'Caller' Clash Reflects TV's Challenge on AIDS

Times Staff Writer

Kelly West is about to find out that she has just slept with a man who is infected with the AIDS virus. "He bragged about cruising the leather bars in the Castro," West says, "but . . . but I thought he was only kidding."

West is a TV character dreamed up by the producers of NBC's "Midnight Caller." But, in this case, critics of the show argue, the producers let their imaginations stray too far afield.

"I would venture to guess that no woman in San Francisco (the show's location) or any other major city, is as stupid as Kelly West," Patrick Mulcahey, a TV writer active in Project Inform, a major clearinghouse of AIDS data, wrote to the show's producers. "Straight San Francisco women do not take any implication of male bisexuality as a joke."

In the 1980s, AIDS has been the subject of countless TV documentaries and specials, even movies-of-the-week and after-school specials. Now the disease is becoming routine entertainment fare in sitcoms, daytime soap operas and action series like "Midnight Caller."

"You're starting to see it more and more," says Roz Wyman, NBC's director of community affairs. "It's a perfect example of how TV reflects reality."

Television does reflect reality, but it can also distort it. Critics contend that the episode of "Midnight Caller," scheduled for broadcast Dec. 13, is a case in point.

AIDS groups have protested the episode since they obtained a copy of the script several weeks ago. Lorimar, the show's producer, agreed to a number of changes in the script but announced this week that the show will air without further revision, a decision that prompted new objections from the AIDS community in San Francisco, where the show is filmed.

Bob Singer, the show's executive producer, says the episode presents "a message of responsibility and caring. . . . It's everyone's responsibility; it's not just a gay disease; it's in the fabric of American life."

While generally applauding the portrayal of the disease on TV shows, AIDS activists and public health officials are raising some concerns:

--In "Midnight Caller," a character named Mike Barnes--the devil-may-care charmer who sleeps with Kelly West--knowingly exposes his lovers to the AIDS virus. While there have been rare cases of reckless spreading of the disease, none has occurred in San Francisco's gay community, where health officials have "enormous powers of restraint," including the authority to incarcerate someone like Barnes, said Tom Peters, associate director of the city's Public Health Department.

Critics contend that because Barnes is tracked down by the show's hero, a radio talk show host, the episode leaves viewers with the impression that only vigilante action and not law enforcement can stop him.

Moreover, critics of the episode argue that it is unrealistic to show Barnes successfully operating today in San Francisco's gay community, where safe sex has become so prevalent that the rate of new HIV infections is approaching zero, according to studies by the city's Public Health Department and the University of California, San Francisco.

--Among the daytime soap operas, which have some of the most extensive AIDS-related plots on TV, the typical AIDS victim is a woman. In reality, gay and bisexual men constitute 62% of all reported AIDS cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control. "The coupling of AIDS and homosexuality makes producers and networks go crazy," says Mulcahey, a writer for the soap "Santa Barbara."

Meredith Berlin, editor-in-chief of Soap Opera Digest, said that focusing on women characters with AIDS "is a chicken way of dealing with it. They think viewers can deal with AIDS, but they can't deal with gay men. . . . I don't think anyone would turn off their sets."

Soap producers contend that they are not shying away from homosexuality by focusing on women carrying the AIDS virus. "The majority of our viewers are women," said Jo Anne Emmerich, ABC's senior vice president of daytime programs. "They can empathize with a patient being a woman. It's hard (for a viewer) to put herself in the place of a gay man."

--Often on TV, AIDS victims die, or fall fatally ill, within months of being infected with the HIV virus. While that is possible, the more likely scenario is several years of good health before the disease takes hold. Health experts say someone infected today could live another seven or eight years, even longer if more treatments become available.

Mulcahey, who was recruited by San Francisco city officials to mediate the dispute between AIDS activists and Lorimar, objected to recurring inferences in the "Midnight Caller" script that those who were infected by HIV would soon die. "The strategy of informed San Francisco HIV (virus carriers) is to keep themselves alive long enough to see . . . new therapies come into currency," Mulcahey advised the producers.

Increasingly, the American public is drawing much of its information about the AIDS epidemic from TV entertainment programming. "In the long run, entertainment programming is going to have a dramatic affect on how the disease is perceived," said Brian Dyak, president of the Entertainment Industries Council, a nonprofit group that, together with representatives from the networks and TV stations, has issued guidelines on responsible depictions of AIDS issues.

Among the TV series that have tackled the subject are "21 Jump Street," "Miami Vice," "Designing Women," "The Equalizer," "St. Elsewhere" and "L.A. Law."

Daytime soap operas on all three networks--ABC's "All My Children," CBS' "Young and Restless" and NBC's "Another World"--have had extensive plot lines dealing with the disease. According to Berlin, the Soap Opera Digest editor, viewers and the AIDS community have reacted favorably to the shows.

On ABC's "All My Children," for example, the AIDS victim--a woman who contracted the virus from her drug-using ex-husband--has been coping with it for 15 months and will continue to do so for another 18 months. During that time, the show has "covered a broad spectrum of issues for the audience, far more than a two-hour documentary could," said ABC's Emmerich. Ellen Wheeler, the actress who plays the AIDS victim, won an Emmy this year for her performance.

There are some in the AIDS community, such as Rene Durazzo, spokesman for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, who believe that there is no room for the disease in the plots of shows like "Midnight Caller."

"AIDS is the No. 1 health crisis in this country," Durazzo said. "It's not the kind of issue that can be exploited for entertainment value."

But others think that the issue can and should provide plot lines for TV fiction, even violent cop shows. "The topic is not off limits at all, but people in positions of power don't understand the disease," Mulcahey said.

Network executives--sensitive to any appearance that they are bending under the interest-group pressure--express frustration over obtaining accurate advice about the disease, particularly since the epidemic has spawned dozens of organizations with differing agendas.

"There are more groups with varying levels of sophistication," said NBC's Wyman. "Sometimes it's hard to know which group to listen to. There is not a unified consensus of reality."

Lorimar's Singer said that much of the criticism of "Midnight Caller" was on political rather than medical grounds. Lorimar, he said, consulted Los Angeles area AIDS experts in developing the script for the episode. "But what we found in San Francisco (where the show is filmed) is that there is a whole other point of view, people with other agendas," he said.

"Midnight Caller" portrays not only gays, but the gay community in San Francisco, coping with the epidemic. While that may be a more realistic setting than an elementary school or a heterosexual nightclub, it can also draw sharper scrutiny.

Public health officials and AIDS activists fear that an episode showing a bisexual man knowingly spreading the disease will promote intolerance or violence against HIV carriers and the gay community.

"I am very, very concerned about the portrayal of violence against gay and lesbian citizens, particularly in the midst of an epidemic that scares people," said Peters of the San Francisco Health Department.

Peters and others worry that TV can exacerbate the nation's growing anxiety about AIDS: One survey by the Harvard School of Public Health found that 25% of Americans would refuse to work beside a person with AIDS and that 40% would oppose housing patients with the disease in their neighborhood. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force reports that violence against the gay community is on the rise since AIDS surfaced.

Similar concerns were raised about comedian Sam Kinison's new album. Kinison, a comedian known for his sharp insults, says of AIDS: "Heterosexuals die of it, too? Name one!" After gay activists protested last month, Warner Bros. agreed to insert AIDS "information sheets" in Kinison's album.

Taking note of the concerns voiced by AIDS groups, Lorimar agreed to make a number of changes in the "Midnight Caller" script, including a new, less violent, ending. In the original script, Barnes--who was spreading the disease--was murdered by one of his victims. In the new version, the victim is stopped before she can kill him.

Lorimar also intervened when NBC sent a summary story line to the media advertising Barnes as a villain who must be tracked down by Jack Killian, the radio talk show host and star character. A revised story line, circulated this week, says simply that Barnes "wouldn't change his life style" and highlights Killian's attempts to "educate his San Francisco audience about the AIDS crisis."

The show's producers say they also changed the tone of the episode to portray Barnes not as a villain but as a man unable to accept the reality of his disease and therefore unwilling to change his promiscuous ways.

But Pat Christen, public policy director for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, has seen a screening of the episode and says that this nuance does not come through. "The viewer is left with the impression that people infected (with the virus) go around maliciously infecting others," she said.

Dyak of the Entertainment Industries Council believes that TV is going through a "trial-and-error period" that is necessary before learning how to balance entertainment value with accuracy and sensitivity about the disease.

Danny Goldberg, an entertainment manager and chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union's Southern California foundation, believes that protests such as the one prompted by "Midnight Caller" are healthy--provided no economic or government pressure is imposed on television's creative process. Down the road, Goldberg predicted, the entertainment media will reach a balance, just as it did with issues such as civil rights.

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