Nets, skeins support 'I Participate' push
The centerpiece of Entertainment Industry Foundation’s “I Participate” campaign to encourage volunteerism kicks off Monday with the major nets devoting a week of programming and PSAs to the effort.The “Tune-In Week” portion of the campaign, which includes more than 60 network series that will integrate messages of volunteerism into storylines, has drawn fire from some conservative critics. But the network organizers behind the event stress that the campaign is nonpartisan — and was completely voluntary for showrunners. “This wasn’t a requirement handed down from the network; this was an ask,” said NBC program planning/scheduling exec VP Mitch Metcalf, who serves as the Peacock’s liaison with the EIF. “And the executive producers were incredibly open to the idea, and I think very creative in how they executed.” Metcalf said producers were not given a list of organizations they had to service, or even a specific message they had to convey. “It was just this general notion that if you want to highlight a specific organization or cause, that’s fine, but most importantly, make it work in the show and make it natural.” On “30 Rock,” for example, this week’s episode will center on Kenneth the Page, who volunteers at an animal shelter — and winds up taking all the dogs after learning they’re going to be put down if not adopted. Also, the Peacock’s “The Biggest Loser” will feature contestants volunteering at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, while “Parks and Recreation” centers on the group volunteering with Kaboom! Organization to build a playground in one day. Other shows will broach the subject but not make it a centerpiece of an episode: On “The Office,” the group talks about volunteering in one scene; and on “Heroes,” Claire conducts a brief conversation about volunteering. “I Participate” reps the most extensive involvement yet by the nets in an EIF initiative. Last year, ABC, NBC and CBS aired the commercial-free special “Stand Up to Cancer” simultaneously. This year, Fox is taking part as well in “I Participate” — although, due to the Major League Baseball playoffs, most of its series could not be involved (net will be using many of its stars in PSAs instead). Fox scheduling topper Preston Beckman said the network reached out to its affiliates as well as sister cable nets for support. “It’s a team effort,” Beckman said. Exec said Fox stars participating in PSAs include Tamara Taylor (“Bones”), Lance Reddick (“Fringe”) and Nigel Lythgoe (“So You Think You Can Dance”). Over at CBS, “Gary Unmarried” exec producer Ira Ungerleider said choosing a volunteerism theme was easy: All he had to do was turn to cast member Rob Riggle, who’s a real-life Marine Corps Reserve officer (and whose character is also a veteran). For the “I Participate” campaign, “Gary” will feature the lead character’s daughter, Louise, as she films messages to send to Riggle’s character and other troops overseas. “We did this not only to support our good friend Rob, who has to go back to active duty, as he still owes them several weeks each year, but we thought it was a good way organically to say, ‘we’d like to support the troops,'” Ungerleider said. Other Eye shows participating include “Criminal Minds,” “CSI: Miami” and “Ghost Whisperer.” And at ABC, shows participating in the campaign this week include “Desperate Housewives,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “FlashForward,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Modern Family,” “Ugly Betty” and its daytime sudsers. The EIF campaign comes as the Obama administration has made volunteerism a hallmark of first lady Michelle Obama’s advocacy work. “We were looking for something that would be a great follow-up to ‘Stand Up to Cancer,’ ” Metcalf said. “We knocked around a couple of ideas — education, or maybe highlighting health care. We decided on the general notion of volunteerism and public service.” After that, the group — led by EIF prexy-chief exec Lisa Paulsen — decided to go beyond traditional PSAs and look into incorporating the message into TV series. It’s this element of the campaign that has sparked some concerns that there were political motives behind the initiative. That came as a surprise to many in the biz, including Ungerleider. “Are (critics) afraid of an outbreak of volunteerism?,” he quipped. Beyond the primetime involvement, EIF has also scheduled a week of volunteer days for industry players at locations throughout Southern California.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more