Old Dogma, New Tricks

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It’s a human need to be told stories. The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell each other who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible.”

Alan Rickman, stage and screen actor

“Mutually assured destruction is an old dogma,” said the President of the United States at a meeting with NATO’s nuclear planning group, “Especially with the threat of control systems being hacked.” Standing firm alongside the US Secretary of State, the President offered to reduce the number of US nuclear weapons in Europe and asked that Russia do the same.

Fact or fiction?

designated-survivor_300x445_mipAs you probably guessed, that scenario about the President’s commitment to nuclear threat reduction in Europe is fiction. It’s part of an ongoing nuclear weapons storyline on the ABC hit show Designated Survivor, which is seen by 11 million people at a time. That’s a lot of people thinking about nuclear weapons for an hour. You can watch the Episode, entitled Bombshell, here.

Designated Survivor is not alone in tackling nuclear risks; TV shows as diverse as CBS’ Madam Secretary, NBC’s Chicago Med, and PBS’ Call the Midwife have all explored the subject recently. That’s no mere coincidence—showrunners and writers alike are becoming more attuned to the threats we face as they meet with nuclear threat experts via an N Square grant to the Hollywood, Health & Society program at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center.

While these storylines are not “real”, they are essentially rehearsals of plausible future situations. We asked our colleague at the Hollywood, Health & Society program, Kate Folb, to talk about this. She tells us:

While these storylines are not “real”, they are essentially rehearsals of plausible future situations. We asked our colleague at the Hollywood, Health & Society program, Kate Folb, to talk about this. She tells us:

Kate Folb, Director of Hollywood, Health, & Society

Kate Folb, Director of Hollywood, Health, & Society

“There is extensive evidence that entertainment narratives shape knowledge, attitudes and behavior related to health and social issues. Entertainment narratives are often more effective at communicating health and prosocial information than overtly persuasive forms of communication such as PSAs. Narratives are influential largely because they are less likely to be perceived by the viewer as overt attempts at persuasion, and as a result may not evoke various forms of resistance. In addition, narratives are more persuasive to the extent that the viewer identifies with key characters and is transported into the story world. HH&S has studied these theoretical mechanisms in relation to entertainment narratives on a variety of topics, including organ donation, breast cancer, lymphoma, global health, substance use , and transgender rights.

Since its inception, Hollywood, Health & Society has conducted research on the impact of entertainment storylines on viewers’ knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and behavior, with more than 15 publications in peer-reviewed journals. We have studied depictions of numerous health issues, as well as social issues such as transgender rights, abortion, and immigration policy.”

HH&S’s annual TV Monitoring Project for the 2017 season will be completed in June. A total of 26 shows, airing from January 1 through May 31, are being coded on various topics. As part of the N Square partnership, this year the TV Monitoring Project will include the following question: Does this episode mention or depict nuclear weapons or threats related to nuclear weapons? Coders will note issues such as nuclear proliferation, nuclear warheads, stockpiling or disarmament of nuclear weapons, nuclear policy (e.g., the Iran Deal), radiation poisoning from a nuclear attack, and dirty bombs (not nuclear energy/power). Results will be compiled and analyzed several months after completion.

Dive more deeply into HH&S’s research here.

Subscribe to Real to Reel, HH&S’s quarterly newsletter, here.