Subliminal Messages

Primetime TV Programs Educate Viewers on the Environment

A carton of recycled copier paper sits on the counter of the ER nurses’ station. The cast of Friends pours milk out of a reusable glass bottle. Law and Order’s Detective Briscoe asks his lieutenant to guess what the blue fleece found at the crime scene is made of. “Recycled plastic bottles,” she responds. From props in your favorite star’s hands to stories about energy conservation and pesticides, environmental products and themes are appearing regularly on America’s most popular television programs.

It’s not happening by accident. For 10 years, the Environmental Media Association (EMA) has been working to weave the environment into prime-time television programming. Created by and for professionals in the entertainment industry, EMA works with the stars in front of the cameras as well as the creative staff behind them to include environmental themes in scripts, show environmental products on sets, and make environmentally sound decisions in the studios.

“You can use popular television programs to get the word out, reach every group and every sector of the population,” says Jennifer Love Hewitt, a Party of Five cast member. “If we backed the environment with the full force of the entertainment industry, I’m sure a lot of positive things could come of it.”

Each year, EMA briefs television writers about environmental issues. During the 1997-1998 season, the group focused on children’s programming. As a result, children’s shows like Bill Nye The Science Guy and Hey Arnold! increased the use of environmental themes in their shows. Last year, EMA offered writers information and story ideas for 10 different environmental issues, including environmental justice, climate change, population and transportation. To educate viewers about air pollution, the briefing book suggested that a TV couple climb to a spectacular vista to share a romantic moment, only to find the view obliterated by smog. The section on biodiversity suggested how a medical cure in a TV hospital could be traced back to a tropical rainforest.

In its first few years, EMA spent much of its time helping television writers come up with interesting plots with environmental twists and tracking down facts and figures. “We used to get more requests to review scripts, but now they can get the information they need from the Internet,” says EMA President Wendy James.

Today, many of the requests EMA receives are for props. Environmental t-shirts and posters, recycling containers and cloth grocery bags are the most frequently requested items. EMA will even help locate the actual curbside recycling bins used in the city where the program takes place so they look authentic to viewers in that city. And EMA helped locate electric cars for the final episode of Mad About You this season.

EMA also sponsors an annual awards program to honor shows that convey environmental messages in both entertaining and creative ways. The awards recognize the outstanding use of environmental themes in children’s live action and animated television, in episodic dramas and comedies and in feature films. Hot shows like The Simpsons, Home Improvement and The X-Files have won multiple awards. Last October, The Practice won the drama award for a story about the potentially harmful effects of high-voltage transmission lines. Home Improvement won in the television comedy category for a story that included a description of emissions trading.

It was an especially sweet victory for Home Improvement Executive Producer Bruce Ferber. “We had been nominated in a previous year for a segment where we put a brick in a toilet [to conserve water]. We were nominated alongside shows that had done episodes on real issues, like the destruction of the planet. It was embarrassing to be up there against them, so we were determined to come up with a real story line,” says Ferber of his winning episode.

Praise from your peers is one thing, but one of EMA’s awards comes with a $10,000 check made out to the winning episode’s writer. And for the last four years, the Turner Foundation has sponsored a special prize for the show that best addresses population issues. Dozens of episodes from shows like Chicago Hope, ER, Homicide, King of the Hill, South Park and Beverly Hills 90210 have been nominated for the prize. Last year, ER writer Samantha Howard Corbin won the Turner Prize for an episode about an abortion clinic bombing.

Environmental activism by the leading men and women on prime-time shows also makes a difference. According to James, Wendie Malick of Just Shoot Me and Michael T. Weiss of The Pretenders are particularly active, convincing their co-stars to participate in environmental events and volunteer for environmental organizations. Malick, Patricia Richardson, Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst, Donna Mills and Julia Louis-Dreyfus have all recorded greetings or radio spots for 1-800-CLEANUP, the U.S. Environmental Hotline.

Stars like Weiss are also promoting ecologically sound behavior in their workplaces by encouraging recycling on the set, donating sets to nonprofit organizations for reuse, and reducing the studios’ application of pesticides and other harmful products. Jonathan Taylor Thomas, formerly of Home Improvement, says that his character, Randy, had a green attitude because “the writers knew what interested me. It seemed like a natural gravitation to put the environment in my character as well.”

Is all of Hollywood’s environmental activism getting through to television viewers? According to one study cited by EMA, 74 percent of youth learn about the environment from TV. While no statistics are available on the number of environmental products or themes on television, EMA is discussing a possible survey with Gallup. But even without the hard data, James believes her organization’s efforts are making a significant impact. She compares environmental themes in television today to the social changes TV brought about in previous decades.

For example, requests for library cards grew by more than 500 percent after “The Fonz” applied for a library card in a 1977 episode of Happy Days. In 1980, the Harvard Alcohol Project convinced the writers of more than 160 prime-time episodes to introduce the new concept of the “designated driver.” A year later, 67 percent of adults surveyed recognized the term and in 1991, it was added to Webster’s College Dictionary. “Television reaches people who are otherwise difficult to reach with environmental messages,” says James. “People try to emulate their favorite TV stars.”