Networks give for volunteerism

More than 60 series promoting idea of philanthropy this week

One of the continuing story lines on NBC's "Parks and Recreation" has been an effort by Amy Poehler's character to convert an abandoned construction pit into a park. This week, her dream is fulfilled with an assist from a real-life organization called KaBOOM!, which provides volunteers to build the park and a playground.

The plot twist isn't just for comic effect. It's part of an unprecedented campaign to encourage volunteering called "I Participate" coordinated by the Entertainment Industry Foundation, a charity made up of representatives from all facets of show business.

"What we want to do is make volunteering cool," said Sherry Lansing, the former studio executive who serves as EIF chairperson. "We all have seen the effect of a television show, a movie or a celebrity endorsement. It draws attention to a cause. It makes it part of the culture and hopefully sets an example people follow."

This week, more than 60 shows on networks including ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, the CW, Nickelodeon, Lifetime, Disney Channel and CNN and in syndication will embed volunteerism into story lines or feature public-service announcements to spread the message.

On NBC's "The Biggest Loser," contestants will volunteer at a Los Angeles food bank. On Fox's "Brothers," the guys volunteer as coaches. On CBS' "CSI: NY," Hill Harper's Dr. Sheldon Hawkes volunteers at a hospital.

The PSAs feature Simon Baker, Emily Deschanel, Eva Longoria Parker, Rainn Wilson, Kate Walsh and others; some have all-star casts that cross network lines.

The idea was born during an EIF retreat in the summer, when the group brainstormed ways to follow up on last year's Stand Up to Cancer campaign, which raised more than $100 million.

"It was an idea that started as a small seed and grew and grew," NBC executive vp Mitch Metcalf said. "The shows were very responsive, and we were able to get participation across all the networks."

Lansing said the idea started before President Obama took office and encouraged volunteerism, but that added to the effort. It also came before the economic crunch, but that added urgency.

"This has nothing to do with Democrats, Republicans or Independents," Lansing said. "Volunteerism was something everybody could agree on, because somebody wanted to work in education, somebody on the environment, others on literacy. That all comes under the umbrella of volunteerism."

The networks took the idea to showrunners and executive producers early this year. "It was totally left up to the showrunners whether they would do it or not," Fox executive vp Preston Beckman said. "There was no pressure and no guidelines. I was very touched and happy it was embraced by all."

Many were enthusiastic. "A lot of our producers are always looking for new angles, especially on established shows," CBS executive vp David Brownfield said. "This was a way to expand the characters and let the audience into what some of the characters do when not in the office."

Later this year, the campaign expands with trailers in movie theaters, efforts in music and more.

Metcalf said there will be follow-up research to measure volunteer activity nationwide as a way to judge the effectiveness of the campaign.

Lansing put the value of the media being donated to the cause as "priceless."

"Our industry has a unique ability to point to a problem, draw attention to it and affect the way people think and feel," she said. "It's extraordinary that the industry is coming together to do good."