"TV rots your brain." So said Grandma as she tried to tear you away from the boob tube long enough to join her in the garden or the knitting club. But the old adage hardly holds up these days. Do-gooder series like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and special episodes like American Idol's "Idol Gives Back" have turned cause-championing into successful television. Couch potatoes everywhere are being exposed to worthy causes in a meaningful, effective way as networks forge a connection between something viewers love (The Biggest Loser) and a corresponding organization (FilterForGood). If you're addicted to Survivor, perhaps you want to help the tsunami-ravaged island that serves as its latest home. Or maybe you can pause Tyce Diorio's heart-wrenching breast cancer dance on So You Think You Can Dance long enough to donate to the cause that inspired it. Luckily for us, giving back online is quick and simple—you'll be done by the end of the commercial break. Take that, Grandma.
In Ugly Betty's fourth season premiere, the fictional fashion magazine Mode does a shoot highlighting the real-life organization Nothing but Nets. In Betty's first act as an associate editor, the wide-eyed idealist pitches a story to raise awareness about the devastating effects of malaria. "She has this lightening bolt of an idea to have a high-profile fashion designer make clothes out of mosquito netting," says actor Eric Mabius, who plays Betty's boss Daniel. "It's kind of hard to tie something like saving African children into a campy show about the fashion world, but therein lies the struggle that Betty faces." And while the shoot may be filled with comic relief—nothing in Betty's career ever goes as planned, and this fashion shoot is no exception—the cause behind it is sobering. Every year, malaria kills more than a million people, 90 percent of whom are African children. In fact, a child dies of malaria every 30 seconds in Africa. According to Nothing but Nets, "Studies show that use of insecticide-treated bed nets can reduce transmission by as much as 90 percent in areas with high coverage rates." With a donation of only $10, you can buy a net big enough to protect an entire African family. "Everyone in America is strapped right now, but even for those people who are having trouble making ends meet, there is so little money and time required to make a direct impact in Africa," Mabius says. "That's what's so great about this organization in particular. Financially speaking, the commitment is very little but the effect is pretty major."
When Tyce Diorio choreographed a contemporary dance routine last season, his intention wasn't to bring the reality competition's unflappable judges to tears, even though he did. He had no plans to raise breast cancer awareness in the entire arts community, though he did that too. He just wanted to give a friend a gift. "I had a really dear friend who was dealing with breast cancer. I thought I could maybe choreograph a piece for her to let her know I was thinking about her and was with her in spirit," he says. The piece featured two dancers, Melissa and Ade, playing out a married couple's journey when a woman learns she has breast cancer. "I was thinking, 'What really happens to two people when they have to face that together?'" Diorio says. "There's a moment when Melissa runs up to Ade, grabs his face and starts beating on his chest. I thought that would really happen, or it would feel like that's what you want to do, just punch the wall. I told Ade he would be like a brick wall for her. I would imagine that a husband has to be that for his wife." Even the costume choices packed a punch. "I was trying to decide whether or not I would put Melissa in a head scarf. Some friends told me not to, but I thought, 'How do you tell that story without telling the truth?'" The dance became a series favorite, but better than the judges' gushing reaction was the phone call Diorio got on the morning of the season finale. "My friend called and said: 'I got my test results today. I'm cancer-free.' It was unbelievable," he says. "Life imitates art, and art imitates life. It was a very special moment in time."
If you love...Survivor: Samoa You might want to give back to...Help Samoa
Not long after taping in Samoa wrapped on the 19th season of Survivor, a magnitude 8.3 earthquake struck near the Samoan Islands, triggering a tsunami that wiped out villages and displaced thousands of residents. While you won't see the demolished areas on the show, host Jeff Probst says the disaster had a direct effect on the Survivor family. "Some of our guys lived there for six months. When an island is so small that you can drive around it in four hours, you really get to know the people. The devastation that happened to that island is heart-wrenching," he says. "While we have a regular crew of over 300, we also always employ 100 or 150 locals. In addition, we're using ancillary local labor all the time. We lost a lot of friends. There are people who perished who worked in the communities where we were living while we were there." Überfans might be familiar with "Ponderosa," the house where voted out contests stay for the duration of taping and where post-tribal council Web-only videos are taped. "It was completely demolished. It's as if it was never there," Probst says. "Two weeks earlier we were in those buildings, and now they're gone." Samoa doesn't have the infrastructure to rebuild a community quickly, and there's no government assistance, Probst points out, so every little bit helps. One thing he's confident of is that loyal Survivor viewers will give back to the island that housed one of the series' most memorable seasons (at least so far). "It won't surprise me if I find out later that there was a pretty decent outpouring of support from Survivor fans," he says. "They really feel connected, like they're part of the action. That's why we're still on the air."
On ABC's new procedural drama, Christian Slater spearheads a group of volunteers for the Forgotten Network, an organization dedicated to identifying John and Jane Does. They're a unique group who all have different reasons for joining the network—Slater's character is hoping they will one day discover his missing daughter; one woman is trying to escape the boredom of her day job; a telephone repairman is channeling his inner Andy Sipowicz—but they share a common passion for helping suffering families. While the Forgotten Network is scripted, there are real-life organizations that do this same work. To prepare for the show, the cast met with an organization called Project EDAN. "It stands for Everybody Deserves a Name,” Slater says. “They've been going for the last 30 years, and they'll take the smallest shred of information, whatever detail they have, and go that extra mile to get closure for mothers and fathers who go to sleep every night wondering what happened to their sons and daughters." Project EDAN is made up of forensic artists, but they work with organizations like the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). Free to the public, NamUs is an online system made up of two databases: one for unidentified decedents and one for missing people. Anyone can log on to start doing the work they see every week on The Forgotten. "You don't really think about it when you see a John or Jane Doe, but these people had lives. They had histories," Slater says. "You come into this world, and the first thing you get is a name. You should have it when you leave."