Entertainment and the Environment: How EMA Sounds its Warning

By Leah Hochbaum

Picture this. Every day in California alone, more than 10,000 TV and computer monitors are being discarded, each containing 2 to 4 kg. of lead. Last year, 41 million PCs became obsolete in the U.S. Electronic discards make up over 70 percent of heavy metals now in landfills.

It's definitely time to call on Emma, goddess of the sound environment. Actually, she's called EMA: Environmental Media Association. For more than a decade, the Los Angeles, California-based EMA has been promoting environmental issues through the media, giving the problems facing our atmosphere the worldwide exposure no place but Tinseltown can offer.

"We try to motivate other people in the industry to understand that it's not hard to put out an environment-friendly message if it's wrapped in a good story," said EMA executive director Debbie Levin. "Erin Brockovich is a perfect example of that."

Founded in 1989 by Warner Bros.' Alan Horn and his wife Cindy and All in the Family creator Norman Lear and his wife, Lyn, what sets EMA apart from traditional conservation groups is its commitment to using Hollywood to better our surroundings. EMA representatives regularly conduct meetings with writers, producers, directors and performing artists to conjure up ways to implement the group's ideas into movies, television, radio and the theater. EMA will review scripts and conduct research on behalf of filmmakers looking to lace their flicks with environmental problems. Directors are encouraged to contact the group should they require random facts for a character to quote, or for props, such as recycling bins and posters.

"We have an advisory board that tells us what issues we need to be dealing with," said Levin. "We then approach shows with storyline ideas." EMA has worked with such notable series as Friends, Will & Grace, The Simpsons, The West Wing, and Just Shoot Me. The latter's Wendie Malick even serves on the board. Levin recently met with The District's John Wirth regarding a story about environmental justice and toxic playgrounds and was gratified to learn that Wirth based an entire hour-long episode on the issue.

In the early '90s EMA requested that television programs depict recycling on camera as a normal part of everyday existence. Home Improvement, Lois & Clark, Hearts Afire and even Baywatch leapt onto the bandwagon, eager to spread the idea. At the same time, EMA redoubled its efforts, airing public service announcements and increasing the group's visibility with TV and radio spots, as well as print ads. The association was pleasantly surprised to see a marked increase in the public's recognition of important issues such as water quality, air pollution, pesticides and climate change.

In 1991, the alliance launched the Environmental Media Awards to honor entertainment vehicles that best exemplify EMA's goals. Films such as Kevin Costner's Native American epic, Dances With Wolves; the killer whale tale, Free Willy; and the patriotic love story, The American President have all been recognized by the EMA for the powerful ecological messages they send to the public. On the TV front, ABC's The Practice, Fox's eerie, long-running sci-fi chiller The X-Files and the animated The Simpsons have all garnered awards for their efforts. "Lisa Simpson is a big environmentalist," joked Levin. This year's show will be held on November 20, 2002.

New PSAs that feature young stars and starlets are also in the works. Spots with Gwyneth Paltrow and Cameron Diaz are already airing throughout the United States. "By using hot, young Hollywood as role models, young people will think it's cool and trendy to be good to the environment," said Levin. "It's all about role modeling." In keeping with that mantra, EMA organized "Environmental Week" on Hollywood Squares. The board provided environmental statistics and info to the writers, who then wrote up questions. Jane Fonda, Rob Reiner, Ed Begley, Jr., board member Amy Smart and Just Shoot Me's Malick and Enrico Colantoni were just some of the stars who made up the tic-tac-toe board.

Though Hollywood is not generally known for its socially-conscious bent, EMA hopes that the influx of young actors and actresses like Diaz who tool around town in their electronic Hybrid cars will make ecological issues fashionable once again. "It's like product placement for the environment," said Levin.