Just weeks after passing a law to encourage film and television production within city limits, San Francisco officials face the delicate task of defusing a conflict between producers of a new NBC series and local activists protesting the show’s portrayal of the AIDS crisis.
At issue is an episode of the hourlong weekly series, “Midnight Caller,” in which a bisexual man knowingly spreads the AIDS virus and is then killed by one of his victims. AIDS groups warn that the show, produced by Lorimar, could touch off further violence against the gay community and carriers of the AIDS virus. The drama series debuts tonight on NBC, but the controversial episode isn’t scheduled to air until later this season.
Activists who had received a copy of the script organized protests against the show, and succeeded in shutting down production last Thursday night.
“They’re not telling the truth (about AIDS),” said Waiyde Palmer of ACT UP, an acronym for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. “We’d like to see the entertainment business take a more responsible role in stopping this crisis from getting out of hand.”
Bob Singer, executive producer of the show, said the protests “had brought more negative light to this show than ever would have happened otherwise. This episode is not anti-gay, and it is certainly not anti-people with AIDS. It shows that this is everyone’s responsibility, that this is not just a gay disease, that it is part of the fabric of American life.”
Mayor Art Agnos’ staff, in an effort to mediate the dispute, arranged a meeting on Monday morning between the show’s line producer, John Perry, and two film makers with ties to the AIDS community--Rob Epstein, who directed the “The Times of Harvey Milk” and Patrick Mulcahey, a screenwriter who works with “Project Inform,” one of the nation’s largest clearinghouses on AIDS information.
“Our role is to facilitate a productive discussion between Lorimar and ACT UP,” said Scott Schafer, the mayor’s deputy press secretary. "(The activists) have some legitimate concerns.”
Earlier efforts to defuse the confrontation were unsuccessful. Protests continued, even after AIDS organizers and city officials met with the show’s producers to air their concerns last week and Lorimar agreed to make some changes to the script.
After about 80 protesters shut down production Thursday night, Lorimar went to court Friday to seek a temporary restraining order against further disruptions. The court was scheduled to decide on that request late Monday.
The protests were followed Saturday by a statement from San Francisco’s leading AIDS organization calling the “Midnight Caller” episode “sleazy . . . sensational . . . cheap television drama.” Timothy R. Wolfred, executive director of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, said in a statement that, “NBC should not exploit the human tragedy of the AIDS epidemic to increase rating points and profits (with a show) that will only spread fear and ignorance about AIDs.”
Whether current efforts will resolve the dispute remain to be seen. After Monday’s meeting, Mulcahey, a screenwriter for the daytime soap “Santa Barbara,” said that in the original script “the resourcefulness and humanity of San Francisco’s response to the epidemic weren’t taken into account.”
He agreed with the protesters that the episode could encourage violence against gays and AIDS carriers. But he added that there are ways to rewrite the script to eliminate “that unintended side effect.” Mulcahey plans to review a revised script soon and added that, “I would like to see the overall silence of episodic TV on AIDS to be broken.”