Foundation wants TV shows to talk about sex - responsibly

Kate Langrall Folb runs what may appear to be the ultimate fool's errand in the nation's dream factory: selling the sober realities of human sexuality to the very people who routinely exploit sexual fantasy to sell their shows.

As director of the Media Project, Langrall Folb meets regularly with this town's creative teams.

"Our main goal is to provide TV writers and producers with accurate information on anything to do with sexuality, from medical developments to new teen trends to ensure that what goes on in the shows is accurate," she says, adding, "we're not out to push any moral agenda."

A private, nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition between the Kaiser Family Foundation and Advocates for Youth, the Media Project was founded 20 years ago. The group's foundation in data and research comes from the conviction that everyone, teens included, makes better decisions by being well informed.

"I really believe that by withholding information, you create a mystique and [it] gives teens something to rebel against." She points to the fact that the rates of abortion and teen pregnancy in a very open society, such as the Netherlands, are about one-fifth of the United States.

Director since 1997, Langrall Folb says that her goal "is to teach the risks and responsibilities that go along with any sexual activity."

Her North Hollywood group gets the word out in a variety of ways, including ads in the local trade papers and annual breakfasts at which teens talk about their own experiences. Perhaps most helpful to individual shows, Langrall Folb will produce in-depth research on whatever topic a writer or producer may need.

"Kate and the Media Project have been invaluable to our show," says J.J. Abrams, producer of WB's "Felicity." When the writers decided to write about date rape in a show that focuses on college-age teens and early 20-year-olds, he knew he needed additional input. "As a 34-year-old man trying to write a 19-year-old female, I'd be remiss if I didn't reach out to people who are familiar with that voice."

After a presentation on the emotional and medical trauma involved with date rape, the writers produced a two-episode story line inspired by the new information. "Any story is helped by reality and details," says Abrams.

One key recommendation: run an 800-number hotline in the show's credits, which producers did. Immediately following the airing of the date-rape episodes, the hotline received more than 1,000 calls on the issue.

Annual awards presentations also bolster the organization's presence in this image-conscious industry town. Dubbed the Shine awards, the Media Project just handed out its yearly accolades to shows it deems responsible in their handling of sexuality.

"Dawson's Creek," a WB teen show that has been criticized for being too hormone-driven, received a special award for consistently incorporating sexually responsible characters. "We meet with that show every year at the beginning of the writing season," says Langrall Folb.

Even so, the story must come first, says "Dawson's" producer Paul Stupin. "Our biggest challenge is not to focus so heavy handedly on issues that it seems as if we're doing a special-message show."

Not everyone is interested in Langrall Folb's message. Sometimes "writers don't use what we recommend because it's undramatic," she says. And then there are the advertisers. "I've had many executives tell me, 'I would use that, but I'd lose advertisers."

The most difficult issue to address on TV, says the Media Project director, is condoms. "The networks are afraid of condoms, because the advertisers are afraid of condoms." Actual ads are nearly impossible, Langrall Folb says. "Placement in a popular TV show, the more popular the better, is easier. But it still makes their heart flutter."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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