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Nursing shows set to dominate fall TV season; network execs swoon for profession's potent mix of "brains and heart"

2003 Fall TV preview

September 2003 -- In a clear signal that the United States' television industry finally understands nursing and the gravity of the global nursing shortage, nurses can look forward to an exciting and empowering fall season in which their work finally receives attention and respect commensurate with the central role they play in modern health care. As if.

In fact, the Center is aware of no primetime shows on broadcast or cable that place a significant focus on nursing or consistently provide any meaningful sense of how nurses better millions of lives every day. (If you are, please let us know.) If prior years are any guide, nurses will generally be portrayed, when they are at all, as trusted but peripheral caregivers without much substantive knowledge, uninteresting except for romance or sex, and largely subservient to physicians. The one partial exception will likely be some coverage of the shortage itself on public affairs shows. But this coverage will likely continue to provide little sense of what nurses actually do (for a mainstream media piece that does, see John Pekkanen's cover story in the September 2003 Reader's Digest).

However, physicians, whose numbers are only one-third that of nurses, are in luck. As in past years, they can expect to see themselves portrayed constantly and heroically as the super-smart (albeit imperfect) providers of virtually all meaningful health care, including care actually provided by nurses and other health professionals. Scheduled serial shows opening full new seasons include veteran drama "ER" (NBC, about 10 major physician characters, one nurse), the sharp sitcom "Scrubs" (NBC, four major physician characters, one nurse), the not-sharp sitcom Becker (CBS, one central physician character, one minor nurse/office manager), and cable dramas "Strong Medicine" (Lifetime, two central physician characters, one minor nurse character), and "Everwood" (one central physician character, one nurse/office manager). Physicians and nurses also appear incidentally in many other shows, perhaps most tellingly in NBC's zany daytime soap "Passions," in which "beautiful yet complicated" physician Dr. Eve Russell has a "successful career as a doctor," while "Nurse Precious," literally an orangutan in a nursing uniform, changes the diapers of an invalid character and engages in monkey hijinks, as nurses tend to do when things are slow.

Also this fall, new cable documentaries will inform viewers about the training of medical interns in great detail ("Resident Life," The Learning Channel, 13 one hour episodes) and about historic medical innovators ("Mavericks, Miracles and Medicine," The History Channel, four one hour episodes). Doubtless we can also expect 13 hours about the training of new nurses, and a multi-part series on colorful nursing "mavericks" who have changed history, such as Florence Nightingale, Mary Breckinridge, Lillian Wald and Lydia Hall.

The Center encourages all to let ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, PBS, UPN, the WB and the cable channels of their choice know how much the nation's overworked but resilient nurses would appreciate their efforts to help end the nursing shortage before any other patients join the many thousands who have already died because of it.

Please send us a copy of your letters to

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