As this hellish year comes to a close here in Los Angeles, everyone in Hollywood is scrambling to get as much production done before the break. It’s especially brutal because the pandemic shut down and delayed films, TV shows and their press junkets at a time when the appetite for content is at a historic high.

Among the many actors, writers, directors and crew, one name stands out on every call sheet. COVID-19 is the A-list star of every production – a demanding diva who can stop or start shooting at a moment’s notice.

Hollywood is exhausted, stressed and ready for the holiday break. But according to the country’s top experts, COVID-19’s role looks to be a monster in the real-life horror show of the weeks ahead.

Luckily, vaccines have been approved, and rollouts have begun. A recent Gallup poll found that 63% of Americans are willing to get the vaccine. But that still leaves 37% who are not. That includes anti-vaxxers, and Black and Native American communities who have (with good reason) a historical mistrust of vaccines. This is an alarming concern for everyone: even if all 63% get the two-dose vaccine, it’s still not enough to achieve “herd immunity,” even in a best-case scenario.

Recently, a chorus of opinion pieces have questioned how best to encourage people to get the vaccine, putting pressure on Hollywood to step up. That would build on the efforts of a few shows like Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Doctor and This Is Us that addressed COVID-19 in a range of ways. But today, when TV is one of the first responders in culture for representation of BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, women and across a spectrum of ability and neurodiversity, why not represent the vaccine?

If the TV industry wants to get back to work in January, perhaps the best way forward is to look to the past. Will & Grace is widely credited with normalizing gay men and paving the way for acceptance of gay marriage, as did Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning performance in Philadelphia for HIV/AIDS. And perhaps the best blueprint is the industry-wide “Designated Driver” campaign launched in 1988 by late NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff.

That year, 27,253 people were killed in drunk-driving accidents. Tartikoff, the youngest person ever to head NBC’s entertainment division and one of its most successful to this day, partnered with Jay Winsted of Harvard, who had been researching similar efforts in Scandinavia and Canada. Working with TV writers to incorporate “designated driver” storylines into top NBC shows such as Cheers, The Cosby Show and L.A. Law, they spawned an unprecedented industry effort that grew to more than 160 prime-time shows on all three networks over four years, incorporating sub-plots, scenes, dialogue about drunk driving and designated drivers.

By 1994, fatalities had declined by 30%. Boosted by PSAs and support from government and national organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, the power of modeling safe behavior through popular content is still widely credited with normalizing the “designated driver” idea in culture.

Neal Baer, the showrunner of Designated Survivor on Netflix, knows from personal experience. “When I was writing and producing ER, I drew on Jay Winsted’s work on presenting accurate health information – and we were stunned by the impact. And now, more than ever, TV shows must draw on science to tell emotionally riveting stories about COVID-19, just as ‘Designated Driver’ did thirty years ago.”

In 2020, the appetite for content during the pandemic is voracious and fevered – people are even watching CHESS! COVID-19 may be the biggest public health crisis of a lifetime, but it’s also the biggest boon to Hollywood and beyond as people stay home. Isn’t this an opportunity to do what entertainment does best — unify people, educate them and provide positive role models?

To harness the power of content, I’ve formed a coalition with academic experts at the University of Michigan and Yale Schools of Public Health, along with USC Annenberg, to enhance the impact of messaging for vaccines, masks and other protective behaviors. Our “Be A Protector” initiative helps brands on all platforms develop COVID-19 safety storylines, promos and PSAs to encourage protecting the most vulnerable. We’ve got the research and guidance to put the most creative people in America on the front lines of this urgent battle.

TV has stepped up before. We can come to the rescue again.

Linda Ong is CEO and founder of Cultique, a cultural insights and strategy advisory to the entertainment industry.

[Image of Linda Ong courtesy of Andrew Yoo]

Tags: covid-19 cultique guest column linda ong

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