Thursday, January 31, 2008

"Reaching" The King

Las Vegas is an odd place.

One week, Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama are campaigning for President of the United States in casinos shaped like castles and pyramids. Ten days later, the people who create or buy television shows from New Delhi to Denver, are tripping over their own demographics as they share a convention center with youthful, snowboarders and skiers, whose fashionable woolen ski-hats outnumbered plastic laminated name badges and NATPE’s bright orange messenger bags.

Odder still, was the juxtipostion of NBC’s Jeff Zucker telling thousands of television industry veterans and newcomers that sweeping change was coming, while in a neighboring room internet guru and former AOL head Bob Pittman, who declared that massive change was on the way in Boston eight years ago at a CTAM conference, came to Vegas—complete with another power point presentation-- to declare television to have a great and profitable future. Such an extreme makeover was rivaled only by the huge, airbrushed billboard of Bette Midler—now appearing at Cesaer’s Palace—making her look younger than when I first saw her perform in 1973.

And content, long ago crowned “king” by Viacom’s Sumner Redstone, was ousted in a quiet coup by “the consumer,” begging the question of for whom all of the content was created in the first place, and whether the networks are willing to push as hard for socially responsible programming on HIV/AIDS, as they are for shows like American Gladiator, Dancing with the Stars, or Biggest Loser. Are those programs what the consumers want, or what the networks want to sell? Does a steady diet of “reality programming” make it more difficult for consumers to digest the daily reality of more people under 30 years old being infected with HIV each day, because less time and resources are available to tell those real-life stories?

Underlying all of the speeches, luncheons, discussions, coffee hours, promos, video clips, and demos at the annual Las Vegas meeting of television programming executives, was the simple challenge of how best to “reach” people who watch TV, surf the web, click on YouTube, or download music into their I-phones--and, how to define “reach.” Tactically, everyone pitching content agreed that “reach” must be across platforms, across time zones, and across cultures. Wherever and whenever consumers were awake, and however “content” was being accessed, we have to be there, was the mantra. Everyone understood the insatiable appetite of the “king.”

But what distinguished NATPE from the tech-world of CES or of an engineer’s conference is the other, even more important meaning of “reach”—of how you get into the hearts and minds of people with a compelling story that touches their lives. Telling stories, making movies for whatever platform is, at the core, a creative process driven by the basic human need of one person to connect on some level—emotional, intellectual, and spiritual—with another. It’s what drives Cable Positive when we create original documentary programs like “Women & HIV”, which Showtime Networks aired”, or our powerful, personal, 30-second telenovellas knows as PSAs, being seen on cable systems and networks in communities across the country.

Technology enables us to extend our reach; telling human stories that can touch people and make all of our lives better, requires us to extend ourselves and expand our vision beyond market share, and more toward using this rich and powerful medium to improve the lives of others.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Voting Like Lives Depended On It...Which In This Case, They Do

With Democrats, Republicans & Independents casting ballots in primary elections in South Carolina, Florida, California, New York, New Jersey, Georgia and other key states across the country over the next few weeks, there’s a life & death issue that must be raised.

“What will you do about AIDS in America?” is an essential question which must be asked of each presidential candidate, and answers of specific actions—backed with the resources to make those actions a reality—must be demanded. In the recent South Carolina debate held among the three leading Democratic presidential candidates—Hillary Clinton, John Edwards & Barak Obama—the fact that 400, mostly Black, HIV positive, South Carolinians were on an excruciatingly long waiting list to secure their anti-retroviral drugs was never mentioned. Such waiting lists—occupying the category of the “shame of the nation” that slavery once held—are the direct result of lack of HIV/AIDS funding from the federal government.

Non-profit, grant-making organizations like Cable Positive and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, have made modest grants to AIDS Service Organizations in states across the country, but what we can do is not nearly enough. The growing number of poor people in dire need of HIV drugs to keep them alive requires a quick and large-scale government commitment, and that commitment can never be diminished. The notion that a citizen of this nation could die because they couldn’t afford the medicine which could keep them alive should have corporate and community leaders screaming at the top of their lungs. I doubt that if the people dying for lack of HIV medicine were white, well-connected and well-healed, that politicians would be so silent on the issue.

Recognizing that, the Black AIDS Institute has published an indispensible handbook for all voters this election year entitled, “We Demand Accountability: The 2008 Presidential Elections and the Black AIDS Epidemic.” In the publication, the presidential candidates from both parties are asked a series of pointed questions:

  • Do you have a National AIDS Strategy? Although a National AIDS Policy is required of all foreign nations if they are to receive U.S. funding for HIV/AIDS, the United States has no such policy. All 3 major Democratic candidates endorse a National AIDS Strategy, while only one Republican (Mike Huckabee) backs it.
  • Will you Support Policies that reduce HIV Infections in Black Communities, such as Needle Exchange Programs? The 3 major Democratic candidates support Needle Exchange programs; none of the Republicans do.
  • Will you guarantee access to Adequate Treatment? All of the Democratic Candidates have vowed to increase funding for the Ryan White CARE Act, the primary vehicle for federal funding of AIDS care services. None of the Republican candidates have pledged their support.

These are not some esoteric issues where ideology has any place at all. Matters concerning HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment are medical issues. Imagine the outcry in this country if cancer patients were denied access to care and treatment for that terrible disease, on the basis of politics, geography, wealth or race.

“We Demand Accountability,” is must reading before you cast your vote in the 2008 elections. It’s available by contacting the Black AIDS Institute at

Phill Wilson, CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, says it best:

Ending AIDS is about leadership—personal, professional and political leadership. We have aggressively called upon Black America to take responsibility for our own health and that of our communities. And, part of that responsibility is insisting that our elected officials also do their part to help us end this epidemic.”

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Our Children Are Dying

“He had planned to have a party for his 30th birthday. Instead, he was thinking of hanging himself in his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen.”

When I read that sentence in a New York Times article by Sarah Kershaw on January 2, 2008, I was stopped cold. Two weeks earlier, I had just buried my mother, age 92, who had more of a zest for living than most one-third her age.

The thought of a 30 year old killing himself assaulted me.

Kershaw’s story, headlined “New HIV Cases Drop, but Rise in Young Gay Men,” is being told all over the country—from Hell’s Kitchen to Harlem and Boston to San Francisco. Our children are dying of AIDS, and more and more of them are young, gay, gifted, Black and brown.

Since the beginning of 2008, we’ve been staggered by stories and statistics about HIV/AIDS that we thought we would never have to live through again. True, the overall death rate from AIDS fell some 15 percent in NYC over the past year, dropping to the lowest number (1,209) since 1984. And, yes, the HIV infection rate among men over 30 years old in NYC has declined 22 percent. But don’t toast that news with a dirty martini just yet.

HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths are soaring in the under 30 year gay male population, jumping 32 percent over the past 5 years according to the New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene. Even worse, the number of new infections among the youngest men in the study—ages 13-19—has doubled during the same period.

Why? Didn’t we lose too many friends, family members and colleagues to go through all this again? Don’t we ever learn?

Drug use is up, particularly among younger men having sex with men, and with it, safer sex gets forgotten. Stigma toward anyone who is HIV positive is also up—especially among young gay men, and in communities of color—and with it so is the reluctance to get tested, to know one’s HIV status, or to inform a potential sexual partner about it. And smugness toward the disease is also way up, with many gay men under 30 falsely assuming that getting treated for HIV/AIDS is as easy as taking two Advil.

And, if this news isn’t enough to take your breath away, a new study just published by the Annals of Internal Medicine should make you wake up

screaming in the night. According to the study, a highly drug-resistant

strain of MRSA—the flesh-eating bacteria—is spreading among gay men in San Francisco, Boston, New York and LA. In San Francisco, the study found that the risk of contracting MRSA is 13 times greater for gay men than for the rest of the population. Nearly 19,000 people died from MRSA in the United States in 2005 alone, according to the CDC. In this newest study, the bacterium appears to be spread most easily through anal intercourse, casual skin-to-skin contact, and by touching contaminated surfaces.

Ironically, it was Lawrence K. Altman, the New York Times Senior Science correspondent, who reported on this new Stephen King-like story early this week—the same Larry Altman who broke the Times’ front page story 27 years ago about a then little-known virus found in a few gay men on the West Coast.

MRSA, drugs, stigma, indifference, too much booze, loneliness, fear, discrimination, ignorance, low self esteem—we have so much more work to do to prevent our children from dying at their own hands, or through the carelessness of others. The 30-year old in Sarah Kershaw’s story knew that he could only save his own life by doing the hard work of facing his many demons and building a better life.

It’s time we all did the same, if we want to save the next generation.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Cable Positive Annual Benefit Dinner Honoring Three Leaders Who’ve Used The Power of their Positions, Resources, Passions & Personalities to Fight HIV

For the first time in Cable Positive’s 16-year history, the cable industry’s AIDS action organization will be honoring three outstanding leaders for their work in fighting HIV/AIDS.

The Benefit Dinner—called the “Power Awards”—is being held on March 4, 2008, at the Marriott Marquis in NYC, and is recognizing three individuals who have used the power of their positions, resources, passions or personalities to raise HIV/AIDS awareness, educate communities at risk, and prevent the spread of the disease.

Each Cable Positive honoree has exercised either their personal or professional power—or both—in extraordinary ways to battle the AIDS epidemic, and galvanize either their industry colleagues, the public, public officials, and many others to have an impact in the most important public health matter of our time.

Two of these people—unafraid to push their powerful industry toward courageous acts of corporate social responsibility on HIV/AIDS—are veterans of the cable industry, with a multitude of pro-active accomplishments under their belts, and just as many friends, colleagues and public officials, who hold them in enormous respect .

Bill Roedy, the Vice Chairman of MTV Networks, oversees all of MTV Networks’ growing international multimedia business operations. Under Bill’s leadership, 143 MTV cable, satellite & terrestrial TV channels reach a global audience of 1.5 billion people, and he has been aggressive in using that vast access to a world-wide audience for AIDS education and awareness. Appointed as an Ambassador for UNAIDS in 1998, Bill Roedy the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS in 2000, which was the first international collaboration of entire industries, to use their power and resources to fight the disease. In April 2005, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Bill as the founding chair of the Global Media AIDS Initiative, a coalition of media organizations—including Cable Positive—to use their resources to educate audiences around the world about AIDS. Roedy is receiving the Joel A. Berger Memorial Award for using original programming and the power of the communications industry to fight AIDS.

Michael Willner, Vice Chairman and CEO of Insight Communications Company, the eighth largest cable operative in the U.S. Yet, Michael’s influence on Capitol Hill and within his industry, far exceeds the size of his company, since he has never feared using his power to do good. One of the early supporters of Cable Positive, Michael was a co-chair of the Benefit Dinner honoring Marc Nathanson in 2000, and with his full support, his company also co-chaired two other significant Cable Positive benefit dinners. Those took place in 2003, honoring Robert Johnson& Debra Lee of BET, and in 2007, honoring Glenn Britt, of Time Warner Cable. The 2007 Cable Positive Benefit raised more revenue for the organization’s programs than any other single event in Cable Positive’s history.

Under Michael’s leadership, Insight Communications has been a strong supporter of Cable Positive’s Tony Cox Community Fund of local AIDS grants, has offered its employees AIDS in the Workplace Training, and has encouraged its local affiliates to air Cable Positive’s AIDS awareness PSAs. Michael is receiving Cable Positive’s first-ever Corporate Leadership Award.

Yet, Cable Positive’s work—which reaches into 80 million households in the US, and nearly 1.5 billion worldwide thanks to MTV—is even more meaningful when coupled with the use of power in the fight against AIDS, by people in the public and non-profit sphere.

Such a transformative leader is Dr. Helene Gayle, the President and CEO of CARE USA, and she is being presented with Cable Positive’s first-ever Humanitarian Award, at the March 4 Benefit Dinner. Dr. Gayle, who received her MD from the University of Pennsylvania, has devoted her life to improving public health, and particularly to HIV/AIDS prevention. She worked at the CDC for 20 years where she headed the National Center for HIV,STD and TB Prevention. While at the CDC, Dr. Gayle participated in Cable Positive’s AIDS in The Workplace Training video, used across the country to teach cable industry employees about HIV/AIDS. Dr. Gayle also served as Director of HIV, TB & Reproductive Health at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, before taking the helm at CARE USA, an international organization which helps millions of people worldwide.

Leaders like Bill Roedy, Michael Willner and Dr. Helene Gayle give a more profound meaning to the word “power.” They use their power, influence or resources to have a positive impact upon the lives of others, and stand as models of how individuals can use their personal and professional gifts to make the world a better place.

That’s why Cable Positive is proud to honor them on March 4.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Year of no More Excuses

Death concentrates the mind, on things that matter and those that don’t. It’s one of the reasons ACT-UP was so effective in the early 1990’s in forcing the world to pay attention to AIDS: death from the disease was all around us.

In the week before Christmas, 2007, my mother died of a brain tumor. At 92, she had lived a life without excuses, tackling every challenge as it arose. Born with Polio during the epidemic of 1915/1916 in NYC, my mother fought discrimination against the disabled from her very earliest years. Quarantined from using NYC’s public swimming pools as a little girl over public hysteria that other children would “catch” the polio virus from her, my mother was sent to a “crippled children’s home,” the 1920’s vernacular for a rehab center.

Seventy-five years later, one candidate for President of the United StatesMike Huckabee—talks about isolating people with AIDS. HIV Positive individuals are denied permanent immigrant status in the United States, unless given an HIV waiver—a virtually impossible hurdle for gays and lesbians since one of the key conditions for the waiver is a legally recognizable marriage in the U.S. Billions of dollars of U.S. funding for HIV/AIDS programs worldwide is denied to countries that don’t pledge to use the monies for abstinence –only campaigns. Excuses, excuses, excuses instead of compassion, common sense, and equality. My mother had no patience for such drivel; she knew what a struggle it was to just live life, every single day. She was a practical, Italian woman who had no patience for ideological obstacles to reality.

For years, one of the biggest—and deadliest—public policy excuses involved needle-exchange programs to prevent HIV infection. Give a junkie a clean needle, the argument went, and you’ll just create more junkies. Even Bill Clinton, who’s Clinton Foundation is now doing much good work in fighting HIV/AIDS, admitted that one of the worst decisions of his as President was when he failed to push for a nationwide needle-exchange program over the narrow-minded opposition of his own drug czar and others, despite clear evidence that needle exchange programs saved people from HIV infection.

Now the Bush Administration has finally run out of excuses, after religiously gutting funding for HIV prevention in the U.S., and permitting tens of thousands of new HIV infections to happen to IV drug users who shared dirty needles or to teenagers taught abstinence-only who stopped abstaining. For the first time in its long retreat from the reality of AIDS in America, the Bush Administration passed a new spending package, that—at long last—permits Washington, D.C—a city whose black population is on the verge of extinction from the AIDS epidemic—to use a needle-exchange program to fight HIV infections.

Death concentrates the mind, and reality always erases excuses that were just another word for lies.