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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Going Hollywood

Air Date: Week of

Environmental themes have been slipping into recent movies and television programs--a trend that isn't entirely an accident. Two Hollywood organizations have been lobbying writers and actors to green-up their work. Celeste Wesson reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If you watch television regularly, you have probably noticed that some shows seem a bit racier these days-- even more sex and sensation than usual. It's not an accident. Welcome to the November sweeps, when the networks joust each other for Nielsen ratings and a bigger share of the advertising pot. Amid all the hype, though, you might notice a different kind of media message. Ever so often, television characters start talking about their love of nature, or the steps they make to get their take-out coffee in reusable mugs. As Celeste Wesson discovered, these moments don't appear entirely by accident.

(Theme music from "Frasier" up and under)

WESSON: Frasier Crane is one of America's most popular TV characters. And it turns out that he is an environmentalist.

GRAMMAR (as Crane): Excuse me, sir, you know, there's a place to recycle those cans right over there.

MAN: Oh, I know.

(Clinking sounds)

CRANE: On behalf of Mother Earth I thank you!

(Audience laughter)

WESSON: In this scene, Frasier berates a stranger for tossing his soda can, and digs into the trash to recycle it for him.

CRANE: Just the sort of person that drinks chocolate soda.

(Audience laughter)

WESSON: There are dozens of little scenes like this on television, moments of individual environmental responsibility. And some of it is due to the efforts of the Environmental Media Association, or EMA. The group formed ten years ago to persuade Hollywood writers to slip environmental themes into movies and television. EMA's Kelly Skumautz says the idea has caught on. Among her favorites are "The Simpsons" and "Home Improvement."

SKUMAUTZ: When they are refitting and remodeling homes, the Tool Time people did the right thing with energy use and recycled materials. The list goes on and on. The "X-Files" is another very conscious show. And I'm happy about some of the new ones. We have real potential for "Dharma and Greg."

MAN: Hi, you're here. Come on in.

WOMAN: Yes, sorry we're late. Strong headwind on the bridge.

MAN: You biked here?

MAN 2: Yeah. Yeah.

WESSON: Dharma's aging hippie parents are not very fit, but they are dedicated.

WOMAN: We don't want to participate in the fossil fuel addiction foisted on us by multinational corporations.

MAN 2: And -- and -- and -- and --

WOMAN: And so from now on we will use the energy of our bodies to transport us instead of exploiting the planet we live on.

(Man pants)

MAN: What planet would that be, Larry?

(Audience laughter)

WESSON: To encourage such moments, EMA gives out yearly awards and conducts a big briefing headlined by hit makers like David Kelley, creator of "Ally McBeal;" and Michael Crichton of "Jurassic Park." Proof that you can succeed in show business while promoting environmental responsibility. EMA also provides prop advice to individual programs, and, when it can, meets one-on-one with the show's staff.

SKUMAUTZ: If you want to leave these around your writer's room, here's that prop...

WESSON: Ms. Skumautz recently briefed the executive producers of "The Pretender," which airs Saturday nights on NBC, and whose star, Michael T. Weiss, has been active in EMA.

SKUMAUTZ: The easiest ones are props. This season already, the show "Jesse" was using both reusable lunch and grocery bags with her son. "Dawson's Creek" had an ecology club. And "ER" has the doctor standing in front of these cartons of recycled paper.

MAN: So the pro-strip mining show that Tommy's working on, just make sure he's recycling his paper.

(He and Skumautz laugh)

WESSON: Ms. Skumautz would like "The Pretender"'s lead character Jarod to take the environmental message beyond visual props. She suggests that creating bad guys for him to battle would be one way for the writers to do it.

SKUMAUTZ: Who are your bad guys this year? There's always the toxic polluters.

MAN: Right.

SKUMAUTZ: And, you know, with scientists, they can always do wrong. The cloning and the mutations.

MAN: The pilot of this show, Jarod shut down some people who had illegally dumped oil from an oil tanker.

MAN: I never agreed with the company about flushing our tanks at sea. I knew those chemicals had to be doing something nasty. Yeah, I'm kind of glad Captain Jarod turned us in.

WESSON: Another "Pretender" episode was set at a toxic waste disposal company.

(Dramatic music, sirens)

WOMAN: Questions remain about a deadly spill inside ECS, a private firm specializing in hazardous materials cleanup. We've obtained exclusive Fire Department footage taken immediately after a container of deadly MZT foam ruptured during routine storage...

WESSON: If the environment is high drama, and as the meeting continues, the producers come up with other environmental evils that Jarod can fight,ike a profiteer in illegal medical waste disposal. But there are limits, says executive producer Tommy Thompson.

THOMPSON: We're not autonomous here. We don't just do what we want. We have to run story lines by networks, and we have to deal with studios. And I tell you what, we run into people that -- they're not thrilled about environmental story lines, you know, because ratings are the bottom line.

WESSON: Ms. Skumautz says EMA is trying to arrange briefings with studio and network executives who can green light a green story line. She says television can shape public behavior, reaching back into television history, to "Happy Days," to make her point.

SKUMAUTZ: There is a great example, and it had to do with the Fonz going to the library with Richie and signing up for his first library card. The following week, the number of cards that kids went out and signed up for increased by 500 percent nationwide.

WESSON: There are other examples of television's power to inspire viewers to action, according to Barbara Olsen, who hosts a Los Angeles radio program on the media. Farrah Fawcett's TV movie "The Burning Bed," for example, multiplied calls to domestic violence shelters. However, Ms. Olsen says that putting environmental messages into entertainment programs may have a limited effect.

OLSEN: It is a little bit like tossing a lifesaver out into a very vast ocean. On the average hour of prime time television, you have at least 32 little mini-programs, better-produced than anything else you'll see on TV. And those commercials are selling everything but sensible consumer lifestyles.

WESSON: Not only must a green message compete with commercials, says Ms. Olsen, it is also in conflict with the subtext of the programs themselves.

OLSEN: All of these shows and commercials show us a lifestyle that we are expected to aspire to. And some of those values are really good values. Caring and sharing and honesty. They are also about status (laughs), about competition. And about consumption.

WESSON: It may seem an uphill struggle, but Hollywood activists aren't giving up. In fact, there is another Hollywood group, the Environmental Communications Office, or ECO, working on a different front. Their focus is creating public service campaigns for radio and TV stations and for movie theaters.

(Milling crowd)

WESSON: At a premier party at Paramount Studios, ECO unveils its latest production: a one-minute trailer to play in movie theaters around the world.

MAN: So I'm going to be quiet for the next two minutes, and let's take a look at A Perfect Balance.

(Applause; trailer music up and under)

HUNT: It took billions of years, but it was perfect. New life coming from the old. Part of it hot, part of it frozen...

WESSON: Images of lightning and clouds, glowing lava, arches of Arctic ice, and then parched earth and collapsing icebergs, illustrate a message about global warming voiced by actor Linda Hunt.

HUNT: Nature is not doing this. We are. Nature cannot stop it. We can. But we have to start now.

(Music fading to applause up and under)

WESSON: Among the premier guests eating from the sustainable buffet and drinking organic wine are the cinematographers, editors, and producers who donate millions of dollars worth of footage and time to make ECO's spots. Also here are TV and movie stars whose contribution, says ECO's Rubin Aronin, is indispensable.

ARONIN: Folks like Patrick Stewart or Pierce Brosnan or Gene Hackman are given a certain amount of credibility because of who they are, and obviously we're able to get them on the airwaves. It is going up with a bullhorn and getting them out to so many more people than I could individually or any other single person that doesn't necessarily have the visibility that a celebrity does.

WESSON: ECO board member Christine Hodge, who starred in TV's "Head of the Class," says that with her celebrity status she can accomplish more than most environmental activists.

HODGE: I was thinking about quitting acting because I wanted to dedicate my whole life to environmental activism, and I realized that the more famous I could become the bigger voice I would have. Sting gets more done than our politicians do to help the environment. And when Tom Cruise went to the rainforest, people took a listen to what was happening in the rainforest.

WESSON: ECO boasts that over the years its messages have reached a billion people in 150 countries. Both EMA and ECO aim to get a basic message to a broad audience, to make it mainstream. Both groups are convinced they can use the machinery of Hollywood, the props, plots, spots, and stars, to make a difference. For Living on Earth, I'm Celeste Wesson in Hollywood.



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