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Nets Rally for Positive Cause and Effect

Even the planet Earth can use some good publicity. Just ask David Newman, president of programming for Current.

Newman says his channel's “60 Seconds to Save the Earth” campaign was inspired in part by a comment that actress Cameron Diaz made to Current chairman Al Gore. Diaz's offhand comment was along the lines of, “What the earth needs is a good publicist,” in a conversation about what the channel could do to get the word out about the current climate crisis.

What Current came up with was the “60 Seconds” project, which Gore and Diaz announced during the Live Earth concerts in July. The contest gives viewers a chance to make their own 15-, 30- or 60-second public-service announcement about how to combat global warming.

George Clooney, Orlando Bloom and other celebrities will join Diaz on the panel of judges that selects the finalists. Current viewers will then vote for the winner, who will be awarded with a Toyota hybrid.

But “60 Seconds” isn't the only publicity the planet is getting from cable these days. Various networks are launching cause campaigns on Earth's behalf. Some of those networks have been committed to long-form environmental programming, but others see cause campaigns as their best entry into the issue.

As with the green programming, the cause campaigns all aim for an aspirational tone, giving viewers practical and helpful green tips without making them feel directly responsible for the problem.

Comedy Central, not a network viewers would immediately associate with environmental concerns, is launching “Address the Mess,” which will feature public-service announcements, as well as a digital media site with action-oriented advice and news. It will also add consumer recycling efforts to Comedy Central's college tours — attendees will get free tickets and other prizes for bringing cell phones or other electronics for recycling.

“We've dabbled in pro-social campaigns but never really landed on one topic that resonated with our audience in a meaningful way until this one,” said Michele Ganeless, executive vice president and general manager.

The network's vice president for public responsibility Kelleigh Dulany added that the PSAs will, not surprisingly, use humor to get people's attention. Through the project, Comedy will be able to partner with local affiliates and sponsors, though Dulany said those details are still under discussion.

MTV, which has been active on the environmental front since its “Break the Addiction” campaign debuted in early 2006, recently announced that season 20 of reality series The Real World will feature a “green house” filled with environmentally friendly items.

“We were hearing from our audience concerns about this thing called global warming, but it also seemed to be about polar bears and melting ice caps and not really relevant to them, “ said Ian Rowe, vice president of strategic partnerships and public affairs for MTV, adding that they adopted President George Bush's line about America's “addiction” to foreign oil because addiction was an issue which many could grasp. “They were not connecting all the dots back to everyday behavior.” So MTV began a 12-step campaign (one per month) and offered 365 pragmatic tips (one each day), on TV and online.

MTV also added several new phases, including “Bridge the Addiction,” a challenge to colleges and high schools to figure out the best way to green their campuses — New Jersey's Rutgers University and New York's Cornell University won. It also added to its Web site the “Grist” commentary section, which provides a tough look at the intersection of green and politics. The Grist recently called out Rep. John Dingell (D.-Mich.), for example, for environmental proposals that, according to the site, were really meant to protect the local auto industry.

“We want to create media literacy so people question the world around them,” Rowe said. MTV is also launching a global green campaign called Switch, which Rowe said will reach into 160 countries.

Of course, networks that are already running environmental programming are also extending themselves into cause campaigns. Claire Alexander, Discovery vice-president of digital strategy and implementation, said the company is planning green conferences and projects with partners at the grassroots level — such as working with the National Wildlife Federation in zoos around the nation — and also plan to expand Planet Green's presence in the annual traveling Animal Planet Expo. “We want to meet people where they are,” she said.

Home & Garden TV will give away a green house in 2008 as part of its efforts, while continuing to help viewers make lifestyle changes, according to Lori Asbury senior vice president of marketing and creative brand strategy.

“We want them to reduce their footprint with simple changes but we want them to be interactive with our Web site too,” Asbury said. Among HGTV's plans: PSAs intended to get 30,000 incandescent light bulbs changed over to compact fluorescents across the nation, with the Web site providing real-time updates on the effort.

If educating viewers is the first step and inspiring action is the second, then the third step is “to provide feedback showing the actual impact in terms the audience can understand,” said Jeff Boortz, president of marketing and branding agency Concrete Pictures. “You must let them see moving the needle toward goal.”

National Geographic Channel's “Preserve Our Planet” campaign encompasses specials, PSAs, on-demand content, interstitials with conservation tips, community outreach programs organized with local affiliates, a dedicated Web site and exclusive broadband content for affiliates. “The Preserve Our Planet project tells people it's not hopeless,” said Steve Schiffman, acting general manager.

At NBC Universal, a similar across-the-board effort is being made, including public affairs initiatives such as Sci Fi Channel's “Visions for Tomorrow” campaign, which calls for organizations and policymakers, as well as viewers, to find innovative new answers to environmental quandaries.

But NBCU's newly formed Green Council, consisting of executives from every business unit, has decided it wants to make an even bigger splash and so it has announced that Nov. 4-10 will be “Green is Universal” week across every channel. There will be green-themed news coverage and features on NBC's Today, Nightly News and Dateline news programs, as well as on MSNBC and CNBC — Fast Money, for instance, will explore stocks that provide green investments along with good returns.

Sci Fi will present themed-nights and green episodes on shows such as Flash Gordon and Eureka; while USA will create online and televised “Characters” vignettes, highlighting environmental activists. NBC is also working with the producers and writers of shows across all dayparts, including primetime hits such as The Office and Heroes to work environmental messages into their scripts.

“The whole company has a laser focus on this week,” said Bravo president Lauren Zalaznick, chair of the NBCU Green Council. “It's a good jumping off point and we can drive a pro-social message with tremendous reach.”