Almost a year ago, NBC broadcast a controversial "Midnight Caller" episode about a bisexual man living in San Francisco who knows he is infected with the AIDS virus but continues to have reckless sexual affairs--including an encounter with the former lover of radio talk-show host Jack Killian.
In an early draft of the script, Killian (series star Gary Cole) was to shoot and kill the promiscuous man, until angry AIDS activists temporarily halted production of the San Francisco-based show and persuaded producers to make story revisions. Then, still unhappy with the changes, the protesters demonstrated at a San Francisco TV station the night it aired.
The debated episode stirred a hornet's nest of publicity and raised larger questions about the inaccurate depiction of AIDS by the entertainment industry, a practice the AIDS community contends leads to widespread fear, discrimination and violence toward gays and people with AIDS.
On Tuesday, TV viewers will see the sequel to that fateful episode, which won Kay Lenz an Emmy Award for her performance as the woman with AIDS. But in contrast to the uproar over the first episode, the offices of "Midnight Caller," which is produced by Lorimar Television, are relatively quiet this time around. There are no phones ringing off the hook, no demonstrators blowing whistles on the set and no temporary restraining orders being issued.
More significantly, the same members of the AIDS community who so bitterly protested "Midnight Caller" last year are singing praises of the show's producers this year.
Why the turnaround?
"It was a cooperative effort from the get-go," executive producer Bob Singer said. "We went to the groups who protested us last year and told them we were planning on doing a sequel and that we wanted their help."
"At first, I was feeling fairly cynical and wasn't expecting a lot," said Michelle Roland, a member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT-UP. She was recalling her early meeting with Singer and writer-producer Stephen Zito, who wrote both AIDS episodes.
"Stephen walked in saying, 'I know ACT-UP won't be happy with anything we do because it's a script about AIDS,' " Roland said. "I said, 'Whoa! You need to understand, we're happy that people do shows about AIDS. We're not irrational activists causing trouble because we don't have anything to do.' When we see a specific concern or problem, we respond to it. But given the chance, we'd much rather engage in constructive dialogue."
Part of the problem last year was that the cast and crew of "Midnight Caller," now in its second season, were newcomers to the Bay Area. They were looked upon as Hollywood intruders trying to exploit a sensitive community issue. So for this season's episode, the producers funneled their efforts through the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which put them in touch with several AIDS organizations. Zito spent nearly six months researching and writing the sequel.
"It's such amazingly controversial material," Zito said, "and the controversy sometimes surfaces where you least expect it--even over language. To give you the simplest example, you don't want to call people who have the disease victims of AIDS, because they don't want to be seen as victims. That's an important distinction. When you start feeling sorry for them, they cease to become people. They are people with AIDS."
In the new episode, which Zito describes as a simple love story, Lenz returns in the later stages of the disease. Of the approximate 100,000 people in the United States who have been diagnosed with AIDS, about 10% are women, according to the Centers for Disease Control. To learn what it is like to be a woman with AIDS, Lenz spent numerous sessions with a female support group--which also helped Zito with his script.
"At first, I was very emotional," the 36-year-old actress said. "It was so hard sitting in the room looking at these women who were total strangers to me, sharing the most intimate details about themselves. As I spent more time with them, the emotions died down and I got angry. It's such a tragic illness because of the prejudice attached to it. It's harder to live with AIDS than it is with cancer because there is no sympathy, only fear. Women's husbands abandon them. Their family doctors stop seeing them. Some women don't tell anybody, even their own children."
"I was impressed by the final script," said Catherine Maier, the support group's facilitator and women's services program coordinator for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. "It was compassionate and speaks to the strength of these women, and how difficult it is to get through each day. It becomes a career. The women wanted to make sure that their lives were portrayed accurately and sensitively. They even visited the set, and they were pleased with what they saw."
Lenz's premature death in the episode, however, was a tough concept for the AIDS groups to get behind. With new treatments, many people with AIDS are living longer, eight years or more. There was concern that compacting the life expectancy of a person diagnosed with AIDS could prove dangerous.
"To the degree that our society believes that people with HIV infection will die, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Paul Boneberg, executive director of Mobilization Against AIDS, a political lobby group. "We're involved in a strategy of hope, telling people that they need not die. They can fight and seek treatment."
To help explain Lenz's early death, the story focuses on treatment issues and access to care. The episode illustrates how rapidly an AIDS patient can deteriorate without proper life-sustaining medication--which is often expensive and difficult to obtain.
"People don't realize that this is not the anguished cries of the doomed they are hearing," Boneberg said. "People with AIDS can't get to the drug treatments that might save their lives because there's profiteering by pharmaceutical companies and gross negligence by the health establishment."
Ordinarily, it's against network policy to negotiate with special interest groups to determine the content of a show. But executive producer Singer said that NBC gave Lorimar producers its blessing to enlist the assistance of AIDS groups, partly because the network wanted to avoid the controversy that arose last season.
"I think the word negotiation is the incorrect word," Singer said. "That word has a certain charge to it. NBC wanted something that was accurate and that they could stand behind. The AIDS community was able to supply us with the information we needed."
Although the episode tried to address each AIDS group's unique concerns, it did not meet every agenda. Boneberg and Mobilization Against AIDS wanted Lenz's character to become a political activist. Roland of ACT-UP said the show used mostly one-liners to sum up complex issues. And Rene Durazzo, media relations coordinator for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, points out that by zeroing in on a woman with AIDS, the episode largely neglects the story of the gay male, who still comprises about 61% of all reported AIDS cases.
"We have to deal within the dramatic context of our show," Zito said. "I can only write about relationships that I know. That may be bad politics, but it's good drama."
Aside from minor differences, the overwhelming response from the AIDS community is positive. The TV producers and AIDS groups involved expressed hope that this episode of "Midnight Caller" will establish a precedent in future shows depicting AIDS. And they all emphasized the need for more programming. There are projections that the total number of AIDS cases reported since 1978 will double in the next 15 months.
"The story is extremely passionate and understanding in how it deals with the whole epidemic," Durazzo said. "This is a very positive model, and a process we hope other producers will look at doing. Our feeling is that it served the needs of the producers from the standpoint of developing quality, entertaining programming. And it served the needs of the AIDS community because it produced an accurate script that can only foster more understanding in the public."