When television leaves our screen and enters the world. 

Tabitha Jackson once said: “story does not exist until it has been heard.” A simple, yet powerful statement from the Director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film program. We, as media executives, are prone to get lost in the telling of a story; so much so that sometimes we forget to take stock of what our message may be and who’s listening to the tale.

Truthfully, we are almost always acutely aware of the potential controversy surrounding what we choose to broadcast to the American public. Our messages, while intentional, are often overlooked in favor of a good storyline. But when they aren’t, when they’re genuinely heard, they have the power to change everything. 

Inform the masses

Occasionally, we come across a story so compelling, so mind-blowing, that we know others will want to hear it. Not because it’s dramatic. Not because it’ll make great TV.  We share them because we have to. The message behind the story is so incredibly important that it would be irresponsible of us not to share it. More often than not, these stories provoke action above and beyond our imagination. 

When Blue Planet II aired its final episode, Earth became the beneficiary of some rather astonishing aftermath. The series focused on documenting ocean wildlife using stunning footage and wondrous facts. Its last episode warned against damages to marine life caused by plastic pollution and urged viewers to make changes. Somewhat surprisingly, a study conducted by Waitrose & Partners found that 88% of people that watched the series complied. David Attenborough shared stories for wildlife that had no voice among humanity. He spoke up, and we did more than watch. We listened.  

A mere 75-minute play had a similar effect on homelessness in the UK. When Cathy Come Home aired in 1966, it shocked the millions that tuned in. The play used unique camera angles, much like hidden camera shows do, to follow the descent of a couple into homelessness. The story was so well-told that viewers couldn’t discern if they were watching truth or fiction. It took less than 24 hours for outrage to reach both the network and the government. Less than a year later Crisis, a well-known charity supporting the homeless, was formed. It’s been more than 50 years since Cathy Come Home made its way to our living rooms, but its message is still felt today. 

Shatter boundaries

Television doesn’t have to be documentary in nature or serve up hard truths about world plights to make a difference. Some sitcoms and dramas can communicate messages that matter using the right mix of cast members and a great team of writers. These messages can be subtle, demonstrated over the course of several seasons, or instantaneous, an explosive five seconds among hours of plotlines. Regardless of how they’re executed, we often find that it is these messages, hidden in our weekly escape from reality, that have the potential to impact that reality most. 

Perhaps the most well-known example of such messaging could be found in the once-popular sitcom Will & Grace. The show, starring Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes, normalized homosexuality in a way that had yet to be attempted by mass media. It broke through common stereotypes by storying both the feminine and masculine gay man side by side — each leads in their own right, each shadowing a personality that we might know and meet in real life. Will & Grace made such an impact on LGBTQ progress that Joe Biden cited the show when declaring his support for gay marriage in a 2012 airing of Meet The Press. “I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done so far,” he said. “People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.” 

Star Trek also helped spread the message of tolerance when it cast Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura. It was an important role and the first to portray a black female as more than a “two-dimensional stereotype.” But the real boundary-shattering moment didn’t come until Captain Kirk kissed Lieutenant Uhura in a single episode of season three. The kiss lasted scant seconds on screen, but secured the show a place in history beyond the hearts of Syfy fans everywhere. Star Trek was the most high-profile show to air an interracial kiss at the time, and people paid attention. Proof that even the smallest acts on TV can communicate important messages that will be remembered by viewers for years to come.

Influence culture

Sometimes, messages seem to matter in a way that is less than positive. We appear to be inadvertently promoting an idea or create a cultural norm that might not be in the best interest of the general public. When this happens, it’s important to look beyond the surface of the script and into alternate ramifications yet to be considered. 

Take Sex and the City for example. This fan favorite captured the attention of teenage girls everywhere with it’s high-fashion and flirty characters. Unfortunately, a Rand Institute study reported that females aged 12-17 were more than twice as likely to fall pregnant if they watched this show or other, similar shows that glorified sexual content. That’s an alarming statistic. It doesn’t, however, account for the fact that women in their upper teens and early twenties — for whom the show was originally intended — were twice as likely to discuss sexual health with their partners. Sex and the City took a taboo subject characterized by embarrassment and showed the public it was okay to talk about it. It sent the message that females didn’t have to be ashamed of sex, sexual health, or sexual preferences. 

ER followed a similar path. The show was widely watched for its intense medical drama and dreamy cast members. But it was also widely criticized for its unrealistic representation of severe medical situations. Specifically, the show offered false hopes regarding the frequency and success rates of resuscitation practices, sometimes leading to disappointment and drama when regular viewers encountered medical emergencies in real life. Conversely, ER improved the health regimen of viewers that happened to catch a three-episode story in 2004. Artfully done, the episodes placed immense importance on exercising and eating well. It was a frightening call-to-action for many viewers. Exercise, fruit and vegetable consumption, and blood pressure checks became a more important part of their lives according to a University of South Carolina study. In this case, both the positive and negative messages were likely unintentional, but they were both heard. They both made a difference. 

Almost all media carries a message. It could be intentional or unintentional. Positive or negative. Formed on the basis of truth or formulated out of fiction. We’re constantly trying to communicate using interesting storylines and augmented imaging. Which messages will live on in the hearts and minds of the people watching our stories? Which ones will impact our future? Our culture? It’s not the messages that are watched by millions. It’s the messages that are heard by all.