Steve Villano: He Believes He Can Make a Difference

May 9, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Steve Villano said he came to Cable Positive in 2000 because he saw a chance to use his skills and the power of cable television to battle the greatest health epidemic of our time.

The background of the group’s president and CEO includes a law degree from Hofstra University, a master’s in communications and years of experience in education, labor organizing, editing and public health administration. “I’m a child of the ’60s,” he said. “We believed that we could change the world and have a positive impact on things, and I still believe that. If you can bond one person with another and another, and they all want to make a difference, that’s a tremendously powerful course.”

Soon after he signed on and began to forge a clear identity for the organization, 9/11 hit, and the ensuing focus on terrorism-related charities resulted in financial hard times for many other nonprofits. Through it all and under Mr. Villano’s guidance, Cable Positive has emerged as a leading force in mobilizing the global fight against AIDS.

Mr. Villano, who is based in New York, was interviewed by TelevisionWeek special projects editor Eric Estrin while in Los Angeles last month to address the Creative Summit for the National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications. The interview has been edited for content and length.

TelevisionWeek: Why do you see cable television as a good medium for getting out information about the AIDS epidemic to the public?

Steve Villano: Because it’s both local and national. My background is not in cable; my background is in public service and public health. I worked at medical centers for eight years, and I worked with [former New York Mayor] Mario Cuomo for another eight years. And we were in office when the AIDS epidemic broke during the early ’80s, so we had to deal with it. We had to come up with public policy programs to deal with it.

Cable’s whole structure is perfectly set up for that. I’ve called it the most powerful educational vaccine delivery system for HIV and AIDS, because cable is everywhere, just like AIDS is everywhere. We have cable systems all around the country in all the local communities, and there are AIDS service organizations in all of the local communities. We designed one program named after the former chairman of Showtime, Tony Cox-the Tony Cox Community Fund-where we have funded about 225 partnerships between local AIDS service organizations and local cable systems. We give them seed money, $5,000 grants. And the cable system will help them produce a locally taggable PSA that tells the community where to go and get services, and they’ll air it.

In addition to our contribution of seed money, the cable system donates hundreds of thousands of dollars of airtime to the local [AIDS service organizations]. So we kind of act as the marriage broker. You couldn’t do that in any other industry. You can’t do it in broadcast; you can’t do it in satellite, because there are none of these local links in the community. It’s a perfectly meshed campaign with cable’s national links through the networks.

TVWeek: Your organization is doing so much good, but at the same time, isn’t television in some way responsible for the message that sex is safe and easy for everyone?

Mr. Villano: I think television is just one of the many factors that have had a role in changing society over the past 50 years. I think you could point to a lot of different sociological changes, whether it’s increased urbanization or the increasing necessity for both parents to work in order for their families to survive-the increase of single-parent homes. … I think there’s a bunch of sociological factors, television being one of them. Look at the Internet. It’s wide-open for a savvy kid.

TVWeek: Is lack of awareness about the AIDS epidemic still as big a problem as it was years ago?

Mr. Villano: Oh yeah, even bigger, because in the United States alone there are a million people who are infected with HIV, and 300,000 of them are not aware of it. Abroad, it’s much, much bigger than that. When a stigma exists in the community, people are not willing to step forward and get tested, because they don’t want to know. And stigma exists in very large numbers in lots of the communities which are impacted, the communities of color especially. So if they do know, if they do find out that they are HIV-positive, the stigma attached to the disease works against them, even though knowing will save their lives because they can get into treatment.

TVWeek: You would think that today, when kids under 20 have grown up with AIDS, awareness wouldn’t be as big an issue.

Mr. Villano: But it is, because over the last years we’ve had the anti-retroviral medicine, and there has been the impression created-which is not true-that if you get it, it’s a manageable disease, and you just take a couple of pills and you can handle it. In addition to that, they don’t have the network of friends and family who’ve died from the disease, so it’s not fresh in their minds. You move a generation away and the wound is less fresh, and it takes much more education to keep the information alive.

TVWeek: You let down your guard.

Mr. Villano: Yes, and that’s what happened. You know, there’s an air of invincibility that normally attaches itself to 20-year-olds, and you multiply that when messages come forth that you can manage this disease with a drug regimen, and them not seeing the evidence of people struck down in the prime of their lives.

TVWeek: How does Cable

Positive raise its money?

Mr. Villano: From the industry. We do fund-raisers. It’s all money donated through cable systems, networks, individuals within the industry. We do a major benefit dinner, which is coming up May 10, that’s our biggest source of revenue [each year]. We do Broadway benefits. Our six chapters around the country raised about a quarter of a million dollars last year. Now, a portion of that goes back to local AIDS service organizations, but that’s been a growing area for us. We’re always out there scrapping.

TVWeek: How big is the organization?

Mr. Villano: We’re a small but mighty force. We have five staff people, but we have two boards. We have an operating board of directors, which has 25 members, and it includes a lot of senior executives from throughout the industry. Then we have an advisory board, and we’ve got all the CEOs on the advisory board, and they take an active role. Our advisory board is very committed to this cause, and they see what the industry can do, and they see what the power of their networks or systems can do.

The gratifying thing is people come to me-CEOs of companies-and say, ‘Tell me how we can help.’ They are so engaged in using the power of this medium and using the power of their industry to do good.

We announced our video-on-demand project at the [National Cable & Telecommunications Association show], and the response was amazing. We’ve got TVN underwriting the cost of the entire project because that’s the area of their expertise. I had people from networks coming up to me at NCTA offering to give us proprietary material to put on. We thought that would never happen, but people have responded really well.

TVWeek: And you’re producing original material for this as well?

Mr. Villano: Yes. One of the pieces on there will be a documentary that we produced two years ago, ‘AIDS in the 21st Century.’ We did that in conjunction with Discovery Health, and we ran it on Discovery Health. It went into about 35 million households. It’s a very good piece, and it’ll now have a new life, because if you have an AIDS service organization that wants to get that off of video-on-demand and show it, they can do that. So it really extends the reach enormously.

TVWeek: Do you have other productions in the works?

Mr. Villano: We’re going to be doing more original productions, and the reas
on for it is that the demand is there. There is a dearth of good content on HIV/AIDS-related issues. There are networks coming to Cable Positive now to review some material that’s been pitched to them on HIV and AIDS. What we offer is we are agenda-less. You want to present the facts as clearly as we can get them out to the public, and there’s been a really sound response from that.

TVWeek: So you serve as technical advisers?

Mr. Villano: Yeah, and we consult experts. I don’t have a medical degree, but I worked in academic medicine and I know a lot of people who do have medical degrees. I spent last Tuesday down at the Institute for Human Virology with Robert Gallo, one of the co-discoverers of the HIV virus, because we’re talking with them about doing a documentary on AIDS research. So we have a very good strong circle of experts that we call upon.

TVWeek: You see yourselves as facilitators.

Mr. Villano: Yes, that’s the perfect word. We can play that role better than anybody else, because we talk to the AIDS community, we have a great deal of credibility within the industry, and they trust our work. So we’ll have organizations coming to us like AMFAR [the American Foundation for AIDS Research] or the National AIDS Fund, who can’t get the same distribution of their material, but they know that we can because we’re part of the cable industry and we have that instant distribution into 75 [million] to 80 million households. So there are a lot of people who want to work with us on that.

TVWeek: Do you have any way of evaluating the results of the work you do?

Mr. Villano: Yes, we do. Our biggest challenge is among under-25s. One out of every two new infections is among people under 25 years old. Our last campaign, the Join the Fight campaign-it was produced by [film director] Joel Schumacher, and Jeffrey Wright is in it, as well as Nathan Lane, Chris Meloni and a couple of other stars-we’ve gotten a million hits to our Web site in a couple of months, which really is a very high level of activism. Usually we know that users of any Web site skew younger.

Before we started having an integrated campaign with our Web site, we would get data back from CDC [Centers for Disease Control], and whenever our PSA ran with their number on it, there would be a spike in the number of calls they would get. So obviously we are reaching people. But still, the number of infections in the U.S. alone hovers between 40,000 and 45,000 per year. Our mission is not only to make sure that number doesn’t go higher but to reduce it and get it down to zero. So you can see that there are whole portions of the population that don’t seem to be responding to the education and awareness, but what’s the alternative?

TVWeek: How do you try to reach them?

Mr. Villano: We’re challenged by coming up with new ways of doing it. We’ve done animated PSAs that had a good response. Our PSAs have been used on virtually every cable network across the country, on systems across the country. They get used in community service organizations, AIDS service organizations. Video-on-demand is another new way of trying to reach a specific audience so we can have an impact. Now you’ll be able to go online, and the users of video-on-demand are pretty sophisticated users of cable, mostly younger also, so they’ll be able to go online and see these films. We’re trying to keep responding to the changing face of the epidemic, which is skewing younger.

TVWeek: Why do you think that is?

Mr. Villano: There’s a lot of denial. There’s a lot of trying to pretend that HIV and AIDS isn’t a problem for them, and I think it’s also a result of the stress on abstinence-only education. Any good sex education program has got to teach abstinence, has got to teach responsibility and faithfulness, but you also have to be prepared. You have an obligation as a health educator to make sure that people are prepared for when they don’t abstain. So our mission is to mobilize all the talents and the resources and the access and the influence of the whole cable industry for AIDS education and awareness.

Steve Villano

Title: President and CEO, Cable Positive

How long in current position: Five years

Year of birth: 1949

Place of birth: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Who knew? Mr. Villano writes screenplays in his spare time. One of his scripts was a finalist in the CineStory screenwriting competition.