"We wanted to make it part of the fabric of the story, but not the story — that this is something the characters would do, that they are natural and organic to the their everyday lives," says Shonda Rhimes, creator of ABC's Grey's Anatomy (Dr. Karev gives blood) and Private Practice(doctors donate time at a homeless shelter).
Similarly, writers for NBC's 30 Rock incorporated a humorous story line for perpetual do-gooder Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer), who has embraced faux charities including Pants for Zoo Animals. Next week, Parcell's animal shelter work gets him emotionally wrapped up with abandoned dogs. Says producer Matt Hubbard: "We talked about doing a bunch of things, but there was an 'aha!' moment where we realized this would tie into another funny story later in the episode. Kenneth is so moral and pure, anything he does has to be good."
McBrayer says he didn't know his "minor plot point" was part of a bigger message. "It does kind of make fun of things, but on a bigger scale, it shows there's a volunteer organization for anything, for any cause," he says.
Brothers, the new Fox sitcom starring retired NFL star and network football analyst Michael Strahan, will center on his character and sibling (Daryl "Chill" Mitchell) volunteering as high school football coaches. "You may see a (TV) character one way, but you also see how they are a giving person. If you can make it cool to volunteer, it can have a long impact," Strahan says. He also taped a PSA for Help USA, which provides homes, jobs and other services to the homeless. Strahan has supported the organization for 15 years.
Viewers may find irony in public service messages of reality shows such as NBC's Biggest Loser, where hefty contestants will be at a food bank packing goods for those who don't have enough to eat. "It's not the most natural tie-in," says Loser co-creator JD Roth of 3 Ball Productions. "But it's a great way to raise awareness of obesity while making viewers aware of millions of people who can't put food on their table."
Will audiences tune out?
On a broader level, how much impact could I Participate have?
Filmmaker Robin Baker Leacock, whose November PBS documentary A Passion for Giving examines the personal and social impact of lending help to others, says the timing of the I Participate effort is prescient, given the troubled economy, high unemployment and strapped consumers. "People are starting to see you only get so much satisfaction acquiring things and status," she says. "Helping others makes people feel good. If TV can show how people can help, even subliminally, that's great."
Others aren't sure that audiences — even through subtle product placement-style messages — won't tune out TV's volunteering themes. Mike Rowe, host of Discovery Channel's popular blue-collar reality series Dirty Jobs, says viewers may be skeptical of celebrities often seen as out of touch with mainstream Americans, no matter how well-intentioned the message.
"Someone trying to inform me or change my behavior by taking real agendas and causes and inserting them into scripted shows and character-driven propositions sounds a little icky," Rowe says. "You can't force-feed good deeds on someone. But if they can pull it off, God love 'em."
Mitch Metcalf, NBC's head of scheduling, says I Participate's intent is to inspire viewers, not "medicine that people have to gag down."