New York Times Examines Use of Message Placement On TV Programs
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is "set to expand its involvement" with the entertainment industry and "spend more money on influencing popular culture" through a new deal with Viacom, the parent company to television networks that include MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon and BET, the New York Times reports. The foundation -- already "well known for its myriad projects around the world to promote health and education" -- is "less well known as a behind-the-scenes influencer of public attitudes toward" global health and education issues "by helping to shape story lines and insert messages into popular entertainment," the Times reports. For example, the Times reports that the foundation's messages on HIV prevention, the spread of infectious diseases and surgical safety have "found their way" into TV shows like "Law & Order: SVU," "Private Practice" and "ER."
The Times reports that "efforts of philanthropies to influence entertainment programming is not new, although viewers are probably less aware of it than obvious marketing tie-ins." The Kaiser Family Foundation has been "doing this for a long time," Tina Hoff, vice president and director for entertainment media partnership at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said. Hoff said it is "only more recently that we've begun to see more foundations and nonprofits work with this approach." According to the Times, the Kaiser Family Foundation has worked story lines about HIV/AIDS into programs at CBS and UPN, now known as the CWnetwork. Hoff said the main reason behind these efforts is to fight inaccurate information regarding health issues that sometimes appear in popular culture. Hoff said it is "not about planting a message. We start from the vantage point of ensuring accuracy."
Officials who have used message placement methods in the past say they have been effective in influencing public views and behavior. Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication, said there is "a lot of research that shows that when a character in a series says, 'I'm going to be an organ donor,' it's effective, more effective than giving out a pamphlet." For example, a 2008 meeting between an HIV/AIDS expert and writers from "Law & Order: SVU" resulted in an episode that centered on mother-to-child HIV transmission. Kaplan said, "Our view is you don't have to sacrifice entertainment value to be accurate."
James Steyer -- CEO of Common Sense Media -- said that philanthropic foundations typically try to mold TV programs through advice and prodding, rather than financial support. "The difference here is the Gates Foundation is paying for this, that they are actually willing to pay for programming," Steyer said. The Norman Lear Center, for example, was awarded a $1.37 million grant from the Gates Foundation in 2008 (Arango/Stelter, New York Times, 4/2).