While cable networks across the spectrum have been busy trying to find ways to generate green programming consistent with their brands, even channels that can't regularly find a good content fit are devoting time, energy, and money to the issue through green cause campaigns. In most cases, they are using their online platforms to inform and encourage action in ways that don't always work in entertainment programs.
Nickelodeon has long been a leader in ambitious pro-social initiatives — in 1993, it ran a “Plan It for the Planet” special featuring then-Vice President Al Gore — so it should come as no surprise that its campaign, “The Big Green Help,” is a long-term, multilayered effort. (It is modeled on “The Big Help” drives that Nick ran in the 1990s.)
The campaign has four major themes:
Slow the Flow — teaching kids about minimizing the waste of energy and natural resources.
Recycle and Pre-Cycle — not only encouraging recycling but also the use of recyclable items.
Give It the Third Degree — teaching kids to use less heat in the winter and less air conditioning in the summer.
Grow the Green — fostering the planting of trees and the preservation of natural resources.
Senior vice president of public affairs Jean Margaret Smith said the project was based on a study done in conjunction with the Pew Center on Global Climate Change revealing that the vast majority of kids 8-14 believe they can stop global warming, though half of them were not sure what steps they could take. The study also found that while 33% of kids and 25% of parents feel responsible for the environment, 62% of families drink bottled water daily, while 45% still do not recycle.
“We really need to connect the dots,” Smith said, adding that while most adults in the survey felt world leaders were responsible for transforming society on this issue, kids believed it was up to individuals. “We need to show how they can do something about it and how they can engage in the here and now.”
Smith added the campaign will be about more than simply doling out takeaway tidbits of information.
“We want to go beyond the tip of the day and really explain the issue,” she said. “We want kids to be thought leaders at home and in the community.”
The “Help” will begin in April — tied to Earth Day — with public service announcements, online information and games and grassroots activities geared toward helping kids take direct action. Over time the network will also work environmental messages into all of its series, Smith added.
Many activities will be partnered with national and local environmental or youth-oriented organizations. In April, Wal-Mart, for example, will distribute over 1 million seed packs with secret green codes that can be used to play a SpongeBob Squarepants-themed environmentally oriented game.
After six months of “seeding the campaign and creating an identity with the major themes of what kids can do and why,” Smith said, the campaign will reach a peak in November with what Nick bills as the “first global multiplayer online green game for kids.”
In the game, individuals or teams try to “virtually” lower CO2 levels and are challenged to pledge volunteer hours that will help produce the same result in the real world.
Counting on Women
Of course, in November grownups will be playing a different game called Election Day. Every presidential cycle, Lifetime Networks runs an initiative called “Every Woman Counts,” a non-partisan drive to get women to speak up, vote and run for office by focusing on the issues that matter to them most.
“The environment is definitely bubbling up this time,” said vice president of public affairs Toby Graff.
Lifetime will focus on environment and energy policy during May. The network will provide online content ranging from the presidential candidates' environmental policy positions to guest columns from environmental experts.
MTV has been running its “Break the Addiction” program since 2006, using the idea of a 12-step program to get young viewers to make their world greener in one new way each month. The network has also run events like a Campus Climate Challenge, in which students try to make their campuses greener.
All along, the network has avoided too negative an approach, said Ian Rowe, senior vice president for public affairs, but based on recent feedback MTV is now “talking about the environment in terms of opportunities created by green technology and green jobs.”
The network's Web site remains the launching pad for tips and news but these days, Rowe added, many of the ideas come from the audience. “We want to give them our platforms,” he said. “They're uploading videos or adding blogs about how they're taking action.”
Getting campaigns up and running, however, is no simple task. Last year, Comedy Central's “Address the Mess” campaign planned to have consumer recycling efforts as part of the network's college comedy tours, giving attendees free tickets and prizes for bringing e-waste in for recycling.
The network held its first e-recycling event at a comedy festival in South Beach in January, and vice president for public responsibility Kelleigh Dulany said that, as a “test drive,” it was highly successful, bringing in two tons of electronics. Comedy Central even has a clever slogan: “Scrap Your Crap.”
The network partnered with Comcast, Sony Electronics and Waste Management Recycle America. But launching an ongoing effort is logistically difficult. “It's a little challenging to match up markets with partners,” Dulany said, adding that she does expect to move forward.
“I'm negotiating partnerships and talking with people every week,” Dulany said.
The e-waste recycling is also an ideal issue for young-male-targeted network G4. So the network partnered with Earth 911 to create “Gcycle,” an electronics recyling campaign that launched last Earth Day. “We were looking for a cause to get behind and this helps us from a branding perspective,” said president Neal Tiles.
In addition to events and online efforts, the network has worked the issue into all of its programming — when talking about new game consoles or covering an electronics show, there's always a mention of how viewers can dispose of their old devices. “Now we hope to find a corporate partner so we can raise awareness even more,” Tiles added.
At G4's sister network, E!, chief marketing officer Suzanne Kolb wanted to “be more aggressive in pro-social efforts.”
Since many celebrities are eco-conscious, she felt an environmental campaign made sense. The network partnered with the industry's Environmental Media Association to create the “Play a Part” campaign; beyond the PSAs, interstitials and online information, the network televised the EMA's awards show to highlight the issue. In conjunction with non-profit organization TreePeople, the network planted a tree for each attendee at the event.
Like many networks, The Weather Channel is using its Web site to encourage viewers to take action.
Weather's Earth Day initiative, “Help Make Every Day Earth Day,” gets users to tell what they are doing to make a difference, said vice-president of climate strategy marketing Meredith Smith, who added that the network made the barrier to entry as low as possible by posting not only 30-second videos but even photos and plain text for the relatively old-fashioned.
“We have been blown away by the response,” she said, noting one person who cooks using solar power, and another who is operating an eco-sensitive hair salon. Some of the best submissions for these “green-ettes” have ended up not only online but also on the network.
To breed new leaders, Weather also held the Forecast Earth Summit, a new event for 22 high school students in Washington, D.C., last December. “We want to foster environmental literacy in high schools,” Smith said.
The Weather Channel is also running a “Be in the Know about H2O” campaign online and through PSAs, with water conservation tips that the company makes available to schools, media, and other organizations.
While networks strive to find solutions, old analog television sets themselves are a huge part of the problem — they contain lead, mercury, cadmium and other metals — and are a far bigger and more dangerous part of e-waste then many people realize, especially with next February's digital transition deadline about to prompt millions of customers to upgrade. So, communications agency October Strategies has launched “Screen to Green,” which it hopes to make an industrywide drive to recycle obsolete TVs.
The logistics “have been far more difficult then I ever imagined,” said agency partner LaRae Marsik, who created the first “Recycling Rally,” set for June 28 in Denver, with Comcast.
“Hopefully this will become a signature program and one that can be sustained,” said vice president of public relations for Comcast in Colorado Cindy Parsons.
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Stuart Miller has been writing about television for 30 years since he first joined Variety as a staff writer. He has written about television for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Vulture and numerous other publications.