SC CTSI Leverages Unique Proximity to Hollywood Entertainment Industry to Include Health and Clinical Research Storylines in Popular Television Programs

The SC CTSI has joined forces with Hollywood, Health & Society, which is a health communications program based at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, to consult with the writers and creators of popular television shows and movies about how to integrate content about health and clinical research into their storylines. After just three years, the initiative has paired USC scientists with producers of dozens of shows to tell important stories about health and clinical research that affect all Americans.

Paul Karon — February 26, 2020

Among the Southern California Clinical and Translational Science Institute's (SC CTSI) core missions is to engage with the region's many diverse communities to convey vital information about health and clinical research. Los Angeles-based SC CTSI is a close neighbor with one of history's most powerful groups: the Hollywood entertainment industry.

"Hollywood has the reach and the skills to move people to action in a way that is immensely valuable to us in public health and clinical research," said Michele Kipke, PhD, Co-Director of the SC CTSI. "Since the USC research community is based right here in Los Angeles, alongside the center of the entertainment industry, we have a unique opportunity to work closely with studios and producers to ensure that television shows with medical storylines are not just accurate, but that they address important and little-understood topics in public health and clinical research."

Since 2017, the SC CTSI has worked in partnership with the health-communications organization Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S), a program of the Norman Lear Center in the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. HH&S was established in 2001 to provide entertainment industry professionals with accurate information on all aspects of health, safety and security through expert consultations and other methods.  The program and its staff work closely with screenwriters and content creators in key entertainment industry associations, including the Writers Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America, and the TV Academy.

Kate Folb, Director, Hollywood, Health & Society

"Our partnership with the SC CTSI has enabled Hollywood, Health & Society to provide Hollywood writers and producers with a nuanced and compelling understanding of very complex issues of health and research," said Kate Folb, Director of HH&S. "Screenwriters have said the physicians and scientist consultants have not only enhanced the accuracy of medical information in scripts, but have contributed story ideas they wouldn't have discovered otherwise."

Since its inception, HH&S has conducted over 3,600 consultations with scriptwriters of more than 300 TV shows across 57 networks, including Spanish-language channels Telemundo and Univision. These consultations resulted in more than 1,800 aired storylines reaching millions of viewers nationwide. The SC CTSI has built upon the progress achieved by HH&S to foster inclusion of storylines specifically about clinical trials, including about the importance of participation by historically under-represented—that is, non-white and non-male—populations in clinical trials.

For example, SC CTSI support contributed to a segment on the acclaimed HBO news-comedy program, "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver." The 20-minute segment reported about gender and racial biases in health—longstanding biases and disparities that organizations such as the SC CTSI have been working to correct.

For other programs, SC CTSI consultants have provided guidance about Alzheimer's, the clinical trial process, CAR-T cell therapy trials, ovarian cancer, and more. This information has become part of popular TV series and networks, including:

  • Empire (FOX)
  • The Resident (FOX)
  • The Village (NBC)
  • The Fosters (ABC/Disney)
  • Life Sentence (CW)
  • Metropolis (Netflix)

 As part of other ongoing initiatives, the SC CTSI and HH&S organize panel discussions. One panel featured representatives from the entertainment media, the USC research and health community, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and executive producers of ABC programs "Grey's Anatomy" and "black-ish."

The HH&S and SC CTSI also work in digital online media. They partnered with two animation companies to produce short videos about the importance of clinical trial participation by the public; the videos are available on YouTube and elsewhere. Other digital initiatives include the amplification of health information and topics through the internet and social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, fan sites, and other online avenues. 

To expand impact of this one-of-a-kind program to more populations and communities nationally, leaders of HH&S and the SC CTSI intend to bring more CTSA hubs around the country into the process. They intend to partner with the other hubs to determine high priority topics and messages for specific regions, particularly for underserved and high-disparity communities.

HH&S and the SC CTSI will also work to develop and deliver targeted health messages to specific audiences and regions within the U.S. through public service announcements (PSAs) attached to popular television shows and/or disseminated online. They will also continue to extend scientific rigor to the media-consulting process, analyzing content to determine best practices by studying the impact of story elements on actual viewer knowledge.   

For more information about SC CTSI and their ongoing partnership with HH&S, click here and here.

NIH Funding Acknowledgment: Important - All publications resulting from the utilization of SC CTSI resources are required to credit the SC CTSI grant by including the NIH funding acknowledgment and must comply with the NIH Public Access Policy.