33273 Covering Cancer: Examining the Incidence and Impact of Prime Time Television Cancer Storylines

Erica L. Rosenthal, PhD, Hollywood Health & Society, USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, University of Southern California, Beverly Hills, CA, Sandra de Castro Buffington, MPH, Hollywood, Health & Society, USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, University of Southern California, Beverly Hills, CA and Galen Cole, PhD, MPH, LPC, Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA

Theoretical Background and research questions/hypothesis:  Mass media are powerful tools for communicating health messages to the public. Research has shown that health information, when delivered through the medium of entertainment narratives, has a profound impact on a variety of knowledge, attitudinal, and behavioral outcomes. Favorable outcomes are particularly likely when viewers are “transported” into the narrative, heightening the persuasiveness of the storyline and accompanying health messages. The present research, conducted by Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S), examined the impact of an eight-episode breast cancer-related story arc on the CW Network series 90210 on both regular and non-regular viewers. The storyline focused on a young woman’s decision to take a test for the breast cancer (BRCA) gene mutation, and the difficult choices she must face following a positive test result. Two questions were investigated. First, how does viewing a single episode affect regular television viewers? Second, do knowledge and behavioral outcomes vary as a function of the number of episodes viewed?

Methods:  To address the first question, a research firm administered a pretest/posttest study, in which adult women (N = 236) were recruited from a survey panel of regular television viewers. After completing a pretest survey, participants were instructed to view a single episode and return for a posttest survey within two days. To examine the question of dosage effects, a second study was conducted using a convenience sample of regular 90210 viewers (N = 494) recruited from links placed on the show’s Facebook page. Responses to both studies were anonymous.

Results:  The pretest/posttest study found exposure to a single episode significantly increased knowledge regarding breast cancer, specifically mastectomy as a possible preventive option for those who test positive for the BRCA gene. Thirteen percent of participants reported talking to a woman they know about the BRCA gene test as a result of viewing this storyline, and 16.5% reported searching online for more information about breast cancer. The study of regular 90210 viewers found significant relationships between the number of episodes viewed and both knowledge (familiarity with the BRCA gene) and behavioral outcomes (finding out about family history of breast cancer).

Conclusions:  This research by HH&S lends further support to the power of entertainment as a means of educating viewers about genetic risk factors for breast cancer and inspiring them to action.  Moreover, the dosage effects evident in the second study suggest multiple episode health-related storylines can contribute to improved knowledge and behavioral outcomes. Findings from the HH&S TV Monitoring Project, a multi-year content analysis of health information on prime time television, will also be presented, with an emphasis on depictions of cancer. 

Implications for research and/or practice:  Despite technological advances enabling individuals to consume and engage with mass media in new ways, scripted television narratives remain an effective means of communicating health information. Thus, it is especially important to ensure that what viewers learn about their health from watching television is accurate.