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Activity buzzes inside Hollywood’s Dolby Theater on Thursday afternoon as production crews prepare the space for a star-studded Stand Up to Cancer broadcast. Katie Couric, fresh off a plane from New York, sits in a group of gray upholstered seats just left of the theater’s main stage.
This is the Stand Up to Cancer digital lounge, where Couric will host a cadre of celebrities, including Modern Family‘s Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Scandal‘s Tony Goldwyn, during Friday’s television special. Instead of the traditional call-in phone bank, the stars in the digital lounge will reach out directly to supporters via phone, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter during the one-hour fundraising event.
“In prior years, we’ve had a phone bank, and that seems so five minutes ago,” Couric tells The Hollywood Reporter. Dressed casually in a J. Crew gray-striped tee and blue overalls, she’s just finished a run-through of the event. “We decided that we wanted to be much more of the moment. This technology allows us to actually reach out to viewers and donors and to connect with them in a really modern way.”
The Sept. 5 broadcast, which will air on 31 networks and stream online beginning at 8 p.m. ET, is the fourth such event for Stand Up to Cancer, which Couric helped found in 2008 along with a number of entertainment industry partners, including producer Noreen Fraser, Sherry Lansing and the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s Kathleen Lobb and Lisa Paulsen. In total, the organization has raised more than $261 million for cancer research.
The digital lounge will help the group reach out to supporters who might not tune in to the television broadcast but are active on social media platforms.
With Facebook as its primary social media partner, Stand Up to Cancer has found ways to integrate the social network into much of its donor outreach. Stars sitting in the digital lounge will conduct Facebook Q&As and record video messages to supporters throughout the broadcast, which will feature performances on the main stage from the likes of Ariana Grande and The Who.
“Anything we can do to partner with organizations like Stand Up to Cancer that light up the Facebook universe in service of a cause, it’s a given,” says Melinda Arons, manager of strategic partner development at Facebook.
Couric will also use a new device called the Facebook Mentions Box to connect with fans. The oversized tablet, which debuted in August on the Emmys’ red carpet, will be programmed with messages from supporters who have shared their connection to cancer. She and her celebrity guests will shake the device to pull up one of those stories and then use it to respond.
“Fundraising has changed so dramatically, and I think the Internet has completely changed the face of how charities make people aware of their existence and raise funding,” explains Couric. “So for us to be able to harness the incredible power of Facebook and help get people engaged through it is such an important opportunity, and we’re so grateful.”
The organization has become a popular cause among celebrities, and the broadcast, staged every two years, draws many big-name supporters. But Couric notes that the razzle-dazzle is not meant to overshadow the importance of the event.
“The people who are going to be part of this event, they’re not doing it because it’s the right thing to do or because they need to be seen on this particular red carpet,” she says. “They’re doing it because they care deeply about supporting the work that Stand Up to Cancer is doing.”
Couric, too, has a personal connection to the organization. Her first husband, Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer in 1998, and her sister, Emily Couric, died of pancreatic cancer in 2001. Those losses spurred her to become more involved in the fight against cancer.
“One of the many distressing things about cancer is that it can make you feel so powerless,” she says. “If you’re a can-do person, the feeling that you can’t do anything is incredibly maddening. So after experiencing those losses and seeing other people around me succumb to this disease, I felt like I had to do something more.”
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