The politics of entertainment

By Joseph D'Agostino
web posted October 25, 1999

Kweisi Mfume is accustomed to Washington, D.C. politics. The former U.S. Congressman is now president of the NAACP, a civil rights leader pressuring lawmakers for change. But last July, his organization followed the example of many advocacy groups and took its campaign for racial equity to the major television networks in New York.

"When the television-viewing public sits down to watch the new prime time shows scheduled for this fall's lineup, they will see a virtual whitewash in programming," Mfume complained. "This whitewash exists because none of the 26 new shows slated for the fall season have a minority in a leading or starring role."

In addition to generating public pressure, the NAACP announced plans to boycott advertisers and file a lawsuit against the networks under the Communications Act of 1934, which decrees that all radio and TV frequencies are public property and are subject to government regulation.

ABC and NBC received the most fire, and they responded almost immediately to Mfume's threats. Regular minority characters will be added to several shows, including ABC's new "Wasteland" and "Then Came You" series. The NAACP's brief campaign was a success, generating more media attention and clout for the nonprofit than its public policy efforts.

The NAACP is only one of many advocacy groups seeking influence over the entertainment industry. But their efforts to influence public entertainment go hand-in-hand with their attempts to affect public policy. Most trend-setters wouldn't take kindly to a comparison of Washington, D.C. to New York and Hollywood, but the three locales share certain similarities: Each is awash with money. Each has more than its share of egotism. And each is ruled by political orthodoxy and pressure groups that promote narrow agendas.

The entertainment industry has learned how to accomodate advocacy organizations over the past 30 years. Now, pressure groups are well-entrenched in Hollywood, and their methods are systematized. The most influential groups tilt to the Left. But even religious and conservative advocates have begun to woo the entertainment industry. What methods do entertainment "lobbyists" use to promote their agendas? And have they met with much success?

Identity Politics

If any group has much sway in Hollywood, it is the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which has staffed a Los Angeles office for ten years.

"We're the media organization for the gay community," said Scott Seomin, GLAAD's entertainment media director. He identified Castle Rock Entertainment, NBC and Warner Brothers Pictures as the most "welcoming" to the group's desire for positive, accurate and diverse portrayals of homosexuals in entertainment media.

Seomin noted GLAAD's recent successes. For example, the upcoming film Three to Tango features Matthew Perry of television's "Friends" pretending to be gay in order to get close to "Party of Five" star Neve Campbell on the big screen. GLAAD officials even helped cast extras for the movie.

"We were actually on the set of that film," Seomin said. "We saw rough cuts…. You can guess who's going to see this movie, the kids. They're very impressionable."

Other recent examples of GLAAD's influence include:

  • In test screenings of the film The Jackal, actor Bruce Willis portrays an assassin who kills a homosexual man after going home with him from a bar. After input from GLAAD, the film's producers agreed to add footage giving Willis a nonbiased reason for killing the gay man: he had seen Willis on television and thus might reveal his identity.
  • On an episode of the TV show "Wayans Brothers," one of the brothers was required to kiss another man during an acting job. The Wayan brother was repulsed by the kiss. GLAAD protested the tone of the episode after it first aired, and the show's producers re-edited it to make it seem less anti-homosexual.

A GLAAD timeline on the Internet broadcasts its accomplishments:

  • 1990: "CBS-TV suspends and reprimands Andy Rooney after GLAAD protests his homophobic statements on 60 Minutes."
  • 1992: "Entertainment Weekly names GLAAD as one of the 100 Most Powerful Entities in Hollywood."
  • 1997: "GLAAD coordinates meeting between actor/filmmaker Mel Gibson and nine up-and-coming lesbian and gay filmmakers."
  • Nov. 1998: "GLAAD launches its Hollywood Hotsheet," a list of kudos and criticisms for media representation of gays and lesbians. A "TV Scorecard" lists the number of homosexual characters on each network.

GLAAD has extensive resources for working with the media. Besides Seomin in Los Angeles, it has a media director in New York City and an Internet media director in Silicon Valley. GLAAD also hosts "Monitor & Response Committee" meetings in seven cities in order to monitor gay reactions to movies and television shows.

Even before GLAAD's prominence, gay and lesbian activists were among the first to lobby film and television producers. GLAAD absorbed Hollywood Supports, a now-defunct group advocating nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in entertainment media. An early campaign to sway television networks began with a protest over an episode of ABC's "Marcus Welby, M.D." show. Groups including the Gay Activist Alliance had "agents in place" in the entertainment industry who leaked script information about an upcoming "Welby" that featured a homosexual teacher molesting a teenage boy. Gay activists organized protests at the offices of ABC affiliates and browbeat advertisers into pulling their ads.

Conservative film critic Michael Medved said gay rights groups have been "most influential. They get the right to read scripts in advance."

"Incredibly successful," agreed Morality in Media's Robert Peters.

Animals Are Stars, Too

The country's largest animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has developed quite a following in Hollywood. PETA has a representative but no office in Los Angeles, and PETA's director of campaigns, Dan Mathews, travels to Hollywood to meet with entertainment officials.

Hollywood is "very sensitive" to animal rights concerns, Mathews said, although television shows and movies often deal with animal rights in an "incidental" way.

"It's sort of like B plots," he said.

But episodes of Fox's "Ally McBeal" have focused on a character's love for his pet frog, and "Veronica's Closet" recently featured a character who stole animals from a petting zoo to prevent their abuse. A few years ago, some episodes of "Roseanne" saw the character Darlene emphasize her vegetarianism.

"She wore a ‘Meat Stinks' T-shirt that we sent her," Mathews said. "We get calls from studios for posters and stuff they can put in movies."

‘Lean and Green'

Anyone who watches television or movies cannot help noticing a common pro-environmentalist tilt.

"We are the liaison between Hollywood and the environmental community nationwide," said a spokeswoman for the Environmental Media Association (EMA) who asked to remain anonymous. Its board includes Hollywood heavyweights such as Norman Lear, Ted Turner, Walt Disney Co. chairman Michael Eisner and Alan Horn, recently named head of Warner Brothers' movie studios.

"When you've got a celebrity associated with something, people pay attention," said the EMA spokeswoman. Founded in 1989, EMA matches Hollywood stars with like-minded environmental organizations so they can draw attention to environmentalist causes. "If it's a water issue, it's Ted Danson," she said.

EMA responds to requests for information from all quarters. In The American President, the female lead character's job is to lobby for action on global warming.

"The information you heard in the movie is information we researched," said EMA's director of programs, who also asked to remain anonymous. "Most of the calls we get are from unknowns, working on scripts." Not only do "we influence scripts and messages," she said, but EMA educates studios on environmentally responsible materials and methods.

"Our purpose here is to help Hollywood be as lean and green as possible," she said. "And we're the only ones doing that that we know of."

Each year, EMA hosts a briefing that attracts 100 to 150 writers who listen to environmental scientists' presentations, as well as a speech or two by well-known Hollywood insiders such as producer Norman Lear.

EMA distributes a brochure called "The Fonz, Drunk Drivers, and Trash, or, How Television Can Save the World." It relates an anecdote about the power of television and its stars. In an old episode of the comedy "Happy Days," the Fonz takes out a library card after taking Richie to the college library to meet girls.

"In the days that follow, according to the series' creator, Garry Marshall, requests for library cards zoom by more than 500 per cent nationwide," the brochure reads. EMA cites the incident as an example of television's power to influence behavior.

"EMA's mission is to mobilize the entertainment industry in a global effort to educate people about the environment and inspire them to act on those problems now," the brochure states. "We have worked closely with film and television creative teams to educate and encourage them to put the power of the entertainment media to work on behalf of the environment."

Insider Influence

The powerful NAACP relied on public protest and legal threats to affect television programming. But many other advocacy groups influence entertainment by working like political lobbyists from the inside, developing relationships with executives, producers and writers. Realizing the importance of direct contact, even the NAACP has decided that it will open a Hollywood bureau next month.

It seems the real influence of a group comes from working within the system, not just pressuring it from outside.

"The effect of GLAAD is frightening because they get inside the process," said David Horowitz, president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles.

"Advocates for population control pioneered the strategy of appealing directly to program creators," wrote UCLA professor Kathryn C. Montgomery in her 1989 book, Target: Prime Time. In 1970, the New York-based Population Institute established a West Coast office. It met with early success in 1972, by helping to encourage producer Lear and writers of the comedy "Maude" to focus two episodes on the lead character's abortion.

More recently Jay Winsten, director of Harvard University's Center for Health Communication, led one of the most successful campaigns to promote the use of the term "designated driver" to combat drunk driving. Winsten met with more than 250 entertainment industry leaders to push the concept, and the result was that dozens of primetime television shows featured designated drivers. The term was unrecognized by the American public in 1988, but by 1991 it had been added to Webster's dictionary.

"Standards and practices" departments of the television networks have "adopted an open-door policy for ‘special-interest groups,'" Montgomery writes. Sometimes studios hire consultants from special interest groups to advise them on sensitive issues.

Honors and Awards

Another way nonprofit advocacy groups influence the entertainment media is to reward them. For example, each year EMA holds an awards ceremony to honor those in Hollywood who support environmentalism. Honorees in October 1998 included Ted Danson, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David E. Kelley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rob Reiner, Paul Reiser and David Spade.

GLAAD has three awards ceremonies to present its annual awards in Los Angeles, New York and Washington.

"In addition to the 150 media outlets that covered the events this year," reads a GLAAD press release, "a total of nearly 4,000 people were in attendance, raising more than $1.8 million which will be used to support GLAAD's ongoing work in ensuring fair, accurate, and inclusive representations in the media. Of the total funds raised, $1.1 million came from corporate sponsorship."

GLAAD's sponsor list includes: ABC, DreamWorks, Entertainment Weekly, HBO, Miramax, People magazine, NBC, Universal Studios, MGM, MTV, the New York Times, Sony Pictures, Viacom (owner of Blockbuster Video) and Warner Brothers.

The NAACP and the National Council of La Raza have primetime network TV platforms from which to broadcast their plaudits. The NAACP's Image Awards, given to those responsible for positive and accurate portrayals of African-Americans in the entertainment media, have become a widely-acknowledged tool for bolstering actors and studios with the black activist community. La Raza's American Latino Media Arts (ALMA) Awards have introduced Latino activism to a national audience. This year's honorees included actors Benjamin Bratt of "Law & Order," Antonio Banderas for The Mask of Zorro and ABC's "NYPD Blue" for best drama.

Last month PETA hosted a "Millennium Gala" at Paramount Pictures featuring Hollywood celebrities such as Alec Baldwin. PETA's Mathews named Pamela Anderson of "VIP" and "Baywatch" fame as perhaps PETA's most effective spokeswoman. After Anderson had her breast implants removed, "the first thing she went to was a PETA event," Mathews said. "She said that people are going to look at her and she wanted a T-shirt."

Contrary Voices

Entertainment officials and advocates deny their goal is to press the toilers of Tinsel Town into an ideological mold.

"We're not here to censor," said GLAAD's Seomin.

"I've never, ever been pressured to put messages in shows we've done," said Rob Long, a ten-year veteran of Hollywood who is perhaps best-known for his writing on "Cheers." He describes himself as a "moderate conservative." But Long acknowledged that "Cheers" had "the most politically liberal cast," including Ted Danson.

Television critic Michael Medved said that liberal groups' influence in Hollywood is in part the result of lobbying skills, the ability to influence advertisers and effective methods of discouraging viewership. But there is something else:

"It works because there exists a pre-existing sympathy. It's not a conspiracy. It's a consensus."

Medved said nonprofit Hollywood advocates can rely on strategies that "involve spending very little money," such as sending out press releases, meeting with producers and holding awards banquets.

"I think what the groups do is they raise consciousness," he said. They need not do more, because leftist concerns find a ready and willing audience.

"It's a mood, a mentality," Horowitz said. "GLAAD is very powerful…. They were more effective than any congressional committee ever."

Horowitz argues that liberals not only have a worldview, but they are also sympathetic to different groups and their concerns.

"The Left understands constituencies," he said. "Right now, the NAACP is making big waves."

The NAACP represents one of the many organizations that have taken "identity politics" to movie and television producers. Author Kathryn Montgomery offers examples of how minority activists have influenced entertainment. Mexican-American groups convinced comedian Bill Dana to stop portraying a goofy Mexican character called Jose Jimenez. NBC's Beulah Land miniseries about the Old South galvanized black activists to take up a long-term, high-profile presence in Hollywood. They claimed success in toning down the shows "racist elements" but failed to keep it off the air.

Some black actors, however, oppose black activists' self-insertion into the entertainment world: "Every type of ‘black' show has been protested," actor Damon Standifer wrote in the Los Angeles Times last June. "If a show portrays wealthy black people, it's criticized for ignoring the plight of poor ones. If a show features poor black people (as in ‘South Central'), it's criticized for stereotyping black people as poor."

Standifer argued that black activists are costing actors jobs. "Several years ago I lost a role in which I'd already been cast because the producers felt they might appear racist if a black actor played that part," he wrote.

Getting Religion

"I don't see much family and religious group influence in Hollywood," Medved said. "The model liberals use won't work for conservatives. That model depends on pre-existing sympathies."

Nevertheless, Medved believes advocates of traditional religious beliefs have made some progress in the entertainment industry in recent years, perhaps signaling hope for other traditional-values advocates.

"A number of people of faith in the industry have come out of the closet," he said, naming Don Hahn of The Lion King fame and Martha Williamson, producer of the television program "Touched by an Angel."

"We're the only Christian group listed with the guild," said Dr. Ted Baehr, head of the Christian Film & Television Commission and publisher of Movieguide. That means that producers or writers looking for information on Christianity will often turn to him. And Baehr has his own awards banquet, at which studios pay "$20,000 a table to come," he said.

"One of the producers of ‘JAG' called me because they wanted to do a baptism," he said. "I see us doing an ambassadorial approach."

DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt, based on the story of Moses, marked a watershed for traditional religious groups. Mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg asked dozens of Christian and Jewish leaders and theologians, among others, for their advice on rough cuts of the film. Even Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, a religious right nemesis to many in Hollywood, was included.

"Katzenberg invited Dr. Dobson to view that film in various stages of production," said Paul Hetrick, Focus' vice president of media relations. "I was at the [screening] here in Colorado Springs last fall."

As an example of how suggestions from religious leaders changed the movie, Hetrick recalled the portrayal of how the Angel of Death knew to avoid the Hebrews' homes and kill only the first-born sons of Egyptian families.

"In an early version," he said, "the angel saw just a mark on Passover. So Dr. Dobson and others suggested that blood be used, as in the Bible. The blood in the story is symbolic of Christ's blood." DreamWorks changed the movie.

Several people interviewed for this article said that Dr. Larry Poland and his nonprofit group Mastermedia have a great impact on people in Hollywood through ministry and personal contact.

"The first objective is to create a positive, moral and spiritual impact on the leaders of American film and television through personal communication, individual counsel and small group support," reads Mastermedia's website. The group says it has involved 1,800 people.

And there are other ministries which target Hollywood workers, such as the large Inter-Mission. But these are spiritual groups, not lobbies seeking to affect program content.

Uncertain Future

Will conservatives ever influence the entertainment industry and enjoy the success of leftist and minority groups? Groups like Morality in Media have argued against loosening sexual mores in entertainment for many years, but they appear to be losing the battle. Perhaps other groups will have more success.

In the meantime, new advocates on the Left are likely to follow the example of groups like PETA and EMA. Medved offered a prediction in the wake of the recent wave of shootings around the country.

"The new advocacy groups I think will be registered will be gun control groups," he said. "Last year's fad was gay rights. This year's fad is gun control."

Joseph D'Agostino is the assistant editor of Human Events at the Capitol Research Center. Reprinted with the permission of the CRC.

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