Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S) is a program of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center that provides the entertainment industry with accurate and up-to-date information for storylines on health, safety and security. With generous support from funders that include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The SCAN Foundation, N Square Collaborative, the California Health Care Foundation, the Lupus Foundation of America, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the John Pritzker Family Fund, HH&S recognizes the profound impact that entertainment has on audience knowledge and behavior.
This summer I had the great opportunity to attend a fantastic and informative event hosted by Hollywood, Health & Society and Future of Life Institute. This specific panel was on 'Slaughterbots to Utopia' and I was incredibly inspired by what the future of writing could and can be. Additionally, I was made aware of the great resources that the team behind Hollywood, Health & Society are providing on a daily basis for screenwriters and television writers. Plus, they host lunch and learn online events, the Sentinel Awards, and recently launched the Blue Sky Scriptwriting Contest.
I had the great honor of speaking with Kate Folb M.Ed., Director of Hollywood, Health & Society about the formation of the organization, the services, resources, and events (I should also add - free) for writers, and about her journey in the industry from starting out as a production assistant on a rock and roll television show to becoming the director at HH&S.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: You work for a great organization that does so much in terms of resources, providing accuracy for storylines surrounding health, science, climate – the list goes on. Please give us a brief overview of the Lear Center and Hollywood Health and Society.
Kate Folb: Founded by Norman Lear in 2001. The Lear Center was founded in 2000 and Hollywood Health and Society is and has been its flagship project ever since it was founded in 2001. So, we have more than two decades of time working with the entertainment industry around depictions. In the beginning, it was primarily health. But anything to do with health, and back then, in the early 2000s, we were still in the midst of our previous pandemic of HIV AIDS. And so, some of the original funding, in addition to Mr. Lear’s gift came from CDC. And they understood the power of narrative and entertainment narrative, in particular, in helping audiences learn about pressing health issues, and HIV AIDS at that time was really pressing. There was a lot of misinformation out there just like today with COVID. So, they understood how entertainment could help spread accurate information around HIV transmission, treatment at the time and prevention. That was a big part of what we did when we first began, but it was all health. Anything the CDC dealt with, we were able to work with shows on and so we have an official partnership with the Writers Guild, both in New York and in LA. It's actually in their bylaws that their president is the co-chair of our board. We're very embedded with the guilds. We also have partnerships with the Television Academy and the Producers Guild and others.
The industry sees us, and it’s true, not as an advocacy group to come in with a point of view on something, but rather as a resource for them to reach out when researching for a script, for a storyline, especially if has to do with health and medicine. So, you can imagine, we work with all the medical shows, Grey's Anatomy, Chicago Med, all of them - some of them on a weekly basis, because they have so many health and medical topics that they're dealing with.
We also work with shows, family shows like This Is Us, and Parenthood, because they deal with a lot of health and social issues. And we work with kid's shows, animated, comedies, dramas, and soap operas, and pretty much anything that's narrative storytelling.
The way we do it is we have kind of a hotline - they can call us or email us on demand, and say, ‘Hey, I got a script, my character is going to get leukemia, what does that mean? What's the life expectancy?’ We can give them all the research and the information they need to understand the condition. And then also, sometimes they want to talk to a practitioner, an expert in that field, to get language right, and to sort of float some storylines and ideas. We can also connect them with experts through the phone, through Zoom, in the before times, we could bring the expert into the writers’ room to do a deep dive with the whole writing team. It sort of depends on the context of the show, the storyline, and all that. So, whatever they've already decided to write about, we're here to help support and take the burden off of them in terms of doing the research, because we don't want them to just go to Dr. Google, we want them to come to vetted experts that we know actually have the most accurate information. We'll take that burden off the writers so that they can spend their time doing what they do best, which is crafting great stories. We do all of that on demand. And we're busy. We're on the phone and on emails with writers from hundreds of shows all day long.
We also do outreach. We do events and other kinds of activities to raise awareness about maybe a new issue. As you can imagine in 2020, we were doing a lot of COVID events. But also, more recently, we've done work around HIV again, because we did such a great job back in the day, everybody is sort of ‘been there done that’ - people think, ‘Oh, HIV is kind of a chronic thing. There's plenty of medications to keep it at bay,’ but there are still populations that are very much at risk, and very much still being ravaged by HIV AIDS. And so, we came back to the industry and said, ‘Hey, don't forget this is still a thing. If you haven't written about it lately, here's some new information, and here's some new experience of people that are living with the disease and what their life is like,’ and so forth.
We do lots of events and other kinds of outreach activity to raise awareness about new developments and clarify if there's misinformation out there. And also, just to remind them that some of these things that they think, ‘Oh, that was disease of the week,’ they haven't gone away.
We do events, like the one that you attended, that was our first back live event, after two years of doing them all on Zoom. We still do lunch and learns and other Zoom kind of events as well. And still trying to sort of get back full force into live events. I don't know that we'll ever go back to the way things were, but in some ways, Zoom events are great, because people can do it at their lunch hour, or they don't have to get in the car and fight the LA traffic.
Sadie: And tune in from all over. Is this just for guild members or is this available to any writer?
Kate: Yeah, we've opened it - sort of depends on the event and the purpose, but mostly, we leave it open. If it's at the guild, sometimes they're a little more squeamish about people that aren't members coming into the facility. Like the one that we had up on the rooftop, we open that up to other writers, mostly our marketing goes to guild members, and entertainment industry professionals. Occasionally a student at USC will pick up on something we're doing and come, but we don't market to the students, as much as working writers that are in the industry that are making shows that are on the air now or soon to be. It’s not that we don't help students, but they're kind of lower on our priority list, because we're really trying to get this accurate information out to the largest audiences possible. So, yes, we do open it up to others, depending on the topic.
Sadie: That's so great. And then as a resource, asking one of your experts in that field, is that also open to the general public of writers, or is that more so for writers who are in production or gearing up to be in production?
Kate: We sort of have our hierarchical process. We tell everybody this, we give priority to shows that are already on the air. The second down is a show that's already been greenlit and is going to be on the air. Next to that is an inquiry from a writer or a showunner that we know always get stuff on the air. We work on a lot of pilots. We worked on the pilot for Breaking Bad, on the cancer stuff. So, we don't turn down working with pilots.
And then, occasionally we get a writer or someone who's retired from being a lawyer and has decided they're going to write a screenplay or something, and we're happy to help them. But they have to understand that it may take longer, because most of the time with the shows and the stuff that's already on the air or about air, the turnaround time is fast - they need it quickly. With someone who's writing the great American novel or a great American screenplay, if we can help them we will, because we want everyone to care about it being as accurate as possible and not just making this stuff up.
Sadie: Which is so important, especially with the power of storytelling through TV and film. Most audiences take it word for word, so it’s best to be accurate, right? I'm so very curious about your background, and how got involved with the organization.
Kate: The short, abbreviated version is I came to LA for grad school, actually went to USC for graduate school and UCLA, I went to both. But my reason for coming to LA was to get into the television industry, because that was what I wanted to do. Back in my day, there wasn't a degree you could get, so it really was kind of work your way up. The film school was here, but it wasn't what it is today. And so I came to LA, finished grad school, and promptly went to work as a production assistant at a TV show called Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, which was a pre-MTV late-night rock and roll show. We'd go out and film the bands in concert and put it on late night. We had a host, MTV was kind of modeled after it, but we had a host that would give trivia and do interviews and all that, and then mostly it was just to put the bands on the air. So that's how I started as a youngling and then I stuck with that production company for a while. We did a lot of music on television. A lot of variety shows a lot of concert kind of productions and so forth. I did a lot of rock and roll TV. And I worked for a while for a guy named Shep Gordon who, I don't know if you ever saw the movie Supermensch, but all those people I worked with --
Sadie: That’s a cast of characters right there. [laughs]
Kate: [laughs] Oh, the stories I could tell, I'm sure. I kind of merged into music, more management for a while, because I worked with him. And it was the music industry, but not so much TV. And by then MTV happened. And so, we were working with them in terms of marketing music videos, and all that. Anyway, I got married, took some time off, had a couple of kids, and really needed a break from production because it's a soul-sucking industry. I mean, it's really tough. And back then, rock and roll as a young woman, if I only knew then what I could do now.
When I decided to go back to work, I was invited by Paul Newman, who had at the time had a foundation called the Scott Newman Center, which was named after his son, who died of a drug overdose. And he had started this group in the late 80s. I didn't go back to work with him until the mid-90s. It was really to work with the entertainment industry on depictions around addiction and substance use. Because at that time, you know, Cheech & Chong, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and it was really funny to be the stoner and even SNL is doing tons of drug jokes. This was his effort to kind of tell the other side of the story around addiction. And so, he invited me to come and work with the foundation to leverage my television connections for this issue - of course, he had a lot more leverage than I did. I worked with them for a number of years, doing this same kind of work, but more specific just to substance use and alcoholism. At that time, crack was a big thing. And all of that sort of changing the narrative around or telling the other side of the story.
And then AIDS hit, and there was crossover with HIV and drug abuse. At the time, also, Mr. Newman was starting his camps and all of his philanthropy really was going to that, and the Scott Newman thing was really painful and hard for him. It sort of fizzled away. And I went to work then for another group called Advocates for Youth, which is based in DC, but had a project in LA at the time, that had to do with depictions of adolescent reproductive health. And they had started it in trying to combat teen pregnancy. And then HIV AIDS hit, and it was all hands on deck. And so, they brought me in to do a full court press on getting the entertainment industry up to speed on HIV AIDS, condom normalization, and all that. I did that for a long time. I ran their project called The Media Project. I was doing that for a few years when Hollywood, Health & Society was first established. And I remember going to meetings because they invited Marty Kaplan, who's the founder, along with Norman, of the Norman Lear Center they were taking meetings with all these others - there weren't that many, but the groups that were in LA, working with television on health and social issues, because their goal was to create an aggregate, create a clearing house, or a one-stop shop where writers could just go to one place, and access all the issues. Because I was doing just reproductive health at that time, there are other groups that were doing guns and violence on TV, and GLAAD was doing LGBT stuff. And so, their goal was really to just create this one-stop shop that works with all the advocacy groups, but the writers only have to go to one place. I remember they were interviewing all of us and I met with the woman who first ran it, many times, she and I are very dear friends, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I'm going to work there someday,’ [laughs] I'm going to have to because there's not that many groups that do this. So, lo and behold, a few years later, here I am.
Sadie: Wow, what journey to get to that to this spot. That’s so incredible.
Kate: I laugh, because I'm an old hippie, and I grew up in the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And basically, that's been my career trajectory, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, just in reverse, right? And for the greater good. [laughs]
Sadie: Please tells us about the Blue Sky Scriptwriting Contest and what that entails.
Kate: The Blue Sky Scriptwriting Contest, we're still accepting entries up till August 1. We're inviting people to envision a more positive version of the future. You can tell whatever story you want, but maybe set it in a greener, more just, more peaceful world. The only caveat is you have to tell us how our world achieved that; what projects were developed in 2022 that were scaled up and made those changes in 2045, or 2050, or whenever your show is set. We're inviting anybody to please submit. There are cash prizes attached!
We're also right now taking submissions for our annual Sentinel Awards. We do an annual award, where we honor shows that have addressed important health and safety and pro-social topics. And by the way, we've expanded long past health now to climate change, and to policy and war and peace and racism, and all these other social topics that all really affect our health, one way or another. We're inviting submissions of aired shows and episodes on any of those issues to be in consideration for our Sentinel awards. And those will be awarded in October. If anybody's got an episode, it's easy to go to our website and find how to submit those. Those are our two big things happening over the summer.
Anybody out there who needs help with a script, call us, email us, we're here to help our services are free. We don't take a fee, and we don't take a credit. Our services are really just in the interest of accuracy around any health, medicine, safety, security, and pro-social issue. Call us, email us, we have operators standing by now. [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs] What a wonderful resource, and I know a lot of writers will definitely need this. The show Dopesick keeps popping to mind, did your team work with them as well?
Kate: Yeah, we were really happy to work with them. And we worked with the streamer Hulu, because we did some PSAs at the end, just little end cards. The other piece of what we do research on the impact that these TV shows and storylines have on audiences. We actually gather data and publish it in health journals and communications journals to say that, ‘This episode of Grey's Anatomy, coupled with this PSA that they put at the end, spiked calls to the suicide addiction hotline, by this many immediately as soon as that PSA was shown,’ so we have that kind of data available. I mean, it gives me cold chills every time because it's really fascinating how the emotional connection with a story or the narrative story, and then if you give the audience something to do - call a hotline, go to a website, talk to your doctor. If they do it, they do it in droves. And it's amazing. I have tons and tons of anecdotal stories, as well as data on how episodes of Grey's Anatomy or Chicago Med or whatever have saved people's lives, because it spurred them to call their doctor and talk to them because they have the same symptoms as somebody on the show, and they've caught cancers and saved people because of a TV show.
Sadie: That's amazing. Yeah, goosebumps here too. That's incredible.
Kate: A lot of research on that so we can go back to the show and say, ‘This is the impact you're having on your audience.’ It's important to be accurate, because they're listening and they’re watching.
Sadie: The significance and importance of working with streamers and studios to get that right.
Kate: Yeah, we work with all of them. The streamers, which is why I had to hire more people. And we're so busy, because there's so much more content out there than there was ten years ago. Oh my gosh. I had to hire two new people and we're busy. But we work with all the streamers, all the premium cable, and broadcast shows - you name it - Disney Jr, Sesame Street, we're with them all the way to shows like Euphoria and everything in between.