Viacom plans to focus its various media properties on a single public service campaign with an AIDS-awareness and education effort.
The campaign, scheduled to begin in January, will use unsold advertising time on Viacom's CBS and other television networks, and on its television and radio stations, as well as outdoor billboards, for messages about AIDS. But the company, which plans to announce the project today, says the effort will go beyond traditional public service announcements to weave messages about AIDS into the scripts of television programs, and possibly films.
One show, "Girlfriends," on Viacom's UPN network, is already set to run a series of episodes in which AIDS will touch the life of a character. And Carl Folta, the chief spokesman for Viacom, who is directing the company's AIDS initiative, said two series produced by Viacom's Paramount television studio - "Frasier," on NBC, and "Becker," on CBS - had also agreed to participate.
Using movies and television programs to promote public health messages is not new. For the last several years, for example, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has consulted with Hollywood producers on a variety of health issues.
And as recently as last January, Viacom along with AOL Time Warner, General Electric and others used unsold advertising time in a campaign to recruit adults to serve as mentors for children. The media companies contributed the ad slots, and other companies paid for the production of the commercials.
But Viacom's campaign is perhaps the broadest effort yet by a single company to tackle a health-related issue, said Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health care research organization that is advising Viacom.
Mr. Altman said preliminary evidence, including some from a campaign the foundation is running in South Africa, suggests that such programs can change behavior. He and other health experts say they are enthusiastic about Viacom's campaign because its properties include Black Entertainment Television, Nickelodeon, MTV and other media outlets with audiences made up of the people most affected by AIDS: minorities and young people.
The Centers for Disease Control says that in the United States more than half of new infections with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, occur among black people, though they make up only 13 percent of the population. The center says young heterosexual women are particularly at risk.
Recently, Mr. Altman and Stephen Lewis, the United Nations' special envoy on H.I.V./AIDS, briefed Viacom executives on the epidemic, both globally and in this country. "I underscored the importance of targeting, and focusing on youth," Mr. Altman said. "A one-size-fits all information campaign will not work."
Coming as it does when many of the other media companies, including The Walt Disney Company and AOL Time Warner, are facing serious management and financial problems, the campaign serves not only to perform a public service but to generate positive publicity for Viacom. While critics of media consolidation complain that it narrows the range of viewpoints and the diversity of voices, it also makes possible campaigns of the sort that Viacom is undertaking.
But Mr. Altman acknowledged that Viacom ran certain risks in taking up a public-health issue that many people associate with inappropriate behavior. "It is risky to take on something like AIDS because it involves sex and drugs," he said, "and is not a totally safe issue like most corporations take on when they do community and public service."
Viacom's president, Mel Karmazin, was quick to point out that the company would only make suggestions to its creative units. There will be no requirement that producers of any creative segments dedicate programming to the AIDS topic, he said.
Still, Phill Wilson, executive director of the African American AIDS Policy Training Institute, an organization based in Los Angeles, said he hoped that, by integrating health messages across radio, television and film, Viacom might make a difference.
"We know that African Americans and young people receive the majority of their AIDS information from the media," Mr. Wilson said. "We have had 20 years of public health messages about AIDS. But we have not had 20 years of coordinated messages across radio, television, movies and billboards."
For the project, which is to run for two years or more, Viacom is earmarking roughly $120 million worth of advertising time - much of it for periods that would otherwise be dedicated to public service announcements, network promotions or go unsold on CBS and Viacom's six advertiser-supported cable channels.
The projected production cost for the public service announcements as well as informational efforts and research is about $3 million. Mr. Karmazin's charitable foundation is donating $250,000 toward the effort and Viacom's chairman, Sumner Redstone, is personally donating the same amount. The Kaiser Foundation is giving nearly $1 million; the rest will be contributed by Viacom.
"Viacom is proud to join the fight against ignorance, apathy and inaction," Mr. Redstone said.
Mr. Karmazin said that the topic of AIDS awareness had come up at his management staff meeting about a year ago when Robert Johnson, chief executive of Viacom's Black Entertainment Network, was talking about a promotional effort by B.E.T. to raise AIDS awareness among its viewers. Mr. Karmazin said that other divisions, including MTV, had their own initiatives, so the company decided to investigate a broader effort.
IDS is preventable, Mr. Folta, the Viacom spokesman, noted, but without a change in current trends, the global total of AIDS-related deaths will reach 100 million by 2020.
"There is an entirely new generation that has grown up with AIDS since Magic Johnson's illness helped focus attention on the disease in the early 1990's," Mr. Folta said. "And there are still 40,000 new cases of AIDS every year in the U.S., so people still are not getting the message."
It remains unclear just how broadly the creative community will embrace the Viacom project. Mara Brock Akil, executive producer and creator of "Girlfriends," a UPN series about four black women living in Los Angeles, said that her series was already at work on episodes embracing the topic. One character is a young woman who becomes a documentary filmmaker and plans a project on sex in America. "But she decides the subject is too broad and focuses on H.I.V.," Ms. Brock Akil said.
One television writer in Hollywood, who writes for a prime-time series, although not one affiliated with Viacom series, said he had no problem with the idea. "It is a lot better than being asked to do a lot of the dumb stuff you get asked to do for TV," the writer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There are shows where we have to have certain brands of tires prominently displayed. Compared to that, this is a public health issue and relatively positive. It is not necessarily bad and you can always say no."
Finding support for the project may be tougher at CBS's news division. Mr. Folta said that Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News "told us that the news division is totally independent and would never commit to anything." Mr. Folta said that Viacom planned to provide a briefing session for the news division, which would include AIDS experts.
Geraldine Fabrikant and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, The New York Times. October 9, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.