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Green Goes Mainstream

Green is growing up. At first, green was “the new black,” as cable networks raced to show that it was hip for their viewers. Today, the hue has faded into the everyday palette—in a good way.

Rather than being seen as something trendy, cable executives say TV's environmental movement has instead graduated to full-fledged mainstream status and is now an integral part of the landscape—one that requires a new generation of on-screen “eco-stars.” Their programming efforts, and the challenges they're facing, reflect this change.

“Green has had an evolution from the fringe to the mainstream,” says David Neuman, president of programming at Current. “We have more green programming now. It is permeating the everyday consciousness, and thus it is becoming a part of all programming.”

from the background to the foreground

For Earth Day on April 22 and throughout the week, many programmers—from Nickelodeon and PBS Kids to Sci Fi to the Miss USA pageant on NBC—will serve up a healthy portion of greens. But the most noticeable difference will come once the hoopla dies down.

“We're coming at it differently than we did in the past,” says Animal Planet President Marjorie Kaplan. “The planet—awareness of animals in the environment—was always the backdrop to everything we do, but now we're moving the backdrop to the foreground.”

The nation's sharpened environmental awareness may have helped elect Barack Obama. His administration's hands-on approach to environmental issues—a stark contrast to the Bush-Cheney years—means that the subject will become even more acceptable and universal, according to Lynne Kirby, senior VP of original programming at Sundance.

Indeed, NBC Universal will “green up” entertainment and news programs this week, but the efforts will now go on year-round, says Beth Colleton, the new VP of Green Is Universal. This unit of NBCU will coordinates all of the company's green efforts, both on-screen and behind the scenes.

“We will not highlight green as the exception anymore,” she says, explaining that NBC's research shows a jump in how the public now views the environment as relevant to their lives. (MSNBC is launching later this year a four-part documentary series called Future Earth, but Colleton says messages will also seep into ongoing series.)

“Green is the new normal,” agrees Freddy James, HGTV's senior VP of program development and production. HGTV is a good example of this development—while the network will again air an hour-long Green Home Giveaway special, it is not looking for new green series or specials.

“The most important thing is to think green across the board,” James says. “In every series we launch, we are looking for green topics; our producers present pitches for storylines, and we are looking for green ones.”

According to James, “Green doesn't come across as radical anymore, just as part of the conversation,” such as when Carter Can host Carter Oosterhouse discusses a potential bamboo floor with a family and explains that not only is it durable but “that no trees had to die.”

As environmentally friendly programming appears across the dial, it becomes more challenging for green programs to stand out. This may not be problem for a grand project like Life—a BBC co-production that explores the diversity of life on Earth from horseshoe crabs in America to reindeer in Finland—but it is tougher for less-ambitious specials and regular series. So the networks have begun experimenting with formats and genres within the niche.

“This is 'Green 2.0,'” says Christian Vesper, Sundance's senior VP of acquisitions. “There was very much gloom and doom in the programming during the Bush administration. It's amazing how much has changed. There are still many battles going on, but there is certainly more breadth of programming and a new practicality out there, focusing on things like how people are using new technology.”

'We need characters'

But formats, even issues, matter little without good characters. “We need characters, people with a voice and vision,” says Laura Michalchyshyn, president of the fledgling Planet Green network. “We want to see who is writing books that have not been tapped by television yet and find the experts, the people who are doing the most incredible things in this space. We want to make television stars of them.”

A focus on “eco-stars” will begin to intensify in the near future, executives agree, as a way to find faces and personalities who will hold viewers. At National Geographic, Mike Fay will be walking the mountains and forests of California to map the trees on Explorer: Giant Redwoods. The young environmentalists on Garbage Moguls, whom Steve Burns, executive VP of content, calls “hilarious and ingenious,” raid dumps to produce items—such as a messenger bag made from billboard plastic and seat belts—that can be sold at mainstream stores like Wal-Mart.

Sundance's two new series, Eco Trip: The Real Cost of Living with David de Rothschild and The Lazy Environmentalist with Josh Dorfman, underscore this shift. Kirby points out that the shows have different styles and formats. The former is an investigative documentary on a single subject per episode that traces the eco-life of one item, say, cotton or a cellphone, from production to disposal, revealing the environmental, social and health effects along the way. The latter is a lighter look at environmental skeptics in different fields, trying to persuade them to get greener, with two stories per episode.

But the shows are linked by the new approach. “They're different shows, but in each a strong voice is the key,” she says, adding, “We had not built shows around talent before.”

Animal Planet's Kaplan says compelling stars not only draw in viewers but allow the shows to go further in pushing a message. “Our job is to tell stories,” she says. “This is new over the last year, but it is helpful to have a powerful person at the center of what you're doing—you can't do a great story without great characters.”