Wednesday, April 23, 2008


By Steve Villano,

Pardon me, if this Earth Day, I am seeing red over all this hoopla about everyone turning “green.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the earth as much as Al Gore does, having been involved in permanently shutting down the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant almost 20 years ago and in organizing the first Earth Day on my college campus some 18 years before that. So, please, spare me the coolness of suddenly discovering that environmentalism sells.

While global warming is here, and has been for a while, it’s not the only cause campaign in need of more airtime, more money, more corporate involvement, more volunteers and more celebrity attention. Have AIDS and its symbolic red-ribbon gone out of style because “Green” is an easier, more PG-rated cause to pitch? Because it’s easier to dramatize melting polar ice caps then it is to cover the death of a single woman by AIDS-related wasting away syndrome?

I’m sorry to throw some cold tap-water (not plastic bottled, of course) on how easy it is to be green, but, while we’re worried about people and polar bears dying down the road from global warming, let’s never forget that 25 million people have died over the past 25 years from AIDS related illnesses, and thousands more are dying each day, right now. I am very much aware that the World Health Organization predicted that deaths from global warming could reach 300,000 per year in 25 years—a tragedy, for sure, but a trifle compared to the 3 million people presently dying each year from AIDS. An inconvenient truth? Yes, it certainly is.

I have traveled the world cheerleading about how the cable television industry has done enormously significant work in the areas of HIV/AIDS awareness & prevention, having donated some $20 million to Cable Positive programs over the past 15 years as well as more than $1 billion in airtime to get our AIDS education messages out. That’s not a “cause campaign”, but a commitment of resources, time, talent and tenacity, that should not be overlooked.

But the inescapable fact is that each season, with each AIDS awareness message we provide, pro-bono airtime gets tougher to procure, because there are more public service messages competing for a finite amount of space—especially in a competitive election year like 2008 where serious money is chasing every available 30-second spot on Cable. Just this month, we’ve had to inform several struggling AIDS Service Organizations—which spend their days & nights keeping people alive—that local cable systems they have historically counted on for free PSA space, have no more room at the inn. Such a shortage hurts not only the local community by denying valuable public information, but it damages the reputation of the cable system or network as a company that cares about the community, and puts its money where its messaging is.

I don’t want to pit the “Reds” vs. the “Greens,” especially in a nation and an industry with such enormous resources it can easily support both. Yet, having fought HIV/AIDS for much of my professional career, I know that money or airtime spent on one corporate social responsibility campaign, means that less will be available for AIDS awareness and prevention messages. Yes, this zero-sum game can be broken by putting PSAs on the internet or text messages on cell-phones, but as a society, we are not there yet. Even the most highly viewed Cable Positive PSAs on YouTube are only seen by a fraction of the audience that is exposed to them on the air.

“Saving the earth” is a noble & sacred cause; saving the life of a brother or sister with AIDS is an emergency of the highest practical and moral order. So here’s my challenge for our industry: for every dollar, for every second of precious airtime you invest in your “green cause campaign,” pledge 10 times that amount to Cable Positive and the fight against AIDS. With 10 times the number of people dying from AIDS each year at this very moment than are projected to die from global warming 25 years from now, it’s the least we can do to show that our priorities are still in the right place.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

You are not alone...

By Thomas Henning

Growing up in a small New England town, I had a privileged childhood. I grew up in a small town where everyone knew each other.

As a young child, Phil, the owner of the local grocery store, would always ask me how I was or acknowledge me for something that I was involved in. Mary, an elderly woman who lived on the street I walked every morning to school, would always leave a bowl of water and plate of food for my dog, Fuzzy (yes, Fuzzy). Then there was Chief Brodley, a family friend, who would come into my family’s restaurant and make sure that everything was okay when he knew my brother and I were working.

One day my family got the call that every one fears. My brother had been in a car accident on his way to school and was killed. My family was devastated. My parents could barely function and my brothers and I were old enough to understand but not equipped to make all the necessary decisions. The people in my small town, both friends and associates, came together. They were there every step of the process, never intrusive and always supportive.

From a very young age, I understood the power of community. Community has the ability to help make a person feel whole and part of something larger than themselves. Community has the power to be present during the laughter and the tears of a person’s life. Community can rally around a person on the brink, stand beside them, walk through the fire with them, and successfully come out the other side.

I think it is that sense of community that Cable Positive’s Employee Assistance Fund, administered through The Actors’ Fund, provides that makes it so powerful for people.

People like Tanya, a 52-year old woman living with HIV since 1997. Since 2000, she has worked as an Advertising Coordinator for a cable company in northern California. She is a single mother with three children (ages 14, 16, and 21), and has been able to support herself and her children for most of the duration of her experience with HIV.

Still, she has battled several periods of severe illness, requiring two applications for short-term disability assistance through the State of California. In the more recent case, she was hospitalized several times over three years for meningitis and finally had to apply for help. Both times, the Fund was able to help her financially while her claim was being evaluated by the State.

This assistance from Cable Positive prevented her eviction in both circumstances, first in 2003 and again in 2006. Her social worker at The Actors' Fund advocated with her landlord throughout the process each time, and has helped her establish a more stable relationship with the management company. The Fund has also has stepped in occasionally to provide Tanya with food vouchers from a local grocery store so that she can buy food for her family during periods of unusual financial stress.

Community is a powerful thing. I think the employees of the cable industry really understand that. You can see it in the work of Cable Positive’s chapters. You can see it in the partnerships that develop through the Tony Cox Community Fund. Most importantly, you can feel it when you talk to people in both the HIV/AIDS Community and the cable industry who share with me why they are committed to Cable Positive’s mission to address HIV/AIDS.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

I am Left Asking...

By Thomas Henning

Last year, it is estimated that 2.1 million children under the age of 15 were living with HIV. Around the world, 5.4 million young people are living with HIV. Beyond that, over 15 million children under 18 have lost one, if not both, of their parents due to AIDS and those numbers don’t address issues related to the epidemic, issues like deepening poverty, stigma, access to health care, and lack of access to education that millions more deal with on a daily basis.

There is no question that a greater emphasis needs to be place on HIV prevention. Young people need information; information that is accurate, age-appropriate, and in a culturally relevant-voice that they can hear and relate to.

It is also important that they receive that information in an environment that is inviting, engaging, and protective. An environment where they can talk openly about the risky behavior they, and their peers, may engage in and what they can do to be better advocates for those they care for, including themselves.

Cable can, and does, play a critical role in getting HIV information to young people. Some networks do it much better than others. Some are the example of what can be done to help change the course of this epidemic while others fall short.

I remember the first time I saw HIV-related programming. It was early on in the epidemic and the images that I saw, the story that I was told, stayed with and helped to re-enforce the fear and stigma that the media had helped develop in me, through their reporting.

I was alone when I watched the program. I didn’t have the opportunity to engage in a conversation with someone about what I saw. The next day, I didn’t have a peer group that was open to discussing what I saw.

My school’s HIV prevention efforts were not engaging or inviting. They were shame-based, ill-informed attempts to keep me “on the right track.”

The framework for building the tools to educate and advocate for myself was not there. It wasn’t there in my school, on the playground, or in the home. Of course, that was 1985 and things are different 23 years later. The question is, how different?

In this country, are school-based HIV prevention efforts as sophisticated as they can be? Are families as pro-active as they can be to equip their children with the tools needed to be strong self-advocates? Is media doing all it can to increase HIV education and prevention efforts?

Youth are mobilizing to address the epidemic proving that they themselves can be a powerful resource when it comes to education and prevention efforts. Peer educators acting as mentors in their communities. Online communities where people can share challenges and life experiences and draw from each other’s knowledge and support, outrage and fear, and belief in the possibility of a better tomorrow.

My question is: Why has media programming not kept up with the pace that young people are setting? Media has long been acknowledged as having the power to impact behavioral changes among consumers. Behavioral changes are the most powerful weapons that young people have against HIV.

1 out of 4 young people rank AIDS their top concern. It is understandable given the fact that 1 out of every 2 new infections occur in young people ages 15-24.

Young people ages 13-25, or “Millennials” as marketing professional call them, are one of the most important and socially conscious consumers, over 70 million strong, spending approximately $172 billion per year and heavily influencing many adult consumer buying choices.

From a simple business standpoint, doing right in the world is also doing right by this important consumer—a consumer that, according to a Cone study, 8 out of 10 times will work for a company that cares about how it affects or contributes to society.

According to that same study, 69% of Millennials consider a company's social and environmental commitment when deciding where to shop, and 83% will trust a company more if it is socially/environmentally responsible.

So then why the scarcity of HIV-related programming on those shows that target that market? Why the scarcity of HIV-related documentaries and news coverage from those networks that target that market?

Again, there are some strong examples of networks that understand that doing good not only improves the communities served but can also improve the company’s bottom line. Looking at the media landscape I am left asking “Is enough being done? Can more be done?”

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


By Steve Villano

Scientists, infectious disease doctors and public health advocates were hit with a double-whammy over the past few weeks.

In the valiant quest for a vaccine to prevent the spread of AIDS, the most promising AIDS Vaccine candidate in years failed in two major clinical trials which the entire medical world was watching. Some of those receiving the vaccine in clinical trials conducted in Africa, may have become more likely to become infected with the HIV virus than those who did not.

It was, as HIV virus co-discoverer Dr. Robert Gallo said, "the equivalent of the Challenger disaster in AIDS research," but even that only represented one facet of the tragedy. Another damaging aspect of the dire development was that it reinforced an already powerful prejudice that exists within communities of color that HIV/AIDS was deliberately engineered to kill black people. It's an unfounded conspiracy theory--believed by large segments of the black community worldwide--that dates back to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments in the U.S, and the polio vaccine clinical trials done in Africa decades ago. In fact, in many mostly Muslim nations, polio has made a deadly resurgence, because many in those countries believe that the polio vaccine is nothing more than a Western plot to infect whole populations with AIDS. Consequently, there are enormous challenges ahead for not only the discovery of a viable AIDS vaccine, but for distributing vaccines that have already been developed for diseases that can be controlled or eliminated, like polio or measles.

That's why its so maddening that at almost the precise moment the grim news about the AIDS vaccine was being made public, a group of well-to-do women in San Diego, California--where a measles outbreak is occurring--are refusing to have their children vaccinated for basic childhood diseases, out of a completely unproven fear that such vaccines cause autism.

One of the San Diego mothers conceded that by not having her child vaccinated against measles--which kills 250,000 children a year in countries where the vaccine doesn't reach everyone--she knew she was putting other children at risk. Another acknowledged the existence of "measles parties," where uninfected children are brought by their parents and intentionally exposed to children with measles, so they can be "naturally" exposed to the disease.

The bitter irony here is that in a rich, fortunate place like San Diego, California, where citizens have access to some of the best health care in the country, and childhood vaccines are in abundant supply, an unfounded, not-medically supported myth is circulating and putting everyone's child at risk of being infected with a virus for which we have already discovered the vaccine.

Don't we have enough work to do on AIDS--in finding a viable vaccine, that could save millions of lives--to be subject to such know-nothing, anti-science nonsense that threatens the health of all of us? Perhaps the first vaccine we need to develop is the one which eradicates ignorance and fear.