By Lee Hall
Special to TelevisionWeek
Cable Positive marks its 13th anniversary this year amid growing industry support and a renewed commitment to keep the fight against AIDS and HIV top-of-mind.
The cable industry’s AIDS/ HIV action organization was founded in 1992 by three cable executives-Brad Wojcoski and June Winters of HBO and Jeffrey Bernstein, then with Request Television-whose mission was to organize cable’s resources to raise awareness of the disease and its tragic human toll.
To date, the nonprofit group has raised more than $13 million and programmers and cable operators have donated countless millions of dollars’ worth of specials, documentaries and public service announcements.
“It would have been very easy for the industry to walk away from this over the years, but in fact the opposite has happened,” said Steve Villano, Cable Positive’s president and CEO. “This is the greatest public health issue of our time, and cable is perfectly situated to fight this disease at both the national and local levels like no other medium.”
Public awareness and education form the basis of the group’s efforts. The organization coordinates the production and distribution of national awareness campaigns, but a good deal of its work takes place behind the scenes in major markets and small towns around the country.
A Cable Positive community fund named in honor of the late Showtime Chairman and CEO Tony Cox issues grants to local AIDS service organizations. Since its inception the fund has awarded nearly $1 million to more than 200 groups in 33 states.
“This is a powerful program because it not only helps raise awareness [but] it generates many times the amount of funding in free airtime and volunteer time. It is a real community-based effort,” Mr. Villano said.
Cable Positive volunteers have trained about 60,000 industry employees through an AIDS in the Workplace program, an on-site 90-minute educational seminar that teaches basic information about the disease, including how it is spread and how to combat it. An employee assistance program administered by The Actors’ Fund works with people within the cable industry who face a personal AIDS crisis.
The organization’s annual POP Awards honor entertainment and educational programming about AIDS/HIV produced by cable networks along with the public-service campaigns they initiate. This year’s winners will be announced in June.
Cable Positive’s annual benefit gala is the organization’s single-biggest fund-raiser, generating an estimated $1 million in donations. This year’s event, taking place May 10 in New York, will honor Lifetime Television and its former President and CEO Carole Black for their outstanding contributions to the fight against HIV and AIDS.
Events sponsored by the organization’s six local chapters will raise about $250,000 this year. Cable Positive has also tapped cable’s creative minds to devise unorthodox methods to raise money. At last month’s National Show in San Francisco, one exhibitor made a donation based on the number of visitors to its booth.
“We don’t receive a dime of public money. It’s all privately raised-a fact that demonstrates how seriously the industry takes this,” Mr. Villano said.
Cable Positive has in the past distributed a part of its income to support scientific research, but it no longer does so. A revised strategic plan developed in 2003 determined that the organization could have a greater impact by playing to cable’s strengths as a communication medium.
This month, for instance, Cable Positive embarks on its latest innovation, a new video-on-demand service that will be available to about 12 million customers of Comcast, Cox, Adelphia and other cable systems. Underwritten by TVN Entertainment, the effort allows subscribers to access a menu of announcements and HIV/AIDS-related programming for free.
“The VOD area will help make our work available and accessible all the time. We have a real opportunity here to keep the message alive,” said David Wicks, a consultant with The Alwyn Group and chairman of the Cable Positive board.
There will be no shortage of innovative programming on the VOD slate. Cable networks have increased the amount of HIV/ AIDS programs exponentially in recent years, Mr. Wicks said.
“People have come to realize that this is no longer a gay male disease. It is a mainstream issue that is now being featured in family programming and in soap operas. That’s another factor supporting the explosion of AIDS-related messages that is going on,” he said.
Cable Positive is looking to expand its reach into minority communities and is working with BET, TV One and Hispanic-targeted networks to develop and deliver new programming aimed at ethnic audiences.
“There is no legal requirement for the cable industry to do this,” Mr. Villano said. “It is truly a remarkable commitment for an industry.”