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'Caller' Clash Reflects TV's Challenge on AIDS

December 03, 1988|NINA J. EASTON | Times Staff Writer

Kelly West is about to find out that she has just slept with a man who is infected with the AIDS virus. "He bragged about cruising the leather bars in the Castro," West says, "but . . . but I thought he was only kidding."

West is a TV character dreamed up by the producers of NBC's "Midnight Caller." But, in this case, critics of the show argue, the producers let their imaginations stray too far afield.

"I would venture to guess that no woman in San Francisco (the show's location) or any other major city, is as stupid as Kelly West," Patrick Mulcahey, a TV writer active in Project Inform, a major clearinghouse of AIDS data, wrote to the show's producers. "Straight San Francisco women do not take any implication of male bisexuality as a joke."

In the 1980s, AIDS has been the subject of countless TV documentaries and specials, even movies-of-the-week and after-school specials. Now the disease is becoming routine entertainment fare in sitcoms, daytime soap operas and action series like "Midnight Caller."

"You're starting to see it more and more," says Roz Wyman, NBC's director of community affairs. "It's a perfect example of how TV reflects reality."

Television does reflect reality, but it can also distort it. Critics contend that the episode of "Midnight Caller," scheduled for broadcast Dec. 13, is a case in point.

AIDS groups have protested the episode since they obtained a copy of the script several weeks ago. Lorimar, the show's producer, agreed to a number of changes in the script but announced this week that the show will air without further revision, a decision that prompted new objections from the AIDS community in San Francisco, where the show is filmed.

Bob Singer, the show's executive producer, says the episode presents "a message of responsibility and caring. . . . It's everyone's responsibility; it's not just a gay disease; it's in the fabric of American life."

While generally applauding the portrayal of the disease on TV shows, AIDS activists and public health officials are raising some concerns:

--In "Midnight Caller," a character named Mike Barnes--the devil-may-care charmer who sleeps with Kelly West--knowingly exposes his lovers to the AIDS virus. While there have been rare cases of reckless spreading of the disease, none has occurred in San Francisco's gay community, where health officials have "enormous powers of restraint," including the authority to incarcerate someone like Barnes, said Tom Peters, associate director of the city's Public Health Department.

Critics contend that because Barnes is tracked down by the show's hero, a radio talk show host, the episode leaves viewers with the impression that only vigilante action and not law enforcement can stop him.

Moreover, critics of the episode argue that it is unrealistic to show Barnes successfully operating today in San Francisco's gay community, where safe sex has become so prevalent that the rate of new HIV infections is approaching zero, according to studies by the city's Public Health Department and the University of California, San Francisco.

--Among the daytime soap operas, which have some of the most extensive AIDS-related plots on TV, the typical AIDS victim is a woman. In reality, gay and bisexual men constitute 62% of all reported AIDS cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control. "The coupling of AIDS and homosexuality makes producers and networks go crazy," says Mulcahey, a writer for the soap "Santa Barbara."

Meredith Berlin, editor-in-chief of Soap Opera Digest, said that focusing on women characters with AIDS "is a chicken way of dealing with it. They think viewers can deal with AIDS, but they can't deal with gay men. . . . I don't think anyone would turn off their sets."

Soap producers contend that they are not shying away from homosexuality by focusing on women carrying the AIDS virus. "The majority of our viewers are women," said Jo Anne Emmerich, ABC's senior vice president of daytime programs. "They can empathize with a patient being a woman. It's hard (for a viewer) to put herself in the place of a gay man."

--Often on TV, AIDS victims die, or fall fatally ill, within months of being infected with the HIV virus. While that is possible, the more likely scenario is several years of good health before the disease takes hold. Health experts say someone infected today could live another seven or eight years, even longer if more treatments become available.

Mulcahey, who was recruited by San Francisco city officials to mediate the dispute between AIDS activists and Lorimar, objected to recurring inferences in the "Midnight Caller" script that those who were infected by HIV would soon die. "The strategy of informed San Francisco HIV (virus carriers) is to keep themselves alive long enough to see . . . new therapies come into currency," Mulcahey advised the producers.

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