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Hollywood targeted to boost Obama health care law

November 4, 2013

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A key backer of President Barack Obama’s troubled health care overhaul is looking to Hollywood for help to boost the initiative that could define his legacy.

The California Endowment, a private foundation that is spending millions to promote the law, recently provided a $500,000 grant to ensure TV writers and producers have information about the Affordable Care Act that can be stitched into plot lines watched by millions.

The aim is to produce compelling prime-time narratives that encourage Americans to enroll, especially the young and healthy, Hispanics and other key demographic groups needed to make the overhaul a success.

The grant announcement comes after the bungled launch of the federal website where many Americans are supposed to shop for the health insurance they are required to have next year under the 3-year-old law. Republicans, who last month forced a government shutdown in an unsuccessful attempt to derail the law, have pounced on the technical problems as evidence that the new health care system is disaster.

Even though debate over “Obamacare” has dominated Washington, surveys have shown many uninsured Americans still know little or nothing about the health care law itself.

The challenge for the law’s supporters is to connect with the millions of Americans who for whatever reason haven’t paid attention so far.

The 18-month grant will be used for briefings with staff from television shows and to track health overhaul-related depictions on prime time and Spanish-language television.

“We know from research that when people watch entertainment television, even if they know it’s fiction, they tend to believe that the factual stuff is actually factual,” said Martin Kaplan of the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center, which received the grant.

The public typically gets as much, if not more, information about current events from favorite TV programs as mainstream news outlets, Kaplan said, so “people learn from these shows.”

The U.S. has been the only major developed country without a national health care system, and 16 percent of Americans are uninsured. The overhaul was supposed to change that, using various ways to require or encourage Americans to get private insurance or, for the poor or elderly, government-provided insurance.

But the sign-up problems have prompted even some Democrats to join Republicans in calling for a one-year postponement of the law’s mandate that everyone must obtain health insurance or pay a tax penalty.

The White House also has been forced to backtrack on vows that no one would lose their existing coverage and that anyone happy with their current insurance and doctor could keep them.

California Republican strategist Jonathan Wilcox, who has taught a course on politics and celebrity at USC, said the attempt to engage Hollywood was coming too late to influence views, and he doubted fictionalized TV would play into families’ decisions about health care.

“This is an attempt to use entertainment pop culture to fix a political challenge,” he said. “It will be received as a partisan political message, no matter how cleverly it’s delivered.”

Since the grant money was provided so recently, no plot lines involving health care have been written. And Kaplan isn’t targeting specific shows.

For those who could benefit from coverage, “we want them to get the facts. We don’t believe the government alone can break through with those facts,” said David Zingale, a California Endowment senior vice president.

Hollywood can be a forceful shaper of style and public sentiment.

A survey conducted several years ago for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found that among those who said their feelings toward gays and lesbians had become more favorable, many said a contributing factor was seeing more gay and lesbian characters on TV and in movies.

Zingale and Kaplan both stressed that the writers and producers remain solely in control of the content they create, with no strings from the endowment or the USC center, which select the health care experts and academics who will provide advice to them.


Associated Press writers Michael R. Blood and Sandy Cohen contributed to this story.

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