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Planet Hollywood : The Hits and Misses of Television's Environmental Activism

February 16, 1992|SHARON BERNSTEIN

Murphy Brown has learned how to recycle. The Simpsons feud about nuclear power and deforestation. But is television really helping Americans understand the problems--many would say crisis--facing the environment?

Yes and no.

"It's almost impossible to watch prime-time television and not see something about the environment," said Andy Spahn, president of the Environmental Media Assn., an industry organization that lobbies and advises film and television producers about including environmental messages in their programs. "We are responding everyday to requests for meetings and brainstorming sessions."

And, indeed, say environmentalists and producers alike, the sheer number of references to the environment in entertainment programming has dramatically increased over the past several years. A character who drinks a can of soda is likely to toss the empty into a recycling bin; shows such as "Harry and the Hendersons," "MacGyver," "Northern Exposure," "Knots Landing" and "Murder, She Wrote" have devoted entire episodes to stories about the environment. Cable networks Turner Broadcasting System and Discovery have programmed hundreds of hours about environmental concerns.

But both industry insiders and environmental activists say that, overall, TV's treatment of ecological issues could be much better. For a variety of reasons, these critics say, television's approach tends to be too simplistic, its attention span too short and its forays into environmentalism too infrequent.

TV environmentalism, or "green TV" as it was called, engendered quite a bit of publicity two years ago, when the nation celebrated the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. Network specials touted ecological causes and shows from sitcoms and dramas to documentaries explored the fate of the planet.

Since then, environmental programming on TBS, Discovery and, to a lesser extent, PBS has continued to balloon. Mainstream programming, on the other hand, continues to pay attention to the environment, but not with the same fanfare and, according to environmentalists and industry insiders, in smaller doses.

For the most part, say Spahn and others, discussions of environmental concerns in mainstream programming are worked into scripts as asides: the character who matter-of-factly turns off the faucet to save water while brushing his teeth or the sitcom star who worries about the ozone layer.

Those kinds of references are significant, because they subtly reinforce the idea that conservation and concern for the environment can be made part of people's day-to-day lives, said Elissa Wolfson, managing editor of E Magazine, an environmental publication based in Connecticut.

"Recycling has become a major part of people's lives, and that's largely due to the positive influence of the media," Wolfson said. "When people see characters doing it on TV, they're more likely to do it in their own kitchens."

Recycling shows up regularly on "Murphy Brown," "The Simpsons," "MacGyver" and other programs, and is beginning to be found in the real lives of the actors and producers, who in some cases have begun to recycle foam cups and paper goods on sets.

But there's a limit to how much information can be contained in a brief sequence. And environmentalists say the issues are too complicated to be handled simply as throwaway lines in sitcoms.

"I think it's a good thing that Hollywood and others are addressing environmental problems, but if it's not done in a substantive way, the public is going to tire of it," said Bill Breen, managing editor of Garbage Magazine in Gloucester, Mass. "It has to get beyond some sort of message being worked into a program which can't consistently follow these issues."

The environment is "as complicated as brain surgery," said Garrett de Bell, environmental consultant to Universal Studios. And, say the activists, simply showing people recycling on television isn't going to be enough.

Some producers have tried to tackle issues on a much deeper level.

"MacGyver," which ends its seven-year run on ABC this spring, has treated issues such as the possible extinction of the black rhinoceros, clear-cutting of forests and the dangers of pesticides for farm workers in the format of a 60-minute drama.

But, according to executive producer Steve Downing, the shows were not easy to make--and it was also difficult to get them past network censors.

"The one I did called 'Bitter Harvest,' on pesticides, was a nightmare," Downing said. "I was up three days straight rewriting the script" at the request of the network.

ABC, Downing said, would not approve the program before showing the script to experts on both sides of the pesticide controversy, and insisted on toning down some of the anti-pesticide language in the script. For example, Downing said, during a scene discussing clusters of cancers in areas where the pesticides were used, the producers were required to have a character say that there was no proof that the cancer was caused by chemicals.

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