Back in June when the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, I predicted that one of its long-term effects would be on medical procedurals. One of the most common ways for televised doctors to show that they’re compassionate is for them to treat patients even if they don’t have insurance in defiance of hospital administrators’ wishes or their own well-being. The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling’s sitcom about an OB/GYN, which premieres tomorrow on Fox, is making insurance and medical bill collection a core component of its storytelling. It will take a while to get most Americans insured, but as coverage is increasingly standard, medical procedurals will have to find a substitute for that kind of storytelling.
And shows may start incorporating health care reform into their storylines sooner than I even expected. As The New York Times reported on Saturday, California, as part of its efforts to stand up its health care exchange, has hired Oglivy Public Relations to handle a significant campaign to educate state citizens about their obligations and options, and the plan includes major outreach to Hollywood:
Realizing that much of the battle will be in the public relations realm, the exchange has poured significant resources into a detailed marketing plan — developed not by state health bureaucrats but by the global marketing powerhouse Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, which has an initial $900,000 contract with the exchange. The Ogilvy plan includes ideas for reaching an uninsured population that speaks dozens of languages and is scattered through 11 media markets: advertising on coffee cup sleeves at community colleges to reach adult students, for example, and at professional soccer matches to reach young Hispanic men.
And Hollywood, an industry whose major players have been supportive of President Obama and his agenda, will be tapped. Plans are being discussed to pitch a reality television show about “the trials and tribulations of families living without medical coverage,” according to the Ogilvy plan. The exchange will also seek to have prime-time television shows, like “Modern Family,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and Univision telenovelas, weave the health care law into their plots.
“I’d like to see 10 of the major TV shows, or telenovelas, have people talking about ‘that health insurance thing,’ ” said Peter V. Lee, the exchange’s executive director. “There are good story lines here.”
Now whatever happens will depend on the willingness of shows to play ball—and the extent to which viewers actually understand that the storylines that end up incorporated in the shows reflect accurate information and services that are really available to them. But at a time when Very Special Episodes have become common to the point that there’s nothing very special about them at all, I can’t think of a better reason for shows to explain to viewers that they’re really doing something different than explaining to their audiences that, unlike the miracle doctors on screen, there’s something out there in the real world that can actually make a difference to the uninsured among them.