TV: It's Prime Time for Volunteerism

Even before TV's Stand Up to Cancer special raised more than $100 million for research with a star-studded, prime-time broadcast in September 2008, Hollywood and its leading charitable arm, the Entertainment Industry Foundation, were hunting for another major initiative to support.

Health, the environment and the arts remained longtime favorites. The industry's next big cause, though, would focus on raising awareness, not cash. The idea was propelled by an unlikely duo: Barack Obama and John McCain. Just days after Stand Up aired, the then-presidential contenders attended a public forum held by ServiceNation, telling the advocacy group that public service and volunteerism should be national priorities.

Their bipartisan call to action morphed into "I Participate," a Hollywood-fueled initiative that's shaping up as one of TV's biggest, most innovative public service efforts ever. From next Monday to Oct. 25, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and several cable channels will devote chunks of more than 90 shows to mobilize viewers off their couches.

Audiences will be peppered with celebrity public service announcements (PSAs), end-of-episode pleas from casts and volunteerism segments on reality shows, talk and news programs from The View to Today. But most I Participate messages will be more subtle, weaving motivational themes and dialogue into dozens of scripted sitcoms and dramas as plot points or character-driven story lines.

"Embedding something into entertainment plants a seed that has value in ways a (PSA) doesn't. You're not beating someone over the head with it," says CSI: NY's Hill Harper, whose character, medical examiner Sheldon Hawkes, has volunteered as a first-responder physician.

Next week, viewers will see Private Practice doctors treating the homeless, Ghost Whisperer crime solvers donating blood and Gary Unmarried providing video greetings for troops overseas. "When people see a plan in action, it's much better than some talking head telling them what to do," says actress Dana Delany, whose Katherine Mayfair is among several Desperate Housewives organizing a neighborhood watch.

Initially conceived as a message platform for a handful of TV shows, I Participate has mushroomed into a campaign larger than TV's post-Katrina and 9/11 memorial and fundraising efforts, network programmers say.

"It's just heartwarming to see how everyone embraced this," says Preston Beckman, scheduling chief for Fox, which is incorporating I Participate into scripted series and PSAs for other shows, including Bones, So You Think You Can Dance and COPS. "It's great when you can find something that unites all of us, regardless of our political views."

Scripted 'aha!' moments

Brad Jamison, head of Disney/ABC corporate initiatives, expects the messages engage viewers in ways PSAs don't. "We hope there will be 'aha' moments that help people overcome perceived obstacles about doing something for others," he says. "The beauty of volunteering is you can get involved in anything."

That's the message EIF President Lisa Paulsen and former Paramount Pictures CEO Sherry Lansing got hearing Obama and McCain at the ServiceNation forum. Paulsen and EIF board Chairwoman Lansing later floated the idea to EIF directors — power brokers representing TV networks, film studios and Hollywood talent. "Everyone talked about their interests, but what was unifying was volunteerism," Paulsen says.

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