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Community service as a TV theme

TELEVISION

More than 100 programs on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and cable networks will spotlight the idea of giving back, through story lines or public service announcements.

October 19, 2009|Matea Gold and Maria Elena Fernandez

NEW YORK AND LOS ANGELES — Discerning television viewers may notice a recurrent theme on their favorite shows this week. The doctors on ABC's "Private Practice" give homeless teenagers free checkups. On NBC's "30 Rock," page Kenneth Parcell tries to adopt all the dogs at an animal shelter. And two characters on CBS' "Numb3rs" talk about joining Big Brothers Big Sisters.

The outpouring of volunteerism is no coincidence. The story lines were developed for iParticipate, an industrywide initiative aimed at urging viewers to give back to their communities. Spearheaded by the Entertainment Industry Foundation, one of Hollywood's major charitable organizations and the force behind last year's "Stand Up to Cancer" telethon, the project has been embraced at an unprecedented level by the networks, studios and stars.

More than 100 programs on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and cable networks such as Nickelodeon and Lifetime will spotlight community service, either through explicit story lines or public service announcements featuring actors such as Emily Deschanel, Eva Longoria Parker and Rainn Wilson.

The message will be nearly ubiquitous, starting in the morning with programs such as "Today" and "The View," and then echoed on soap operas, prime-time series and late-night shows.

"We thought we'd have 20 or 30 programs involved," said Lisa Paulsen, chief executive of the EIF. "It's just caught on like wildfire."

But while the project has found widespread support in Hollywood, its dovetailing with President Obama's call for national service has fueled suspicion in some conservative circles that iParticipate is an effort to prop up left-wing causes.

Twitter users have posted messages complaining that the initiative is an abuse of the public airwaves. Writers on the blog Big Hollywood, part of the conservative news portal Breitbart.com, noted that the iparticipate.org's database of volunteer opportunities includes postings from Planned Parenthood and groups focused on ending global warming. (The database -- powered by a nonprofit Web platform called All for Good, designed by engineers from Google and other tech companies to be a single search interface for volunteers -- also includes listings for anti-abortion organizations and the conservative group Tea Party Nation.)

An EIF memo to show runners explaining the project obtained by Big Hollywood describes the initiative as a response to Obama's push for more community service. But Paulsen said that she and EIF board Chairwoman Sherry Lansing were inspired by hearing both Obama and Sen. John McCain speak about the need for more volunteerism at a service forum during the 2008 campaign.

"All of our political leaders have made national service a priority," Paulsen said. "This is a nonpartisan initiative. I don't see that there's anything negative that can be taken from this in any way, shape or form, because it really is about true citizenship."

Entertainment executives first hit on the idea during a board retreat in summer 2008 when they were brainstorming how to follow the "Stand Up to Cancer" project, according to Mitch Metcalf, NBC's executive vice president of program planning and scheduling and a member of the EIF board.

"We're lucky that the Obama administration happened to think this is a worthy cause and the first lady in particular is behind this general effort," he said. "But that just provides support and shines a spotlight on it. . . . We're certainly not servicing the White House."

Rather than just "running a bunch of stoic PSAs," Metcalf said network executives realized it would be more effective to embed the message of service into story lines. Producers were asked to find ways to hit on the theme but given creative freedom about how to do so.

"We didn't pull any arms or put a gun to anybody's head," said Preston Beckman, Fox's chief scheduler, also on the EIF board. "I think what's kind of cool about this is there wasn't an attempt at any kind of uniformity. There weren't any scripts or requirements. It was really 'Here's the goal: Get the word out about volunteering and do it however you feel would be best.' "

On NBC's "Parks and Recreation," executive producer Greg Daniels came up with the idea of having the characters build a park with KaBoom!, a nonprofit organization that constructs playgrounds.

In the Fox comedy " 'Til Death," couple Doug (Timm Sharp) and Ally (Lindsey Broad) address why they spend most of their time participating in protests and supporting the environment.

On Disney Channel's "Hannah Montana," Miley Stewart (Miley Cyrus) tries to win the school's charitable fundraising campaign.

Bruno Heller, executive producer of CBS' "The Mentalist," said it was easy to make the story line a natural part of his show. The writers decided to have rookie cop Grace Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti) volunteer in a kitchen for homeless families, which causes tension in her love life. (Some service-themed episodes, like this one, are airing later in the month.)

"It kind of fit in naturally with the characters," Heller said. "We're not playing it like an after-school special."

EIF is now in talks with film and music executives about incorporating iParticipate into their work, Paulsen said.

"We've just begun the conversations, but they're all enthusiastic," she said. "Everyone is saying, yes, yes, yes."

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matea.gold@latimes.com

maria.elena.fernandez @latimes.com

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