With issue oriented sitcoms and ABC after-school specials mere ghosts of the Reagan era, how is America, the land of the TV junkie, supposed to get its information? Raise your hand if you were one of countless kids who learned what an “inappropriate touch” was when Dudley wandered into the back of the bike shop on a very special two-part episode of Diff’rent Strokes. These days, aside from the occasional smallpox outbreak on ER, TV leaves education to teachers and parents.

Media giant Viacom wants to change all that for HIV. Linking up with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, it kicked off 2003 by launching “Know HIV/ AIDS” (www.knowhivaids.org), a $120 million public-education initiative, including PSA and other ads in its radio, TV, online and outdoor properties. But the most impressive part of the campaign is that its TV and cable channels, including CBS, BET, UPN, MTV, VH1 and Showtime, incorporated HIV story lines into their programs in January and February.

Typically, the level of education, not to mention entertainment, varied from one series to the next. There was the predictable amount of adult finger-wagging, for example  in the Ted Danson vehicle Becker, in which the doctor persuades a promiscuous teen to use condoms. Another common theme was “What happens when supposedly reasonable adults are faced with taking an HIV test?” On UPN’s One on One, single dad Flex Barnes, who admits he has slept with “eight to nine women—add a zero,” has to take a test before his girlfriend will have sex with him. From there, we’re treated to a painful-to-watch parade of stereotypes. There’s the “extra-heterosexual” guy, “so straight that he doesn’t even make left turns,” who sees no need for a test. He is countered by the hands-on-her-hips, all-knowing sistah who won’t let a man near her until she has proof he is HIV-free. In the middle is poor Flex, whose anxiety as he waits five days for his results is only marginally convincing and even less entertaining. Of course he tests negative. Moral of the story? “Just wear a condom and you’ll be fine”—a little simplistic, but after all, it’s network.

Much fresher was UPN’s Girlfriends, a.k.a. the black Sex and the City, which blended HIV facts into its story in a way that didn’t remind me of a grade-school film strip. The fabulous Los Angeles ladies lend support to Toni, whose new man won’t do the do until she gets tested. (“What, does he think I have, cooties?” Toni protests.) More interesting was the subplot involving ’round-the-block Lynn and her new celibate boyfriend, played by spoken-word artist Saul Williams. His poem about millions of black women dying of AIDS worldwide opens Lynn’s eyes.

While the sitcoms showed characters for whom HIV was only a brief bother (no PWAs, please!), the dramas pushed harder. In a Star Trek: Enterprise episode, Vulcan T’Pol must deal with health-care workers’ prejudice against patients with a disease whose stigma mirrors AIDS’. But best was DC cop drama The District. In a two-episoder, we meet Jenny—young, poor, black, HIV positive and dying because federal cutbacks have blocked her access to medication. She shows the lead, police chief Jack Mannion, that AIDS in America is far from “under control”—in fact, it is so bad that her doctor is convicted of stealing HIV meds for patients like her who have fallen through the cracks. And The District boldly declares that the U.S. has zero interest in saving the lives of HIVers outside its own borders. Jenny dies—and it’s Mannion who pulls off the rally she had planned to protest AIDS budget cuts.

Not a happy ending, but tough and true to life—and the kind of “message TV” that makes me feel like a kid again.