By Tenaya Wallace and Tom Mone
Updated: 12/03/2009 05:29:54 PM PST
CAN a single TV show actually save lives?
"Three Rivers," a CBS prime-time series on donation and transplantation, did. Sadly, that remarkable fact was not enough to save itself.
As the donation and transplantation community mourns the premature shelving of "Three Rivers," we stand in awe of its achievements. A month ago, a San Antonio, Texas, family donated the corneas of a loved one who had passed away. They said yes because they wanted their family member to help others, just like on "Three Rivers."
Two weeks later, a family on the East Coast donated the organs of their teenage daughter because she had talked to them about donation after watching "Three Rivers" on a Sunday night.
On Thanksgiving weekend, a daughter in Louisiana gave consent for her mother to save three lives. She too was a fan of "Three Rivers," and the coordinator was impressed by how much the family knew about the donation process from watching the show.
For years, the organ and tissue donation community held its breath every time donation was used as a television storyline. Inaccurate and horrific scenarios about black markets and stolen organs made us initiate letter-writing campaigns; even worse, research showed it kept viewers from signing up to be donors.
Finally, one show got it right. "Three Rivers" viewers got something extra with their nightly fare of drama: They had a chance to learn the truth about donation and were challenged to talk about a topic families rarely wish to discuss - death and their wishes at end of life.
The night that "Three Rivers" premiered, 9.2 million people saw what could essentially be called a 42-minute PSA on organ donation. There are not many public education campaigns that can reach 9.2 million people in a single hour.
From the outset, producer Carol Barbee and her writers reached out to donation and transplant professionals to ensure accuracy in each story and to find the stories that reminded us that death touches us all, that precious legacies can be left by anyone, and that people can gain life through a tremendous gift. Alex O'Loughlin, the show's star, became a Donate Life Ambassador and wore the Donate Life pin and wristband proudly each episode. This was television taking the high road.
Unfortunately, the high road doesn't immediately translate into high ratings and the advertising revenue on which television depends. At a time when networks are casting about for new ways to combat declining audiences, quick decisions to shelve compelling shows without allowing them to mature and develop an audience may be a part of their problem, not their solution.
In the world of organ donation, saving lives comes first, and "Three Rivers" helped to do just that. We can only hope that whatever new form "Three Rivers" takes on, even in a midnight rerun, it will keep inspiring the gift of life.
Tenaya Wallace is the campaign director for Donate Life Hollywood, a national campaign to promote the accurate portrayal of donation in TV and film. Tom Mone is the CEO of OneLegacy, the organ recovery agency serving the greater Los Angeles Area