These days, the airwaves are filled with shows all about things medical. From Scrubs to House, Nip/Tuck to ER to Grey’s Anatomy and, of course, CSI, it appears we’ve reached a new Golden Age of primetime medicine. Yet, with a few brief exceptions, the topic of HIV comes up as infrequently as reruns of Marcus Welby, MD. On tonight’s Valentine’s Day episode, the hit CBS television series, CSI: NY, launches a four-episode HIV storyline involving lead character Stella Bonasera (played by Melina Kanakaredes). Stella, a pivotal character since the show’s launch, is exposed to HIV-infected blood while investigating a crime scene. She awaits her test results…
The storyline was prompted by CBS’s collaboration with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation’s KNOW HIV/AIDS campaign—a media campaign aimed at reducing ignorance, misinformation and stigma around HIV/AIDS using mainstream media. As POZ magazine’s editor-in-chief, I participated in a Kaiser-hosted panel at CBS this past summer. Alongside others living with HIV, I shared stories of battling the virus in an attempt to inspire writers and producers of CBS shows to address the subject of HIV/AIDS.
The result? “Story for Stella,” an unprecedented four-episode storyline about HIV/AIDS—on primetime television.
I went behind the scenes of CSI:NY to talk with the show’s creator, executive producer and writer, Anthony E. Zuiker, about how he went about integrating the topic of HIV/AIDS into the show, and about why he feels the four shows, and the online Forum discussions prompted by the shows, will change TV history.
(To participate in an ongoing, online chat about the CSI: NY episodes, click here.)
Regan Hofmann: What compelled you to introduce a major HIV/AIDS storyline on CSI now?
Anthony E. Zuiker: We’d been trying to do an HIV-oriented storyline for five years. But we were always in a position where it just wasn’t the right time. When we first considered it, we’d just done a brief storyline on AIDS (in season two of the original CSI, which takes place in Vegas). Then, we were too busy launching CSI: Miami to think of introducing an HIV/AIDS storyline right yet. We wanted to use the topic for CSI: NY but the show already skewed too dark so we didn’t want to have what was going to be perceived as an even darker storyline. We finally got into a position—with season three of CSI: NY—when it just felt like the right time to do the storyline—not only for one show, but over the course of four shows.
Are you personally connected in any way to HIV/AIDS? Do you feel an individual responsibility to address the topic?
I didn’t really approach it from a personal standpoint. I am HIV negative and there’s not an individual that I know, nor something that’s happened in my life that’s directly linked to HIV. I always felt when I was younger that I would do something substantial and great. And when CSI was launched, that was my calling. CSI has allowed me to be able to speak on a platform that’s much larger—to be heard and to be taken more seriously—than I would if I didn’t have the show. We reach six to seven million people every week with the television show. CSI allows me to use entertainment to take a stance on an important social issue, and by linking the television show to the Web and asking viewers to get personally involved, it helps to really get the word out in a different way.
When you were developing the storyline, did you have any fear about integrating the topic of HIV/AIDS or driving your viewers to a website to discuss HIV?
I don’t want people to watch the show and then be too scared to log on to the knowhivaids.org and poz.com websites, thinking there’s going to be information there that will scare them so much they never get tested for HIV. I wanted to be able to keep this experience first and foremost about Stella’s story and enable people to commit to her journey, and then, if they’re more curious about the topic, go ahead and surf the websites. CSI and HIV are a match made in heaven. Because we are a science driven show, based on exploring things forensically, it would make sense that this particular topic would fit in well in our storyline.
Do you think this storyline will lead people to become better educated about HIV and to get tested?
I think the most important part of this whole thing is just to take that first step to log on, to share your thoughts. I think a lot of people who have been curious about whether they have contracted HIV or not have done the Google thing, right? They sniff around the symptoms, and try to figure out whether they have the disease, It’s internal hell until you have the courage to get tested. I feel like this probably is the smartest way to get people to get tested. It begins with conversation. It’s entertainment first—and I think we’ll have a pretty positive response because we didn’t shove info about HIV/AIDS down their throats or scare them to death. Instead, we just walked them to the place where the questions they have can be answered. Then, hopefully, people will take action.
What led you to decide to link the show to an online forum where people could discuss HIV/AIDS with a community of those living with the disease?
After deciding to do the storyline, I felt like “Hey, let’s not only stop there, but let’s really utilize the topic and have people watch the show and take an active role, exploring the topic further on a website to where they can really digest what they saw and then really spread the word about HIV”—which is the ultimate goal of all this. Part of my journey in terms of multi-platform entertainment is to be able to utilize television to get people to respond to a situation in a way that’s positive for mankind.
You have a history of encouraging your viewers to comment on your shows online. Do you think that’s unusual in the industry?
We do listen to our viewers and take them seriously. We also take them with a grain of salt. Because when you’re on the Internet, you have to be able to know that certain people are coming from a true-life perspective, and others are just going to write something funny, or write something mean-spirited. And you have to remember (not that we want to focus on all the positive; we definitely enjoy the negative more than the positive) that there’s a way to read viewers’ comments and not bend the show every time we read something critical.
What do you hope viewers will experience by being able to talk directly about HIV with people who are living with the disease?
In terms of the “Story for Stella,” whether you’re HIV positive or not, by enabling viewers to go from the television to the Internet, staying on the story, it allows them this unique experience of almost being a writer on CSI. We encourage viewers to type out where they think the storyline is going to go over the next couple of shows so they can try to match wits with what’s happening on the air. And at the very end, they will be able to see how close, or how far, they were from what actually happened. It’s an entrée first into the topic of HIV/AIDS, then, if they’re curious more, they’ll have plenty of access to info about HIV/AIDS that’s already on the site. I think that’s the true spirit of what we’re trying to with the “Story for Stella.”
Why did you choose Stella as the character to be experiencing a possible HIV infection?
We just felt that she was the proper character at the right time. We were looking for an arc for her at the back half of the season. We also felt like it was a little different to choose a woman who’s in her late 30s, in New York, which is such a social town. We also wanted to uncover a secret of hers through this storyline. Her blood is sent out to a military lab for an HIV test. When it comes back, it leads her to discover something critical about her life, unrelated to HIV. It’s a big, big reveal. It sets up her journey as a character for the next season.
Did you consider having Stella exposed to HIV through unprotected sexual contact? It’s a more likely way for her to have potentially contracted the disease…
Her HIV scare is more case-driven rather than sexually-driven—which felt a little different, in a good way, to me. I think that people expect the sexual contact thing. It felt more organic to the show to have the potential HIV transmission related to blood contamination issues, which are very prevalent in the job of a crime scene investigator. CSI isn’t necessarily a character-driven show; it highlights the procedures of forensic work.
Does Stella know the blood of the victim she comes into contact with was HIV positive?
Yes. Stella has to deal with the reality of possibly contracting HIV. She’s tested for the virus but must wait for the results.
It seems like you struck a good balance between HIV being portrayed as a serious issue but also convincing people that it’s not the end of the world. It’s my struggle, too. In POZ magazine and on POZ.com, we want to reflect the reality of those living with the virus—that reality is totally diverse. For some people, at any given point, this disease is quite terrible. For others, or those same people, at a different time, it’s a manageable condition.
We’ve definitely done a great job with the balance of it. The thing is, you don’t want to come off preachy, and you don’t want to come off as a downer. People tune in to this show at 10 o’clock to be entertained. We really had to make sure that the subject of HIV/AIDS was presented in a way that was entertaining and “of” the story.
It’s great to have HIV appear not just as a brief mention, a token topic, or an afterthought, but as a seriously integrated part of the plotline, woven into the story arc…
I can’t over-emphasize that for CBS, Paramount and CSI to commit to highlighting HIV in this many shows over the course of an emotional arc—and not just sort of mention it—is a huge commitment. It’s probably one of the bigger occasions of exploring the topic of HIV on a television show in history—besides a show that’s been designed around the topic from the beginning. It’s the huge grand-slam arc of all time. CBS has to get a lot of credit in terms of really taking a position to want to attack these issues and letting the creators and my team do it. At the end of the day, it really all starts because the CBS network cares about HIV/AIDS.
Your team did extensive research on the subject of HIV/AIDS. I know you all worked closely with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation to get all the facts and details in the story right. Why was this so important?
The show will air in front of 18 million people. It will go on DVD in a lot of different languages. It will be downloaded on video iPods, Tivos and cell phones, and will be in circulation for the next 20-25 years. Therefore, it’s an ongoing infomercial and educational process that will have an impact for a quarter century. And I think that’s its power. It’s not a newspaper that you read and throw away.
Do you think the way you’ve handled HIV/AIDS on the show, and providing viewers the ability to connect with people living with HIV, will change the way the rest of the media thinks about HIV/AIDS?
For me, it’s this. When Anthony Zuiker goes down in the books as somebody in Hollywood that was a leader in the industry, I want people to look back and say, “You know what? He did it right.” What we did, the team and myself, was to construct a storyline to tell other producers in the business, “Here’s how you do this. Don’t just say ‘no’ to the topic of HIV because you can’t pull it off in the right way or because you think it’s too scary or it’s too dark or it’s too whatever.” If a producer or writer thinks they can’t work HIV into a show, I want CSI to serve as a model. You weave it in a way to where you take people on a journey, where they’re still satisfied with the journey as a CSI viewer, but you’re dealing with a social issue that’s very important and impactful for the greater good, and everybody wins. We have developed the blueprint for other shows to tackle these same kinds of issues, and shown how to utilize television to really get the word out. Which we should do, because we can reach more people faster than anybody.
Are you going to participate in the Forums?
I will be reading every excerpt that’s typed up, and I guess, I haven’t heard yet, but I guess they’re going to incorporate me somewhat. So it could be fun.
What will you do with the content of the Forums?
I think about me publishing those and putting that on the marketplace and having the proceeds go back to a non-profit AIDS organization. Perhaps we can package these stories, sell them and have the proceeds go to Kaiser. It would be so cool, right? Like the day we made history. BOOM. And all of a sudden we’d be selling this book of stories of people living with HIV, with all the profits going to the foundation. That would be so cool. It also might make for a powerful forward written by myself. One that really takes a hardline stance on where we’re at in terms of the AIDS epidemic, and what we’re doing. Maybe we’ll get some results.
Are you happy with the experience of integrating HIV into the "Story for Stella"?
Television is an important platform to not only entertain people and make them forget about life for a while, but also a platform to remind them of the sanctity of life for a while. And in this particular arc we’ve done for CSI: NY, we’ve done a bit of both. We’ve entertained you, we’ve taken you for a journey, but we’re also reminding you of issues that are really important. I feel this is my opportunity to step in and say, “This is how we address critical social issues in the media the right way.” We do this purely out of passion for humanity around the world. There’s no extra profit for us to do this storyline. It may get us a couple of extra viewers here and there they will be insignificant relative to the millions that we attract every week. We care. That’s why we do this.