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In closed-door meetings at MTV, creators are grappling with how to make entertainment more responsible

An inside look at an ambitious plan that has writers working with mental-health professionals

(Dola Sun for The Washington Post)
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Dr. Jessi Gold was emphasizing the importance of messaging in entertainment, and she had a troubling statistic to prove it.

Suicides, she said, rose some 10 percent in the months after Robin Williams took his life in 2014.

“So think really carefully before sending a character to a psychiatric hospital,” said Gold, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University’s School of Medicine, referring specifically to certain inaccurate Hollywood depictions. “We should try not to romanticize the mental health struggle," she added.

Gold was speaking to more than a dozen television writers and producers — counseling them, really, on how to craft more responsible entertainment. The meeting was part of an unprecedented effort by Chris McCarthy, MTV Entertainment Group president and chief executive and also a top executive at Paramount Plus, to make programming more mental-health safe.

Last year, concerned his shows were contributing to the country’s mental health epidemic, McCarthy commissioned a study of dozens of his top shows (MTV Entertainment includes a slew of cable channels such as MTV and Comedy Central as well as unscripted programming on Paramount Plus) from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Foundation. It found that only 9 percent of series regulars had mental health conditions (21 percent do in real life) and high levels of insensitive language and behavior on the network of “Jersey Shore,” “The Hills” and “The Real World,” whose tag line is “what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”

McCarthy hired a team to compose a guide on creating responsible programming, part of a larger movement he hopes to drive forward in Hollywood that also included several days of industry panels last month. Most notably, he convened dozens of sessions within ViacomCBS in which top-tier creators would listen to, and consult with, mental health experts like Gold; senior advisor for the mental-health-focused The JED Foundation Courtney Knowles; and Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, an Atlanta-based psychologist.

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The result is a kind of new movement of change-driven popular television. The sessions — which brought in writers and producers from “The Daily Show,” animated satire “Clone High,” young-adult reality show “Teen Mom,” music-focused unscripted drama “Love & Hip Hop” and others — offer a real-life litmus test for a new socially conscious Hollywood. Essentially, it asks a provocative question. What would result if a company known for animated satire and reality melodramas began shaping them with mental health in mind — what happens when people start being polite and stop getting really outrageous?

Viacom allowed The Washington Post to sit in on a half-dozen of these Zoom sessions over the past few months with almost no reporting restrictions. The sessions offered a unique lens onto how the television business operates in this new age, how it seeks to balance the seemingly different aims of entertainment and social responsibility.

At one session, Gold was making reference to the guide. A slickly designed website, it focuses on a range of mental health situations and includes storytelling tips like “elevate stories of friends and family members who are supportive” along with answers to hypotheticals such as “If you’re crafting a horror movie, what setting should you make sure to portray with extra sensitivity?”

Gold advised creators to be especially wary of problematic words.

“We’re a comedy show and there are obviously a lot of words we’ve been careful to weed out,” said Jennifer Flanz, executive producer and showrunner of “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.” “We’ve used words like ‘unhinged’ or ‘intense’ to replace ‘crazy.’ Are there words you would suggest using?”

“Can I think on that and get back to you?” Gold said.

"'Unhinged' I don’t love. But I [really] wouldn’t write a comedy sketch with the word silly,” Flanz said.

Reality-television dramas can be more shaped than even cynical viewers realize. Practices like “frankenbiting,” in which sound bites are created by splicing together quotes, are common; casting has long been a fraught area in which some producers have been accused of seeking out more emotionally volatile individuals.

Harden Bradford asked if producers conducted psychological evaluations before casting.

“We only do psych evals if we are doing a house reality putting people in close quarters,” said Sitarah Pendelton, senior vice president of original series at MTV Entertainment Group.

“So that may be something to consider,” Harden Bradford said.

TV needs to change the way it handles mental health. MTV is one of the networks leading the charge.

For years, concern about Hollywood harm has largely been directed toward portrayals of concrete acts — gun violence, cigarette smoking. But what constitutes bad mental health behavior is harder to define. And the effects can be difficult to measure.

Does depicting bullying, for instance, make it more likely someone will initiate the activity? Does it make someone watching feel bullied all over again? Would calling someone “crazy” or “unhinged” contribute to the kind of stigmas that makes people afraid to seek help?

And what could Hollywood realistically do when conflict and excessive behavior are often what get TV shows watched and talked about in the first place?

Producers at the sessions seemed to be struggling with the questions themselves.

“We’re still making television. We’re not making a psychological show,” Donna Edge-Rachell, an executive producer of “Love & Hip Hop,” which focuses on the professional and personal lives of people connected to the industry, said at a session for her show. “All of these people who are experiencing a level of this — we don’t want to go to therapy with all of them, we don’t want to sit in a chair and have them analyzed by a psychologist.”

But she also asked for tips on how to show them working out issues without therapy. Harden Bradford suggested depicting informal mentorships with older people who’d gone through their own struggles.

A producer raised another worry.

“These topics are so sensitive, they’re hot button, things you can’t touch or things you can’t say,” said Jubba Seyyid, an executive producer on “Love & Hip Hop,” at a session for that show. “You can’t even say ‘oh that’s a crazy thing happened’ because now you used the word crazy and now you’re a leper. Is there space for humor?'”

Harden Bradford had a ready response. “I think that there can be. You just have to be very careful though because humor is very personal,” she said. “So what is funny to you may not be very funny to me. You want to make sure you’re funny in a way that translates. You have to be sensitive so it’s not just a cheap laugh.”

Meredith Goldberg-Morse, senior manager of social impact at MTV Entertainment Group who ran the meetings, offered another thought in the subject at a different session.

“It’s definitely OK to find humor in the challenging experiences people face,” she said. “But when you’re doing that, it’s important to be mindful of not sending the message that the person managing the condition is the punchline of the joke.”

Running under the sessions is a question facing the responsible-entertainment movement: to what degree Hollywood creations should reflect the world that is versus painting an aspirational portrait of one that should be? The latter may be healthier, after all, but it is less accurate. It also may be less compelling to watch.

McCarthy said he believes strong entertainment doesn’t have to run counter to altruism.

“There’s a misconception that good business is at odds with doing good,” he said. “And I strongly disagree.”

With mental health statistics suggesting a startling 93 percent rise in depression screens during 2020 and the struggles of people like Naomi Osaka casting light on the issue (and a finger at the media-entertainment complex), the issue, McCarthy believes, has an almost moral dimension.

“We’re at our best when it’s both entertainment and making a difference,” he said.

At the sessions, words used in everyday conversation were opened to examination.

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Erica Rivinoja, showrunner of “Clone High,” in which portrayals of famous personalities from throughout the ages mingle at an absurdist imaginary high school, described a plot point involving a 20th-century historical figure who made provocative comments on Instagram, an act attendees described as cyberbullying. Then she checked herself. “The term ‘cyberbullying.’ Is there a better term?”

“We try not to use bullying,” said the expert at the meeting, JED’s Knowles. “The person who’s in the bullying situation is most likely to take their life. It doesn’t do anything to villainize them.”

The sessions showed creators interested in the well-being of their subjects, a notable contrast to the popular beliefs about casting decisions.

“I think our show might be the only time a conversation has come into play that addresses that," said Morgan J. Freeman, an executive producer on the “Teen Mom” franchise. The long-running property focuses on the personal struggles of a number of young mothers. (He was referring to a character with a body-image-issue.)

“Without us there I think it continues to spiral down a very dysfunctional path,” for the character, he said. But there’s only so much we could do,” he added ruefully.

At times the discussions led to amusedly surreal territory.

“I’m trying to remember the story we told about robot suicide,” Rivinoja said at the session devoted to “Clone High.”

“I think it was a joke about [their] battery running out,” offered Jessica Lamour, a co-producer on the show.

“He’s feeling like he doesn’t want to plug in,” Rivinoja said.

“It’s important to show that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” Knowles offered.

Rivinoja suggested the writers could craft a scene where the robot’s brother comes to help him.

“That could be a good way to show robot suicide?” she asked.