TV: It's Prime Time for Volunteerism

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.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys, one in four Americans volunteer, a rate static for 40 years. (The Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees service programs, says volunteering rose 1.5% in 2008.) Lansing says I Participate, backed by partners including the AARP and Major League Baseball, will show how easy it is for more people to make an effort. "I hope giving back to society becomes part of the culture, like breathing," says Lansing, who has eschewed a sedentary retirement by co-founding Stand Up and championing charities, schools and social issues through her foundation.

Although some shows were still formulating I Participate tie-ins at press time, the initiative already has gotten TV time commitments far beyond the handful of shows EIF initially hoped for, propelled by ABC's head of scheduling, Jeff Bader. Recalling the impact Fonzie (Henry Winkler) had on getting kids to libraries after the tough guy got a library card on an episode of the '70s sitcom Happy Days, Bader suggested incorporating motivating themes into scripted shows.

"Why not use what we do best — storytelling — as a way to promote this, and do it in a way that reaches the most people," Bader says. A similar concept was embraced on a smaller scale at the channel ABC Family in September with tie-ins to service clearinghouse and story lines on the college dramedy Greek. Giving back to community has also been a central theme on Family's Lincoln Heights, now in its fourth season. Says Family channel President Paul Lee; "This isn't some mandate from the top. A lot of this is driven by Millennials on staff. It resonates with them."

For I Participate, specific volunteering and public service themes were left to individual show runners and writers. "Everyone has a cause they care about, and the shows can use whatever message they want. It's about service," Bader says.

"This isn't that different from what some series already do, CBS Senior Vice President David Brownfield says. "On shows like Cold Case and Numb3rs, a half-dozen episodes would qualify for this, so I don't think viewers are going to say this seems odd."

Gary Unmarried's plot point supports the military, with 12-year-old Louise (Kathryn Newton) preparing videotaped greetings for overseas troops. The idea transcends both the character of Uncle Mitch, a Marine reservist, and actor/comedian Rob Riggle, the Marine Corps reserve officer who portrays him.

"People tend to forget the thousands of troops who've been fighting overseas for eight years," producer Ira Ungerleider says. "It's our responsibility to be supportive on the home front."

Louise will volunteer at an animal shelter in another episode. "We kind of went overboard on (I Participate), but it struck a chord," Ungerleider says.

Public service and volunteering themes were inserted so seamlessly in some shows that casts were unaware plot points were part of a broader initiative.

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