The Good Fight
PBS to launch an unprecedented effort on global health in 2005
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/4/2004 8:00:00 PM
Almost 11 million children worldwide die each year. An estimated 10 million deaths are preventable, say worldwide health officials. To combat this crisis, PBS will air a six-hour miniseries in November 2005 that takes an aggressive look at what causes such tragedies and possible solutions.
The show is a massive undertaking that explores global public health. And the publicity surrounding it is impressive. So are its creators. The muscle behind the initiative belongs to three men: Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Emmy-winning producer Richard Hutton.
To jump-start public interest, the show's producers plan to launch a multimillion-dollar community-based impact campaign months before the program airs. This carefully orchestrated effort will highlight key health issues.
That's thanks to its financing.
All told, the series, including the impact campaign, will cost approximately $15 million, according to industry estimates. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will give $6 million over three years. Typical public-TV funding sources, notably the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, aren't expected to contribute. Two-thirds of the project's funds have already been raised, and corporate underwriters and core partners are soon to be announced.
But the mastermind behind the project is Paul Allen.
The idea for the show began in 2001, after Allen's Vulcan Productions and public-TV powerhouse WGBH Boston produced Evolution, an eight-hour miniseries. The piece took on a controversial subject and transformed it into a multimedia, educational event.
Once Evolution was completed, Allen met with its executive producer, Hutton, then with WGBH and now with Vulcan. Global public health was a critical concern for Allen—and close to the heart of Gates. Allen wanted his next project to focus on how to save the world's children.
"If I don't do these types of projects, nobody else will," Allen confided to Hutton, before hiring him as Vulcan's vice president of media development.
The two started crafting a global-health initiative. Constructed as six one-hour explorations of different public-health issues affecting children—from clean water and nutrition to antibiotic resistance and obesity—the project is not an ordinary documentary.
"The global-health campaign is a great example of PBS's unique capability and commitment to raise awareness about the critical issues of our time," says PBS President and CEO Pat Mitchell.
To that end, WGBH, Vulcan and executive producer Larry Klein, who worked on Evolution alongside Hutton and Allen, have carefully devised ways to transform a potentially downbeat subject into an optimistic vision.
"This project is not flies in their eyes," says Anne Zeiser, director of national strategic marketing for WGBH. "It's not just the challenges but about the successes."
To prove it, Klein and his team stage several "dramas" illustrating historical stories of success in disease control and prevention. For example, in London in the 19th century, physician John Snow ended a cholera epidemic: Realizing that it emanated from one water source in the city, he removed the well's pump handle.
Second, the series will travel worldwide—to Somalia, Thailand, China and Nepal, among other places—to talk to people who have made a real difference in public health. For instance, in Haiti, Paul Farmer has "completely transformed the area in which he works," Klein says. Al Summer, now dean of Johns Hopkins University, discovered that giving vitamin A to Indonesian children prevented night blindness. Ultimately, it boosted their immune systems and protected them from fatal diseases.
"This is not a pie-in-the-sky look at the state of world's health," Klein says. "It's a true and practical look at how things are happening in a positive way in certain parts of the world."
In addition to the documentary, several substantial media efforts will accompany the project. Time magazine will be a partner, producing a special issue on global health and holding a conference along the lines of its recent look at obesity. And National Public Radio, PBS's partner in public broadcasting, will produce a series of feature stories on global public health.
Plus, Penguin Press will publish a book based on the series. PBS will mount a content-rich Web site tied directly to it, and educational materials will be made available to high-school teachers. Next year, PBS plans to integrate stories on global health into various programs, such as Sesame Street and Frontline.
Finally, as part of the push to keep health awareness front and center, Vulcan and WGBH will work with journalists to encourage coverage.
"I don't want it to be a dreary, depressing show," says Hutton. "I want it to be this extraordinarily engaging resource for people."
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