Here’s a new slogan for ABC’s entertainment programming: "Operators are standing by."
On May 9, the network will do its part to stoke the not-if-but-when hysteria over bird flu by airing Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America. And since Virginia was the lucky state chosen to be the movie’s fictional Ground Zero, government officials in the state are bracing for the public fallout.
A memo e-mailed around Virginia county offices has been soliciting volunteers for a bird flu "call center."
"Based on the anticipated hype," the memo reads, "we will set up a call center the day after the broadcast to manage calls from the public."
An Associated Press review accompanying the memo begins: "Bodies piling up so quickly it takes dump trucks to haul them away."
It isn’t the first time an ABC broadcast has prompted such preparations. When the network aired its 1983 nuclear holocaust drama, The Day After, local phone banks fielded calls from viewers (many inquiring about building fallout shelters). And incest drama Something About Amelia aired the next year with hotline numbers on-screen.
Fairfax County Health Department, which already has a hotline for recorded information on avian flu, is recruiting nurses to take expected calls.
The Department of Health for the Northern Virginia region has contacted ABC affiliates offering public-health officials for post-broadcast interviews to help viewers distinguish fact from fiction. (The barbed wire festooning the quarantine camps, for example, is a cinematic flourish.)
ABC says it will air a PSA and direct viewers to www.pandemicflu.gov, where the government’s just-released "action" report will likely induce true panic.