Daily Briefing

How your favorite TV show is (or isn't) tackling Covid-19 vaccines


Some TV shows this fall are addressing Covid-19 vaccines, both directly and indirectly—but others, including some medical dramas, have elected to set their shows in a post-pandemic world, Ellen Gamerman reports for the Wall Street Journal.

The challenges of addressing vaccines on TV

Health advocates have lobbied Hollywood saying that TV shows should work to normalize Covid-19 vaccines by including them in show plots or dialogue, Gamerman reports. However, advocates acknowledge that issues with timing, fear of blame, and overall pandemic fatigue could explain why some shows are hesitant to mention vaccines.

"I knew the vaccine thing was going to be a major problem," said Linda Ong, CEO and founder of Cultique, a company that advises entertainment companies on cultural marketing and research. "We started early in trying to get people to please wear masks on camera, and the large part was shying away from it."

For months, the Hollywood, Health & Society program at the University of Southern California has been coupling immunology, virology, and public health experts with TV show writers, showrunners, and studio executives to help them include accurate Covid-19-related storylines, Gamerman reports. However, according to Kate Folb, the group's program director, it hasn't been easy.

"Vaccine hesitancy in Hollywood is alive and well," Folb said, and it was around before Covid-19. According to Folb, a couple years ago, her organization was working with a show on an episode regarding measles, and vaccine skeptics within the cast objected. Ultimately, the writers of the show got the cast members to agree, Folb said.

Vaccines also aren't especially dramatic for multiple episodes of a TV show, said David Schulner, showrunner for the NBC show "New Amsterdam."

"What's left to say about the vaccine other than, 'Please for the love of God get vaccinated so we can all get out of the endless hellscape?'" Schulner said.

Addressing vaccines—then focusing on a post-pandemic world

That said, "New Amsterdam" did feature an episode regarding Covid-19 vaccines in June, in which a doctor tries to administer 1,000 vaccines before they go bad and ultimately ends up clashing with a hospital board member and vaccine skeptic to vaccinate the rest of the hospital's employees, Gamerman reports.

Meanwhile, some shows are electing to indirectly address vaccines. Peter Elkoff, co-showrunner of the Fox show "The Resident," said he worked on an episode airing next month in which a patient fatally objects to the implantation of a life-saving medical device.

"If you're pro-vaccine and you know somebody who isn't, telling them they are wrong is not the way you're going to get a vaccine, it entrenches them more deeply in their belief," Elkoff said.

The ABC show "Grey's Anatomy" heavily featured the Covid-19 pandemic earlier this year and ended its season with a montage of health care providers getting their vaccines, Gamerman reports.

"We took our cues from doctors and epidemiologists, and so we did not think about showing that debate," Meg Marinis, executive producer of the show, said. "Our doctors were getting vaccinated, and it was a joyful moment for them, because it was a moment of hope."

Now, both "Grey's Anatomy" and the ABC show "Station 19" have elected to set their shows in a post-pandemic future, Gamerman reports, with opening cards to their fall season premieres saying the setting is a sign of "our hope for the future." (Gamerman, Wall Street Journal, 10/15)

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