Flip the Script on Plastics: Working with the Norman Lear Center & the Writers Who Continue His Legacy

Plastic Pollution Coalition has been working with the Norman Lear Center for the past three years, beginning with a report in 2021 that helped launch Flip the Script on Plastics, created by the Media Impact Project. We later partnered with the University of Southern California (USC) Norman Lear Media Center’s Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S) to work with studios and TV writers, providing the facts about plastic pollution and helping them to incorporate plastic-aware storytelling into their scripts.

On Wednesday, December 6, 2023, just hours after Norman Lear’s passing, television writers, producers, show runners, and stars gathered at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills for the HH&S Sentinel Awards. The Awards honor TV writers who carry on Lear’s legacy of creating television that takes on important issues and accurately represents modern society, and this year’s event was especially poignant as attendees celebrated Norman Lear’s life.

As a core program of the USC’s Annenberg Norman Lear Center, HH&S provides the entertainment industry with accurate and up-to-date information for storylines including topics of health, safety, and security, to the impacts of plastic, pollution and climate change.

Pictured: Writer Scott Z Burns, Plastic Pollution Coalition Executive Advisory Board Member Asher Jay, Plastic Pollution Coalition CEO & Co-Founder Dianna Cohen, Musician & Plastic Pollution Coalition Notable Member Ben Harper at the 2023 Sentinel Awards

During the award ceremony, 11 shows were honored for their accurate and moving storylines, including Superman & Lois (CW) honored for their multi-episode, emotional depiction of breast cancer; Fleishman is in Trouble (FX) for their depiction of maternal health; and Extrapolations (AppleTV+), which was honored for their depiction of a probable future world plagued by the repercussions of the climate crisis. 

Grammy award–winning musician, Plastic Pollution Coalition notable member, and Extrapolations cast member Ben Harper presented the award to creator and showrunner Scott Z Burns, who participated in our September 2022 webinar “Crafting Hollywood Storylines That Flip the Script on Plastics.” After Scott Z Burns accepted his award, Ben Harper treated the audiences to a moving performance of his song “Excuse Me Mr.”

Shortly after Harper’s performance, actors Peyton List and Sarah Yarkin, stars of School Spirits (Netflix) and judges of our PPC Plastic Kills! short film contest, took to the stage to share Plastic Pollution Coalition’s mission and present the winning short horror comedy film Blastic.

Pictured: Plastic Kills! judges & School Spirits co-stars Peyton List and Sarah Yarkin at the 2023 Sentinel Awards

The evening was filled with moving speeches, with writers and actors recounting the myriad of ways that Norman Lear had impacted their lives—from host Larry Wilmore and presenter Debby Allen making their first television appearances on Lear’s shows, to writers who grew up glued to their televisions dreaming of one day writing stories as impactful as those Norman had penned. Everyone collectively agreed, Norman Lear had impeccable taste and timing, up to his very last moment.

A Conversation with Hollywood, Health & Society Director Kate Folb

Ahead of the awards, we spoke with HH&S Director Kate Folb to learn about the history and highlights of the awards, and how working with Plastic Pollution Coalition and our Flip the Script on Plastics initiative has affected the Sentinel Awards and Hollywood, Health & Society at large.

To start, please tell us how your career brought you to Hollywood, Health & Society?

Kate Folb: Well, I started my career in TV and music production, later went to work for the Scott Newman Foundation working with TV and film on depictions of alcohol and other drug abuse, then moved to The Media Project—a partnership of Advocates for Youth and the Kaiser Family Foundation—to work with depictions of reproductive health. When the AIDS crisis happened, this became a full court press to encourage depictions of safe sex, normalize condoms, and dispel myths about the disease, which were rampant at the time.

Later, I founded my own consulting firm Nightingale Entertainment, which consulted with Planned Parenthood, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and others on celebrity engagement and accurate depictions of a variety of health topics. 

And THEN, I came to Hollywood, Health & Society. In fact, I was working at The Media Project in 2001 when HH&S was first established, and I thought to myself, “I’m going to work there one day.”

How have you seen the work HH&S has done reflected in Hollywood?

Kate Folb:  I’m always so pleased when we see our work reflected in shows. In the over 20 years we’ve been working with writers we’ve held over 4,500 consultations leading to over 2,000 aired storylines on dozens of networks, cable, and streaming channels.

What has been your favorite part of working with Plastic Pollution Coalition over the last two years?

Kate Folb: I have loved learning from Dianna Cohen, Amelia Hanson, and the rest of the team at Plastic Pollution Coalition. We’ve had some good fun working together—even during the Hollywood strikes. Our Plastic Kills! short film contest was a blast, and the Toxic Tour we hosted together made a profound impact on participants as well as our staff. 

Pictured: PPC Staff Amelia Hanson & Dianna Cohen, Blastic Creators Adam Wademan & Aaron Beal, Actor & PPC Notable member Sarah Yarkin, HH&S Director Kate Folb at the 2023 Sentinel Awards

Why do you think the Sentinel Awards are so important?

Kate Folb: The Sentinel Awards honor not only good entertainment, but entertainment that does good. These shows help inform audiences of important issues and model healthy behaviors. We’ve seen the impact these shows have on audiences’ knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors through our research. I’m always amazed at the power of storytelling. So we want to highlight the good work writers are doing to not only entertain, but to inform and inspire healthy choices.

What’s your most memorable Sentinel Award moment from the past?

Kate Folb: Oh wow, there are many! Just to name a few: Sam Levinson giving a heartfelt speech about his own personal battles that made everyone in the room cry, Ava Duvernay talking about how she uses art as activism, having NASA astronaut Dr. Yvonne Cagle present an award for climate change, last year’s dance-a-thon with Li’l Mike and Funny Bone of Reservation Dogs, and of course every year that Norman Lear has been able to be with us! 

How have the Sentinel Awards changed since their formation?

Kate Folb: 

Funny you should ask. We played a video at the awards this year on the “History of the Sentinel Awards” that showed its humble beginnings in the multipurpose room at the Writers Guild with a handful of people, to the red carpet gala it has become—last year at the TV Academy, and this year, appropriately, at the Writers Guild Theater.

How have the Sentinel Awards changed since working with Plastic Pollution Coalition?

Kate Folb:

We had already begun to refuse using plastic utensils, plates, and other items at our receptions, but Plastic Pollution Coalition helped us take it up another notch. Thanks to them, we have redesigned our award sculpture to a beautiful plastic-free bronze statuette that will be debuted at this year’s event.

This year’s (plastic-free) Sentinel Award

What do you think TV writers still need to understand about plastic and plastic pollution?

Kate: With plastic and TV there are two levels of action needed: 1) eliminating plastic on set, and 2) eliminating plastic on camera. Writers and showrunners can help with both. But helping to get rid of plastic off camera, and showing characters using reusable products instead, will go a long way in changing behavior among TV and movie viewers.  

What are you most excited about for this year’s Sentinel Awards?

Kate: We’re so excited to be honoring the creatives behind these shows and so grateful the strikes are over and we can really party! Having the awards at the Writers Guild Theater seems the appropriate venue to shine a big light on the good work these writers do and have done—even in the most difficult times. 

As Plastic Pollution Coalition and Hollywood, Health & Society look ahead to 2024, with the Hollywood strikes resolved and the entertainment industry ready to get back to work, both groups are ready to bring writers and creatives the best facts and inspiration to help shift society and popular culture away from its toxic throwaway habits and Flip the Script on Plastics.

Learn More & Get Involved

Learn more about Flip the Script on Plastics, including additional resources and latest news on how we’re helping Hollywood eliminate single-use plastics from sets and storylines. If you’re a member of the entertainment industry, consider signing our Flip the Script on Plastics Pledge, and contact Amelia@PlasticPollutionCoalition.org to get more involved.

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