Take the Lead in the AIDS Fight

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The following is an excerpt of remarks by Steve Villano, president and CEO, Cable Positive, at last week’s Carole Positive! An Evening to Benefit Cable Positive:

Whether fighting for an end to breast cancer or an end to domestic violence, or by shining her network’s light on how HIV/AIDS is yet another form of violence against women, [former Lifetime Entertainment president and CEO] Carole [Black] has long led this industry in fighting for what’s right.

Like Carole, I, too, had no choice. I am a child of the fight against discrimination and disability, born to a quiet and determined woman who now, nearing 90, was paralyzed by polio in the epidemic of 1916 — a role model who, to this day, has never surrendered in her struggle against a disease considered as deadly and daunting in its time as HIV/AIDS is considered now.

It took 60 years to find a vaccine for polio — years during which bright, sensitive people like my mother were carried off to Crippled Children’s Homes, prohibited from swimming in public pools, and banned from even entering some communities — some of the same types of actions taken today against people who are HIV-positive.

In the early years of the polio epidemic, the know-nothings of that time blamed the children of “unclean, uneducated Italians” for spreading the disease, much like gays and Haitians were wrongly scapegoated for the spread of HIV/AIDS decades later.

But, the people of the polio-plague years had a powerful champion — the president of the United States, who was also infected with the virus — though FDR was not Italian, and certainly not poor. This champion of the disabled made the conquest of polio into a national crusade, using his power to push for a cure.

Now, as we approach the 25th year of the AIDS epidemic, our fight against HIV/AIDS needs a powerful, influential champion capable of commanding the attention of millions of people around the world and galvanizing the resources required for this challenge. You have the potential to be that champion.

Like FDR, this industry’s leaders are at the nexus of history and happenstance — positioned to use our power and resources to end this epidemic. The question is, will we?

The Kaiser Family Foundation recently documented that three out of every four Americans get all their information about HIV/AIDS from television — while only 9% say they learn it from their doctors. Astounding — simply an astounding finding — and one that carries great responsibility for all of us here.

Do we have the courage to accept this responsibility? Are we willing to acknowledge that focusing on AIDS is the most brutal kind of reality TV, with no guarantee of high ratings nor applause from groups condemning condom use, despite all of the medical evidence that condoms save lives?

We have a corporate and social responsibility to make this fight our crusade. We have a duty to be as aggressive in conquering AIDS as we can be in overcoming business competitors, or in convincing Congress and the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] how responsible we are.

If cable puts people in control of their televisions — and our viewers receive most of their information about AIDS from our medium — then we are already responsible. If we care about our communities, we have no choice — we are already in the thick of it.

You can turn that responsibility into action by participating in National HIV Testing Day June 27, airing our PSAs next month, and implementing Cable Positive’s programs and services of HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention all year long.

The playwright Arthur Miller wrote that he imagined, “with the possible exception of a doctor saving a life, writing a worthy play was the most important thing a human being could do.” Well, we need you to carry on Miller’s important work of courageously telling truthful stories.

We need you to have the courage to continue to act in this chilling creative climate — to not only write the screenplay or PSA or documentary, but to fearlessly produce and air it — to place it before tens of millions of viewers to educate and inform, to help push back the wave of disease, discrimination and disinformation that whirls around HIV and AIDS.

Now our test is whether we can be as tough as the crusaders against polio were — never surrendering to negativism or despair; never giving up nor giving in — deserving of our positions of power and influence because we used them to fight the good fight, and save human lives.