Beyond the Box: Full Court Press

Paula Apsell is realistic about the power of television. 'The quality of the program and the size of the audience have almost nothing to do with each other,' admits the senior executive producer of the wgbh 'Nova' science unit. 'These are terrific programs, but they're not the kind of television people will naturally watch. In a series like this you do what you can, short of putting dirty pictures in it, to try to extend it to a larger audience.'
October 1, 2005

Paula Apsell is realistic about the power of television. ‘The quality of the program and the size of the audience have almost nothing to do with each other,’ admits the senior executive producer of the wgbh ‘Nova’ science unit. ‘These are terrific programs, but they’re not the kind of television people will naturally watch. In a series like this you do what you can, short of putting dirty pictures in it, to try to extend it to a larger audience.’

Though Apsell’s comments ring true for serious science programs in general, she is referring specifically to Rx for Survival – A Global Health Challenge, a 6 x 1-hour coproduction with Seattle-based Vulcan Productions that looks at the most critical health threats facing the world today and the possible solutions already within reach. ‘The exploration that supports the whole series is: we have the resources, why don’t we have the will?’ says Richard Hutton, VP of media development at Vulcan.

To make sure the question is heard in today’s crowded marketplace, the project has evolved into a multimedia event that kicks off when a special edition of Time magazine entirely devoted to the issue of global health hits newsstands on October 31st. The TV series premieres on PBS November 1 to 3 from 9 P.M. to 11 P.M., and a radio series will run that same week on National Public Radio (NPR) in the U.S. Produced by npr’s science desk, about six to 10 segments will air on such signature series as ‘Morning Edition’ and ‘All Things Considered.’ A companion book published by The Penguin Press and penned by veteran New York Times science and health reporter Philip Hilts will also flag the TV series. Titled Rx for Survival: Why We Must Rise to the Global Health Challenge, it hits shelves October 24th. Further still, the program will initiate an 18-month-long initiative by PBS on health, and will also include outreach campaigns, an extensive website and a summit organized by Time.

Back in spring 2001, the series had humbler beginnings. Hutton, who was then an executive producer at WGBH, had just wrapped Evolution – another WGBH/Vulcan collaboration – when Vulcan founder Paul Allen (who also co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1976) expressed an interest in coproducing another project. ‘At that point, he pulled out a bunch of topics he cared about – things like energy, education, issues of the developing world, and the environment. On that list was the issue of global health,’ recalls Hutton.

Apsell immediately jumped at the idea. Coincidentally, the first doc she made for ‘Nova’ back in 1976, called Death of a Disease, looked at the eradication of smallpox. ‘That’s how I got my start,’ she says. ‘I was very inspired by that experience, so I’ve always been interested in public health.’

Given Vulcan’s track record with multimedia projects such as Evolution and The Blues, Hutton says Rx for Survival was immediately considered as more than a TV program. But Apsell pinpoints the series’ current scope to a US$6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. ‘They were interested in changing more than attitudes, they wanted to ‘move the meter,” says Apsell. ‘That meant it had to be a bigger project. It had to have a social impact campaign component, and we needed to extend it beyond public television.’ Additional funding was also provided by The Merck Company Foundation, a private charitable foundation funded by Merck & Co., a global pharmaceutical company.

Some of that grant money was funneled to NPR to send reporters abroad. ‘Normally they would not have the budget to do that,’ says Apsell. Due to the nature of the mediums, TV and radio easily produce complimentary content. ‘Television is very cumbersome. We filmed several months ago and our concern is to tell a story rather than have immediate journalism,’ notes Apsell. Conversely, radio can be more of-the-minute. Says Joe Neel, deputy senior editor of news for NPR, ‘We won’t be presenting news, per se, but we can work very quickly and provide intimate stories about global health and the problems facing people in developing countries as they exist on October 31.’

Neel explains that most of NPR’s stories will be told from the perspective of a single person effected by disease, and will examine how they fit into global policy issues. One 12-minute segment, for example, will look at the outbreak of polio in Indonesia, which had successfully eradicated the disease and stopped immunizing children. Polio was reintroduced to Indonesia via Nigeria. Unfortunately, after the media blamed four deaths early in the country’s campaign to once again have people vaccinated, turnout dropped off dramatically. With Southeast Asia now at risk of a breakout, the segment will look at the government’s efforts to regain the trust of the people and effectively administer the vaccine.

Though each media entity retains editorial control over the content it produces, ‘Nova’ and NPR collaborated to make sure there was as little overlap as possible, and shared research. ‘PBS talks about the polio outbreak in Nigeria and we bring that up to date,’ says Neel. At the end of September, npr reporters also headed out to Kenya, El Salvador, Vietnam and elsewhere. ‘Health reporters have typically focused on issues at home, but as aids showed us, disease is global and moves very quickly,’ he adds. ‘We’ll jump at the chance to get more global health coverage.’

Time president Eileen Naughton says she joined the project in spring 2003 after Hutton mentioned the series to her. The timing was perfect. Time had just moved into the event business, hosting a summit in 2003 titled The Future of Life and another in 2004 on obesity that was co-hosted by ABC News. Given the psychological state of the nation in a post-9/11 world, Naughton thought the topic was ripe for exposure. ‘If you could export better health, wouldn’t the world be a better place? We wanted to create media saturation about the issue of global health,’ she says.

Time reaches about 31 million readers each week and counts 5.3 million primary readers around the world. While the special edition magazine is on newsstands, Time will also host the Time Global Health Summit in New York from November 1 to 3 (the same dates pbs and npr will broadcast Rx). ‘These things will go together like a suite of coverage,’ say Naughton, who notes that Time’s editors also collaborated with the TV producers to ensure its content was complimentary.

Naughton furthers that Time will host one summit a year, and is planning a similar collaboration with hbo in 2006 that will focus on global warming. Yet, like Apsell, she’s realistic about the potential reach of the Rx project. ‘We’re not going to get [the younger] generation, because they haven’t woken up to the world yet, ‘ she concedes.

Having Brad Pitt as the series’ narrator might help. He committed to the project in the spring, though Apsell says it was always their intention to have a celebrity narrator. ‘If we can put some bells and whistles on it so we can get these stories to a broader audience, it’s worth doing,’ she says.

Hutton agrees. To this end, Vulcan is also hoping to have the U.S. Congress declare November global health month. ‘Every little bit of awareness helps,’ he explains. ‘People tend to pay attention when they’ve heard something is important from different sources. If congress does this, it’s saying: this is important, this matters. That has to help.’ Rx for Survival is being distributed by WGBH International.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news editor at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joined the RS team in 2015 with experience in journalism following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and with communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.