U.S. TV shows try a new election playbook - making voting part of the story

By Jill Serjeant

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - From "black-ish" to a "West Wing" reunion, television shows are using the power of entertainment in new ways to encourage more Americans to participate in the Nov. 3 election.

Thirty years after "Rock the Vote," a liberal nonprofit group, fused pop culture and politics, TV makers are seeking to make dry topics like registering to vote, filling out the census and finding polling places feel vital and fun by writing them into the plots of popular shows.

In "Black Ink Crew," a reality show about a tattoo parlor in Harlem, the Black owner registers to vote for the first time and designs a tattoo to mark the occasion. The Cuban-American family comedy "One Day at a Time" ran an episode about a census worker who comes to their home.

"We're seeing a reshaping of how Americans are encouraged to think about civics, not only through a 30-second PSA (public service announcement) but also through integrations into storylines on some of our major shows," said Steven Levine, director of the Civic Alliance.

The Civic Alliance, launched in January, is supported by more than 180 companies including ViacomCBS Inc, Spotify, Univision and Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency (CAA).

Earlier this year, ViacomCBS rolled out a Civic Storylines Toolkit and organized workshops that have been attended by more than 200 writers across comedy, drama and reality shows.

The toolkit provides a road map on how to "infuse storylines around voting and voting culture directly into our content, instead of the more traditional approach of PSAs," said Brianna Cayo Cotter, senior vice president of social impact at the ViacomCBS entertainment and youth group.

"Television can really shape the way people think and feel around major issues. But that philosophy had never been applied to civic engagement," Cayo Cotter said.

Many of the shows are aimed at millennials and Gen Z, who together outnumber baby boomers for the first time in the U.S. electorate, according to a 2019 report by the Pew Research Center.

An upcoming episode of comedy "black-ish" will focus on first-time voter Junior, who discovers he has been dropped from voter lists and wants to find out why.

The main cast of White House drama "The West Wing," which finished its run in 2006, is reuniting for a special episode aimed at promoting voting in November.

Actor Kal Penn, from stoner movie franchise "Harold and Kumar," is launching comedy show "Kal Penn Approves This Message" on the youth-oriented Freeform channel that will tackle topics like healthcare and climate change as well as information about how and where to vote.

"It's very important for the show to be funny and non-partisan," said Penn. "Younger people tend to not be affiliated with a political party the way older audiences are. They tend to care more about issues," he said.

The initiatives are already yielding results. Appeals by Trevor Noah on "The Daily Show" have resulted in more than 100,000 people signing up to be poll workers through dedicated links on the show's website, ViacomCBS said.

(Reporting by Jill Serjeant)