Behavioral Health Management
July/August 2000

Getting the Media Message Straight

An Interview with Brian L. Dyak, President and CEO, Entertainment Industries Council

It's a little like nudity - when does smoking, drinking or drug use in a movie or TV show exceed the requirements of the story and become glorified for its own sake? For almost 20 years, the Entertainment Industries Council (EIC) has been grappling with that issue, dealing with, negotiating with and attempting to educate media moguls on seperating the wheat from the chaff, and doing something about the chaff. EIC's style is more positive than confrontational, as has been highlighted recently by the first nationally syndicated telecasts on various cable channels and the networks of its annual PRISM Awards, which acknowledge "realistic depictions" of substance abuse situations in movies and television. Recently, Brian L. Dyak, President and CEO of EIC, responded to questions about his quietly influential organization, posed by Behavioral Health Management Contributing Editor Jo Donofrio.

How would you describe the Entertainment Industries Council (EIC)?

I cofounded the EIC in 1983 with the help of key film and television executives to serve as a bridge between public policymakers and the creative community - in other words, to bridge the worlds of Hollywood and Washington relative to public policy as it relates to health and social issues, and to bring the power and influence of the entertainment industry to bear on these issues. Our programs are designed to encourage the accurate depiction of health and social issues within the entertainment industry. What makes us unique is that we emanate from inside the industry. Our board of directors includes industry executives from studios, production companies, TV cable networks and motion picture companies. We are financed in a variety of ways, including participation of the entertainment industry, private philanthropy, government grants and contracts, and our own product line.

What is the EIC's basic mode of operation?

The notion is to interpret the research and science of an issue to those in the creative community in a way that they can understand it in order to accurately portray that particular issue. For example, when Beverly Hills 90210 brought Luke Perry back as a heroin addict, they came to us and said, "How do we do this in a way that is accurate?"

It has nothing to do with policing what is produced. We conduct approximately 35 briefings each summer for every major TV show. We lay out for the creative teams of those shows the current trends of an issue. The area we have been most involved in is substance abuse. We also have worked with HIV/AIDS, which is an important issue within our industry, and more recently with gun violence and rave drugs.

We recently developed a program, "PRISM Generation Next," that further addresses the substance abuse area. We are working with major film and television schools to reach creative people before they get their first jobs. We take current show writers and directors, many of them Emmy winners, right into the classroom. These are writers and directors who have acrually taken on an issue like drug abuse, looked at the scientific research and accurately woven it into their story lines. The students are learning from established writers who have had firsthand experience with the challenge of accurate portrayal.

Our intent is that the next generation of writers will be very conscious of the notion that you don't treat these issues lightly, that it is important to do up-front research to ensure that whatever is depicted is depicted accurately.

What have been the major factors, pro and con, affecting the EIC over the years?

The most positive factor is that there definately is and always has been a significant group within the entertainment industry that really cares about these issues - and this group is growing. At the first PRISM Awards four years ago, we had 35 feature films and television shows that were part of the awards process. This year we had 158 shows involved.

As far as a negative factor, it really has to do with the position of some of the advocacy groups - specifically, the idea that counting incidences of inaccurate depiction has any effect on the creative process. It might get a knee-jerk reaction from the industry, but in truth, it actually distances the industry from wanting to address the issue.

Speaking of advocacy groups, The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) has taken a more aggressive approach to TV shows and movies that it finds inaccurately depict mental health issues. What is the EIC's response to this approach?

I would encourage advocacy groups to speak up and advocate for their positions. But it is a matter of how they do it. I don't believe they get anywhere by pointing the finger at any one particular show or film. The show might shift focus or be bounced off the air, but there has been no change in the process, because those same creatives will be working on another show. It is not about any one particular show or movie. It is about the creative process, the people within that process and systemic change within the creative community.

As I mentioned, we have found that there is an affinity group within the industry on most health and social issues. The challenge is for us to find that group and turn its members into a force within the industry to start to address these issues in a strategic way - whether through trade publications, special productions, special seminars, alliances with other industry-based organizations, and so forth. The EIC promotes a collaborative effort that says we are all in this together.

I think organizations like NAMI should always bring to public attention anything they are concerned about. But, to me, it is a matter of how you bring it to the industry's attention, and then how you do something about it in a proactive manner.

Would you tell us a little more about the PRISM Awards?

The PRISM Awards are the entertainment industry's annual recognition event honoring entertainment industry creators for their accurate depiction of drug, alcohol and tobacco use and addiction. They are presented by EIC in partnership with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The two most critical criteria are the entertainment value and creativity coupled with the scientific accuracy of the message. The winners are chosen by a review committee made up of people from the industry and scientists who are involved with NIDA and the National Institutes of Health. Scoring is based on the accuracy of the message, the intent of the story arc, the amount of creativity involved, how the story is being told and the quality of the writing and cinematography. The awards ceremony now being televised was taped in March, and some of the 2000 PRISM Award winners included the productions Clean and Sober, The Insider, ER, Once and Again, Tobacco Wars, and the talk show Leeza.

From EIC's viewpoint what has been the "best and worst" during the past 20 years?

The "best" has been the entertainment industry's movement away from total substance abuse exploitation productions and the recognition from the creative community that there is value in accurate depiction. You very seldom see gratuitous drug use without also seeing a negative consequence. Some of that might be a direct result of the maturing of the entertainment industry relative to the substance abuse area. In fact, people within our industry are starting to step forward in terms of their own alcohol and drug abuse recovery.

As far as the "worst," I'll just say that the EIC utilizes a nonjudgemental process and respects creative integrity in all areas.

Has the proliferation of cable TV channels in recent years made the EIC's job more difficult?

When we began in 1983, there were three television networks, VCRs were not widely used and video stores were just taking off. Today, programming is coming from so many different places, and this proliferation of media channels has caused us to have more value as an entity in the industry. As the medium has expanded, so has our ability to reach more people in the creative process. Over the years, cable has truly been a part of what we are about. It has been very positive for us.

Does the EIC have plans to expand its oversight to Internet-based offerings or other media?

Now that Internet programming is becoming more sophisticated, I think there will be a place for us to actually work to create additional Internet programming. As far as honing in on the creators of Internet-based programs, we are just starting to collect a database on some of that programming. So it definately could be another expansion of the media that allows us to reach a broader audience and a broader creative process.

One of the more critical things we are looking at right now is audience-based research through Internet polling. We want to get a better sense of the impact and attitude of the viewer on programming that has already aired and get a better handle on what the audience is seeing and not seeing.

What are the future issues facing the EIC?

In terms of mental health issues, addressing stigma is very important, from the standpoint of the treatment provider and the person receiving treatment. There is also an excellent opportunity to work on getting rid of stereotypical images and recognizing mental health issues for what they are and how to live with them. We also want to look at the relationships between drugs, alcohol and mental health.

Gun violence and firearm safety are also issues we want to address. A lot of what we currently see revolves solely around gun violence, but there is also an opportunity to look at gun safety and injury prevention. By actually promoting things like proper gun storage and locking, the entertainment industry could provide a real service to the public.

Care to sum up?

The EIC is working toward systematic change within the industry. Just as a show might supposedly influence the attitude and behavior of the audience, we are trying to shape an attitude about the integration of accurate depiction of health and social issues within the creative process. And, hopefully, as that attitude becomes a behavior, it will influence how the product is actually developed. We believe the outcome will be a more responsive entertainment product and institutionalization of "the art of making a difference."