Kids’ Prime Time TV Health Cues Ingested, For Better or for Worse

Dec. 28, 2016 Adding this MediaShift article on using comedy to impart serious science/data/facts as well.

With an incoming administration that has no ‘use’ for reality or facts, it’s imperative that media literacy advocates serve strong doses of health, science and eco-literacy into the media stream to combat propaganda and political ‘RealityTV’ trash, aka “fake news.”   

May 24, 2016 Update: Great lens on critical thinking and integrating realism into plotlines in Hollywood; in this case consultants weigh in on the portrayal of alcoholism and recovery.

From a writer’s perspective, it’s interesting to see “what sells” in terms of getting the messages across in a script without heavy-handedness or preach-n-teach dialogue that can come across as stilted. So important to use the tools of comedy and drama to enlighten and inform so that people ‘tune in vs tune out’ when it comes to relatable outreach. Sharp piece!

Update August 1, 2014 New research on using video games to educate young people about HIV. (more here via Gamasutra from the AIDS 2014 conference on how games and learning go hand in hand, using iPad)

Update: April 9, 2013 Excellent REAL teen mom panel and ‘day in the life of’ style documentary media in the breakout session of (youth+tech+health) conference all who had a few choice words for Hollywood and their dramatic/over the top depictions of dramarama at fevered pitch via Reality TV.

The ongoing “teen mom” portrayals on television were considered stigmatizing and damaging by the real life moms, who deemed them reckless at best, and a missed opportunity to show the candid struggles and hardship of youth as parents. Working on a post now to update about the panel; meanwhile, another related read: Influencers, Accountability and the Global Cost to Youth

Related Post 2012  Glee Teen Sex: Facts & Opportunities: CDC vs Hollywood TV

Sept. 2008 Today, the Kaiser Family Foundation should snap open the eyeballs of all media producers at the Hollywood Health Briefing taking place in Washington D.C. to hammer home the need for accountability and responsibility in media messages being put out there.

KFF has presented quantifiable evidence that TV shows are education vehicles for health care messages, which influence far beyond plotlines. (36pp case study pdf) KFF conducted a unique experiment placing health content in a Grey’s Anatomy episode which quadrupled awareness and absorption of a key health message from the show, to the tune of over eight million people.

hollywood health & society“This study shows the enormous potential for entertainment television to serve as a health educator,” KFF’s Vicky Rideout said. Indeed. My dear changeblogger pal Andre Blackman of Pulse and Signal is on site in Washington D.C. today covering the Hollywood Health conference and will be posting his impressions, photos, and reactions soon. KFF’s work DOES bode well for those of us working to embed positive, healthy media messages into the mix, but it SHOULD ALSO give us the ammo we need to advocate for accountability on a network level to ‘get it right’ when it comes to health content, accuracy, and industry responsibility overall!

Case in point? “ABC Family’s” vapid entry into the pop cultural zeitgeist, “The Secret Life of an American Teenager” which has middle-school girls’ tongues wagging during lunch break with gossipy plot twists of casual sex and teen pregnancy…

It COULD have been used to impart health information to “tell it like it is,” or encourage dialogue and use of the S.L.A.T. discussion guide, but instead they took the easy ratings ‘bump’ to capitalize on the teen scene appeal of the trash for cash genre.

S.L.A.T. quickly devolved into similar sounding moniker that I won’t repeat here…enjoying ‘top-rated’ status along with equally cheesy drek like Gossip Girls and ‘the new 90210.’ (teen oral sex in the opening episode? ugh. At least KFC hand-slapped their agency; others need to ‘pull out’ in time to make a dollar-driven brand erosion statement)

CW is known for this genre, but Disney’s ABC Family fare (ahem, NOT!)continues to leave parents shaking heads about why they choose to provide such a skewed, false, surreal perception of what ‘teen life’ is like…much less what teen pregnancy is like.

And industry colleagues? Please spare me the “we’ve incorporated a ‘consequence’ message”—as it only proves you’ve missed the point altogether…

Peer studies on teen sex have shown kids perceive these behaviors as normative even when stats show they’re not, creating a whacked out form of “follow the leader”, when the leader is the “media super peer”, the big ol’ screen TV.

Instead, teens might want to hear what TEENS have to say, on informative sites like Sex, Etc. or Advocates for Youth or ISIS instead of the ludicrous prime time ‘sex ed’ kids are being served as sensationalized slop to garner Nielsen ratings.

Many tween viewers passively slide into the drama in ‘wannabe’ mode, as if they’re being left out of a peer party that doesn’t even exist, being far removed from their own real life.

…Then what d’ya know, the lines get fuzzy, behaviors begin to mirror, and kids are living in a role play reality show that’s media induced, vs. prevention based.

Own it people. There’s clearly a Hollywood connection to kids’ health and well-being at stake here. Oh, and yeah, yeah, I know…’where are the parents,’ yadayada…

I’m not saying media is the only behavioral ‘causal link,’ I’m suggesting the ubiquitous messages to leverage the ‘sex sells’ marketing strategy is dialing down the demographic ever-younger and pervasively. Media is complicit in the exploitation of kids for profiteering.

In this TV By The Numbers article, kids’ health takes a back seat to mid-season finale stats, as the churn-n-burn continues to lob quantifiable harm upon kids, as evidenced in the APA studies of hyper sexualization, appearance-based eating disorders and depression, and even binge-drinking party-hearty hazing rituals as this L.A. Times article describes ABC Family’s Greek, which I already covered on Shaping Youth in this piece, “Do you think ‘Greek’ is ABC Family Fare? Come on, folks.

KFF has proved there’s an OPPORTUNITY to do GOOD things with health education here!

And in a separate study released today via USC Annenberg/KFF (28pp pdf here) PhD Sheila Murphy, the author of the report, brings up another point that’s germaine:

“Whether health information is placed in these shows deliberately or just occurs as part of the creative process, the fact is that viewers are being exposed to a lot of health information on prime time television,” said Sheila Murphy, associate professor of communication at USC, and lead author of the report, titled How Healthy is Prime Time? An Analysis of Health Content in Popular Prime Time Television Programs.

“Health-related content appears in comedies and dramas, hospital shows and shows that have nothing to do with the medical profession.”

Exactly! So let’s raise awareness about embedding and encouraging practices that are damaging to health from the get go.

As it is, we’re focusing on virtual worlds to test ‘virtual nutrition’ and see if we can alter some damage done, as Digital highlights in depth, showing how interactive junk food ads have mined kids’ mindshare for profit.

And as soon as we get some decent funding that matches our mission, we’ll be able to offer the open source digital downloads in ‘short sheet’ form for our hands-on m-power media literacy games too.

I’m thrilled to hear of this potent work using Grey’s Anatomy from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Shaping Youth shares a similar hope of using media as a distribution channel for positive digital content, so this is exciting as a persuasive platform for health education!

Read more about both specific studies on, and their MANY reports on entertainment media indexed here. Meanwhile, for the time impaired, here’s the KFF work at a glance:
Study title: Television as a Health Educator: A Case Study of Grey’s Anatomy

Research Mode: Pre and post survey, testing a health message embedded in a storyline

Industry involvement: Collaborative: writers worked directly with KFF

Storyline: HIV positive pregnant woman learns that with proper treatment, she has a 98% chance of having a healthy baby.

Outcome: Awareness increase of 46 percentage points (from 15% to 61%), four-fold increase among all viewers. This translates to more than eight million people learning correct information about mother-to-child HIV transmission rates from watching the episode.

Retention: 3 national random-digit-dial telephone surveys of regular viewers of the show, conducted one week before and after the show’s airing, then, six weeks later, found 45% of the episode’s viewers correctly responded about the chances of mother-to-child HIV transmission – down from the high of 61%, but still three times higher than before the episode aired!

Related Study/USC-KFF: “Another study released today by the Foundation and the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Hollywood, Health & Society indicates that health content is prevalent on popular prime time television. An analysis of three seasons (2004-2006) of top-ten-rated prime time scripted shows reveals that six out of ten episodes (59%) had at least one health storyline, and that most of those storylines provided a strong (32%) or moderate (29%) level of educational content. The typical episode in the analysis averaged about one and one half health storylines, indicating that millions of television viewers are regularly exposed to health content”

Additional Findings per

Television as a Health Educator: A Case Study of Grey’s Anatomy:

  • The percentage of viewers who said it was “irresponsible for a woman who knows she is HIV positive to have a baby” dropped from 61% to 34% after the episode aired. Six weeks after broadcast, the figure had gone back up to 47%, still 14 percentage points below the pre-show level.
  • About three in ten (29%) regular Grey’s viewers say they think the medical information on the show is ‘very’ accurate, while another 58% say it’s ‘somewhat’ accurate.
  • Just under half (45%) of all regular viewers say they have learned something new about a health issue from the show.
  • After the target episode aired, the health information about mother-to-child HIV transmission rates was referenced by at least 35 blogs. Viewers commented that the storyline “made me baul [sic] my eyes out,” or “still has my brain clicking and whirring.” Others said “Wow, 98%, I had no idea,” and “That stunned me too. I thought it was almost a certainty for the child to get it. Wow.”

Additional Findings About USC/KFF Study:

How Healthy is Prime Time?

An Analysis of Health Content in Popular Prime Time Television Programs

  • The most common health topic found in top-rated TV shows was an unusual illness or disease. This topic appeared more than four times as often as heart disease, five times as often as cancer, and 20 times as often as diabetes–all more prevalent medical conditions among the American populace.
  • Health storylines are much more likely to focus on symptoms (65%), treatment (59%) and diagnosis (50%) than prevention (10%).
  • One in ten of the top-rated shows (10%) included a storyline about access to care, such as a lack of insurance, or cutbacks in services at medical facilities.
  • Because of differences in the types of shows they watch — more comedies, fewer medical shows — African American and Hispanic audiences are exposed to fewer health storylines than are viewers overall. There were 792 health storylines in the sample of shows from Nielsen’s overall top-ten shows, compared to 564 in the top-ten shows among African Americans, and 698 in the top-ten English-language shows among Hispanics.

Background information on mother-to-child transmission of HIV in the U.S.:

  • Without treatment, the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is 25%. In the past, there was no effective treatment available and hundreds of HIV-positive babies were born in the U.S. each year. Today, the risk is less than 2% if the proper medication and care are received – one of the true success stories of the fight against HIV/AIDS. But few members of the public are aware of the progress that has been made, and some HIV-positive women who choose to have children face prejudice and disapproval for that decision.

Here’s the webcast, agenda, and speaker bios on the Hollywood Health forum in Washington, D.C., today:

Agenda (.pdf)
Speaker Biographies (.pdf)
Presentations (.pdf)

Webcast Icon Webcast of Briefing and Panel Discussion

Visual Credits: Opening Hollywood shot from:



  1. I just wish that series with really good theme would last long.

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