While many people suspected Covid-19 would creep into our TVs and influence show plotlines, it’s actually television that’s impacting how we view the pandemic. For decades, TV has traditionally been an escapist medium. But a growing number of producers and executives are now dismissing this ideology, given the pandemic’s continued prevalence. And as we’re seeing on our screens, these executives are using the medium not only to entertain—but inform—audiences to help curb the pandemic.
This wasn’t the first time Hollywood has stepped in to share safety messages with their audiences. Writers have been enlisted to deglamorize smoking and, in the sociopolitical field, Will & Grace has been acknowledged for positively shifting the view of gay marriage.
Neal Baer, a pediatrician-turned-TV-writer for ER, stresses the media’s power to change audience opinions using public health storylines. He and Harvard School of Public Health have spearheaded the campaign to popularize designated drivers in TV shows to reduce drunk driving.
Baer and others are recruiting medical experts to promote this morale-focused storytelling, now encouraging viewers to wear masks and get vaccinated. “That’s what we do as writers. We have our characters persuade each other all the time,” said Baer during the Writers Guild of America on January 13. “We don’t want to lose viewers because we’re seen as preaching something or telling them what to do. Rather, we want to integrate it into our stories like it’s natural, like life.”
Linda Ong, CEO of the cultural consultancy firm, Cultique, helped launch this initiative. “This investment is only going to pay off if we pay attention to what’s happening on the screen. If people want to get back to production faster and stay in production […] then it’s in our best interests to normalize this behaviour.”
First-responder programs such as Grey’s Anatomy and Chicago Med have accepted the brunt of this responsibility because of the environments the shows encompass. Tim Minear, the co-creator of 911, addresses the decision to embrace the pandemic. “If we pretend like it’s an alternate universe where this thing hasn’t happened, we’d quaint ourselves into irrelevance.”
For non-medical shows, the decision to write the pandemic—or its eventual aftermath—into plotlines has sparked debates over Zoom meetings between Hollywood executives. On one side, shows such as Black-ish, Shameless, and You intend to reflect our current reality and give COVID-19 a recurring role. J.J. Philbin has noted that her series, Single Parents, has recently opted to integrate Covid-19, hoping to illuminate pandemic-induced challenges to fostering relationships and child rearing. Originally, she thought mask- and latex glove-wearing scenes would seem jarring. However, it now feels “disingenuous” without them.
On the other side, shows such as American Horror Story and Veep aren’t interested in depicting Covid-19’s devastating effects. The former’s showrunner, Ryan Murphy, ironically, claims he’s steering clear as he hopes to portray hope, beauty, and romance rather than the darkness we are presently enduring. David Mandel of Veep echoes this sentiment, insisting his desire to keep the drudgery of everyday living far away from viewers.
Ampere Analysis—a research firm specializing in media trends—has projected a 60% delay in scripted television programming worldwide. While it’s likely that more and more writers will opt to wedge Covid-19 into their show plotlines, the desire to do so is mixed among executives. Promoting healthy social behaviours through TV toes the line between bringing awareness and being tiresome. As future shows incorporate pandemic-related themes, there’s a good chance we won’t escape the Covid-19 at home, even if that’s our intention.