinformation and overt bias against people with HIV was commonplace. Eventually, through our efforts and those of many other groups, the entertainment industry -- having lost too many of its own to the disease -- began to embrace the cause. And the storylines started coming.

Early HIV-positive characters were featured on St. Elsewhere, Designing Women, Life Goes On, ER and other TV shows, and they were portrayed as people with lives beyond the disease. In 2001, a groundbreaking storyline on the daytime drama The Bold and the Beautiful caused a significant spike in calls to the National AIDS Hotline.

Later, condoms and safe sex appeared in primetime shows such as Everybody Loves Raymond and Seinfeld. Slowly, attitudes and behaviors changed.

For 14 years, Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S) has provided information and access to experts on HIV/AIDS to dozens of television shows and movies, as well as online streaming shows and webisodes. Shows that have recently featured HIV-related storylines include Private Practice, Law & Order: SVU, Army Wives, Grey's Anatomy and The Fosters.

Last season, the ABC hit How to Get Away With Murder contacted us for support on a storyline they planned about a couple (Connor and Oliver) getting tested for HIV and later learning that one partner is positive and one is negative. We facilitated a dialogue between the show and experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to advise the writers on the testing scene, and also worked with the show and network to coordinate tweets and Facebook posts in real time during the broadcast.

According to Nielsen research, each broadcast of How to Get Away With Murder reaches about 13 million viewers in the U.S. Anecdotal data tell us that the HIV testing episode -- the season finale last year -- inspired viewers to seek testing for themselves. One follower tweeted a text from a friend:

Last night's How to Get Away With Murder featured a story [of] a gay couple getting tested together. ... Made me realize I'm probably due, so I went this morning (negative!), but the nurse said I was the fifth guy to mention it and they'd only been open for an hour! Idk if it's sad that it took a show to get people there or if it's cool that it was incorporated so well to influence men to go.

I vote that it's cool.

This season of How to Get Away With Murder kicked off with Connor pledging his devotion to Oliver despite Oliver's positive status. Connor begins taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) -- details on the protocol are shared in subsequent episodes. Again, HH&S worked with the writers to ensure the episodes were accurate, and again anecdotal evidence suggests that people have taken note.

Today, in 2015, I drive past billboards on my way to work displaying colorful inflated condoms reminding us of their efficacy for disease prevention. Due to new advances in treatment, many with HIV are leading longer, healthier lives, which has helped to reduce stigma.

But we all know that HIV is still out there. According to the CDC, about 1.2 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV and there are over 50,000 new infections each year. There's still work to be done. Television, along with its online iterations and social media partners, can continue to provide healthy examples and lifesaving information.