Drama Of Losing A Child Wasn't Enough For Network Tv

Posted: January 17, 1994

BELLINGHAM, WASH. — A year ago this month, an outbreak of E.coli bacteria poisoning in western Washington state sent hundreds of children to the hospital.

This outbreak, caused by contaminated ground beef that was improperly cooked by Jack in the Box restaurants, also took the lives of three young children, including my 16-month-old son Riley.

A flurry of news coverage led to brief national attention to the E.coli problem. But soon the story began to fade. After the first flurry, E.coli was treated as a local problem, not of concern to the rest of the country.

Several reporters, as well as meat industry and government officials, encouraged us to consider talking to network executives about a TV movie. After talking it over, my wife and I agreed that this might be the best way to

put a human face on a relatively unknown illness - and the only way to prevent others from having to go through what we did.

An agent helped us as we worked with producers. But when executives came into the picture, they decided that a movie of the Riley Detwiler story would need a few changes.

One network told us that our story would have a better chance of being used if my wife were portrayed as a single mother - thereby qualifying it for the ''woman overcoming the odds" category.

We were told that a better movie would have Riley living through his ordeal, because TV audiences don't take well to stories about the loss of children.

Of course, we could have done several things to match our story with the current violent trend in TV movie plots.

If I'd bought drugs with money donated to Riley during his illness, or if my wife had walked into a Jack in the Box and opened fire on the cooks, then maybe we would have something marketable.

While our story doesn't fit the network prescription, it deserves more attention than it has received.

Although there were a few items on national TV involving food safety during the heat of the outbreak, average parents won't learn how to protect their children from TV news films of a slaughterhouse or a discussion of the Department of Agriculture's performance. By presenting a more personal side of the issue, the networks could allow viewers to understand exactly what E.coli is and to see just how vulnerable their children are.

A TV movie might have helped. Too bad the Riley Detwiler story didn't have enough drama.

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