Cause in Entertainment: Less After-School Special, More Prime-Time Programming

Our parents always told us television will rot our brain. Yet when the message is good, perhaps a daily dose of the tube isn’t so bad. Companies, TV networks and nonprofits are leveraging the many hours Americans spend in front of the television to communicate powerful messages about complex social and environmental issues. The explosion of cause-driven content hitting the airwaves recently includes:

  • For the second season this fall, Chef Jamie Oliver brought the fight against obesity into American living rooms with a reality show that overhauled some of the most overweight communities in the country. "Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution" aired on ABC and sought to raise awareness of the growing obesity crisis and get people cooking and eating better food.
  • Beloved ad man Don Draper of AMC’s "Mad Men" is putting his best foot forward for a good cause. In a recent episode, the suave main character and creative director of the fictional 1960s Madison Avenue advertising agency agreed to do pro bono work for the American Cancer Society. The motive? When the ad shop hit a rough patch financially, the agency recognized the potential of pro bono work to keep the agency visible and employee morale high.
  • Comedy Central’s Jon Stuart and Stephen Colbert will host dueling mock rallies in Washington D.C. next week, competing for who can organize the most supporters. In the process, the two comedians have encouraged viewers to show their support by donating money to designated projects, such as restoring a park and funding area schools. Through satire and some friendly competition, "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" have already raised a combined $364,000 for local communities.
  • "School Pride" is NBC’s latest extreme makeover show in which students, parents, teachers and community members help to rebuild and update seven U.S. schools. Sponsored by HP, the show will pull at viewer heart strings while also addressing a serious societal issue.

Entertainment programming presents a huge opportunity to address social and environmental issues with a captive audience, yet networks and nonprofits must look beyond product placements and PSAs to reach viewers in a compelling way. Embedding cause into story lines may prompt Americans to learn about an issue, talk to their families and then when they get off the couch – to volunteer, make a donation or change their own habits and lifestyle. Whether the shows are based in reality, humor or drama, it’s important for the cause message to be both entertaining and informative so the issues are made relevant and actionable.

 

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