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Discovery Goes for the Green

Discovery Communications is hoping to make big green out of eco-friendly marketing. As part of its new PlanetGreen initiative aimed at exploiting the resurgence of the environmental movement, the company will relaunch one of its digital channels and plans to spend $50 million on eco-programming across its stable of networks and other properties.

At its annual upfront presentation in New York last week, Discovery announced it would relaunch Discovery Home Channel, which is in 50 million homes, next year as a network dedicated to

programming on leading a green lifestyle. With major corporations attempting to polish their own reputations through green marketing, the media company is looking to remind advertisers of its own earth-friendly brand.

“We think that green is really Discovery’s color,” says Discovery Networks Ad Sales President Joe Abruzzese. “If you were to trust one company with your green initiative, you’d definitely trust Discovery.”

Discovery has already drawn client interest in green-themed partnerships tied to existing programming. Bank of America, for example, became a presenting sponsor of the Planet Earth miniseries as part of a $20 billion green initiative that financial company launched last year.

The company bought primary on-air and online spots, stamped its logo onto tune-in signs in more than 100 Discovery Channel stores, and helped create a Planet Earth Web game in which players “finance” virtual scenes for the show with mock Bank of America accounts. The bank also promoted Planet Earth on its Times Square Jumbotron, in 564 branches and on ATM receipts at 7,000 locations.

“We identified Planet Earth as a high-quality strategic media fit with which to align our company,” Cary Rubinstein, Bank of America enterprise media executive, says. “When I think of Discovery, I think of great content. So purely from a business perspective, it’s a great place for us to align our brand.”

Other cable networks, including HGTV and Sundance, are also prepping green-tinted programming. Sundance premieres documentary series Big Ideas for a Small Planet April 17 as part of its The Green programming block.

Discovery enters the upfront season amid recent upheavals in management and internal restructuring. After becoming president/CEO in November, David Zaslav reorganized the executive structure and cut several senior managers.

The $12 billion company announced last month that it will buy out Cox Communications’ 25% stake, and it will likely cut about 300 staffers early this month.

But, after significant ratings drops in 2005-06, Discovery’s main cable networks have rebounded in the past year by swapping more-sensational reality fare for the science- and nature-themed programming upon which they had built their brands. The flagship Discovery Channel’s primetime audience during first quarter 2007 was up 23% over last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. Its Planet Earth miniseries has drawn nearly 4 million viewers to each of its first showings.

The ratings turnaround and streamlining measures haven’t been lost on Wall Street analysts, who predict good things for Discovery this upfront season.

“From a cable-network perspective, we expect Discovery to be the biggest winner, as it has had a significant ratings recovery over the past year,” wrote Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen in an upfront report published March 28.

Though aware of the internal drama at the company, media buyers cite the promising ratings growth and praise Discovery for offering advertising opportunities on emerging media, such as commercials in HD and sponsorships of video-on-demand shows.

“It’s a company that’s very forward-thinking,” says Charlie Rutman, CEO of media firm MPG North America. “They have an incredible number of options and alternatives to experiment with. They’re at the ready to push any and every button on any type of video platform, and they’re very easy to work with in that regard.”

On that note, the company announced at its upfront presentation that it will begin streaming ad-supported episodes of its shows online before they premiere on TV. Networks, including Disney Channel, have found doing that to be additive to series’ linear-TV plays.

“For good shows, it only encourages viewing,” says Abruzzese, noting that “it adds a little punch to our online and broadband offerings and expands our linear business.”