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.

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