The logline for the episode is quintessential Happy Days: “Richie goes to a local college and Fonzie takes him to the library to meet some girls.” For a sitcom in the 70s, this is standard stuff, but what happens after this episode airs on September 27, 1977 is far from standard. Millions of kids watching the show see the Fonz take out a library card — his first, mind you, which is a big deal by Happy Days standards. Younger viewers are duly impressed. In the days that follow, according to the series creator, Garry Marshall, requests for library cards zoom by more than 500% nationwide.
Dissolve to eleven years later. Dr. Jay Winsten, director of The Harvard Alcohol Project, comes to Hollywood with a new idea: the “designated driver.” Winsten meets with writers and producers of The Cosby Show, Cheers, LA Law and dozens of other prime time series. He asks them to incorporate story beats that will introduce this new concept to the drinking public. The TV community responds, and starting in November 1988, over 160 prime time episodes include subplots, scenes, or dialogue telling viewers it’s okay to party as long as someone stays sober for the drive home. One year later, a Gallup poll finds 67% of adults surveyed recognize the term “designated driver.” In 1991, Winsten’s new idea is a listing in Webster’s College Dictionary.
The following year, the Environmental Media Association applies Winsten’s technique for a campaign on recycling. EMA asks TV shows to depict recycling on camera to convey that this can be a simple, routine behavior in any American household. Home Improvement, Baywatch, Hearts Afire, Lois & Clark, and several other series follow through, and even increase efforts to recycle on their own sets. Coupled with national public service campaigns on TV, radio, and in print, this effort contributes to unprecedented growth in recycling nationwide. Old news? The notion that prime time series can deliver important messages and have a positive impact on society may be a familiar one. You’ve probably heard other examples from All in the Family, Murphy Brown, Ellen — you name it.
There’s even a measure of cynicism on the subject, especially when a logline includes those five dreaded words “a very special episode of…” But that’s not what we’re talking about. EMA has been working with prime time TV series since 1989. We provide accurate information when stories deal with environmental issues, and we encourage writers to address this subject whenever possible — but never at the expense of story, character, or the entertainment value of the episode. Our annual Environmental Media Awards recognize programs that convey environmental messages in the most entertaining and creative ways, because we understand a critical fact: if the audience isn’t entertained, they won’t stay around for any message. Series such as The Simpsons, Home Improvement, and The X-Files have won multiple EMA awards, proving over and over that the environment can play in prime time.
So, we have a fairly simple “ask”: as you break your stories this season, please consider environmental issues. If you’d like to know more, we’d be happy to provide additional information or connect you with experts who can. If any of these issues can be addressed in dialogue or subplots, through characters or even props, it will help U.S. expand environmental awareness among literally millions of viewers. As awareness is the step immediately before activism, it’s a crucial step, and you are uniquely positioned to help people take it. We hope you will.
Originally posted in a 1991 EMA tribute book.