Hollywood targeted to give Affordable Care Act a boost with TV story lines about the new law
LOS ANGELES — The health care overhaul might get a Hollywood rewrite.
The California Endowment, a private foundation that is spending millions to promote President Barack Obama's signature law, recently provided a $500,000 grant to ensure TV writers and producers have information about the Affordable Care Act that can be stitched into plot lines watched by millions.
The aim is to produce compelling prime-time narratives that encourage Americans to enroll, especially the young and healthy, Hispanics and other key demographic groups needed to make the overhaul a success.
"We know from research that when people watch entertainment television, even if they know it's fiction, they tend to believe that the factual stuff is actually factual," said Martin Kaplan of the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center, which received the grant.
The public typically gets as much, if not more, information about current events from favorite TV programs as mainstream news outlets, Kaplan said, so "people learn from these shows."
California Republican strategist Jonathan Wilcox, who has taught a course on politics and celebrity at USC, said the attempt to engage Hollywood was coming too late to influence views, and he doubted fictionalized TV would play into families' decisions about health care.
"This is an attempt to use entertainment pop culture to fix a political challenge," he said. "It will be received as a partisan political message, no matter how cleverly it's delivered."
Hollywood is known for supporting Democratic candidates and causes — Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler are among a long list of celebrities who have made a pitch for the law — but there is no guarantee the entertainment industry will be in lockstep with the White House on health care.
Just last week, a "South Park" episode was largely devoted to mocking a malfunctioning website billed as a "simple, integrated portal" for health services. When it's being demonstrated for students, a laptop instead starts playing Lionel Richie's "All Night Long (All Night)."
About 16 percent of Americans are uninsured and surveys have shown many still know little or nothing about the health care law even though sign-ups for insurance have started. The challenge for the law's supporters is to connect with the millions of Americans who for whatever reason haven't paid attention.
The 18-month grant, to the Lear Center's Hollywood Health & Society program, will be used for briefings with staff from television shows and to track health overhaul-related depictions on prime-time and Spanish-language television.
Since the grant money was provided so recently, no plot lines involving health care have been written. And Kaplan isn't targeting specific shows.
For those who could benefit from coverage, "we want them to get the facts. We don't believe the government alone can break through with those facts," said Daniel Zingale, a California Endowment senior vice president.
The grant announcement comes after the stumbling launch of the federal website where Americans shop for the health insurance they are required to have next year. The White House also has been forced to backtrack on vows that no one would lose their existing coverage and that anyone happy with their current insurance and doctor could keep them.
Arthur Caplan, head of the division of medical ethics at New York University's Langone Medical Center, said to have credibility, Hollywood must present the health care plan warts and all.
"If there are drawbacks and glitches and discontent, that should be part of the presentations," said Caplan, who supports the law.
"It should not be a place to propagandize; it should be a place to have honest open discussion, wrinkles and all, flaws and all, on health reform," he said. Critics of the law will be closely watching to see if "Hollywood might be airbrushing the president's core program, because they are close to the Democrats."
Hollywood can be a forceful shaper of style and public sentiment.
A survey conducted several years ago for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found that among those who said their feelings toward gays and lesbians had become more favorable, many said a contributing factor was seeing more gay and lesbian characters on TV and in movies.
Vice President Joe Biden has credited the 1998-2006 TV sitcom "Will & Grace," which featured a gay character, with doing "more to educate the public than almost anything anybody's done so far."
But Hollywood sparkle doesn't always get results. The Obama administration is facing questions about whether the U.S. is improperly — or even illegally — snooping on people at home and abroad. A recent video warning of the dangers of domestic spying and calling for an end to mass National Security Agency surveillance featured actor John Cusack, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal and director Oliver Stone. The video's impact is hard to measure, but questions linger about the surveillance practices.
Zingale and Kaplan both stressed that the writers and producers remain solely in control of the content they create, with no strings from the endowment or the USC center, which select the health care experts and academics who will provide advice to them.
Overall, the Los Angeles-based foundation expects to spend $130 million for advertisements and other enrollment efforts aimed largely at Hispanics. The foundation's president, Robert K. Ross, is a member of the board of Covered California, the state-run insurance exchange set up under the new law.
The center provides similar information for Hollywood writers on cancer, AIDS, climate change and other issues.
"Public health is a common good. Public health is not a partisan issue," Kaplan said. "America needs to be healthy. People need to have access to health care. That's not a controversial statement."
Wilcox doesn't believe Hollywood can make the health care law successful.
"The Bush White House wouldn't have asked 'Law and Order' to do a show defending the Patriot Act, because it wouldn't work," he said. "In my business, there is way too much reliance and investment in the power of creative communication. Because there is something more powerful than that, and that's people's personal experiences."