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Networks Get With The Eco-Program

It may not be easy being green, but these days it's even harder not to be. As the global warming issue continues to take center stage, seemingly everyone is staking out territory as a friend of the environment. Cable programmers and their sponsors are no exception.

From networks whose focus can easily accomodate eco-conscious fare, such as Discovery Channel or National Geographic Channel, to others that might seem a less obvious fit like Home & Garden TV, MTV or the Sundance Channel, programmers are devoting an increasing amount of resources and on-screen time to environmental issues.

“We don't see green as being extreme,” HGTV senior vice president of original programming Melissa Sykes said. “It can be very mainstream and reach a broad audience.”

“Just as each flora or fauna has its own particular niche, each network can combat the climate crisis from a different angle,” said Graham Hill, founder of environmental Web site Treehugger, which was recently acquired by Discovery Communications.

Executives point to soaring gas prices, Hurricane Katrina and the Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth as creating a perfect storm — one that generated mainstream press coverage and viewer openness to the subject.

“If we had tried this any earlier, I'm not sure people would have been interested,” said Laura Michalchyshyn, Sundance Channel executive vice president, programming and marketing.

At Current, where many of its pods — as its programming segments are called — are produced by viewers, there have always been environmental-themed pieces — not surprising for a network co-founded by Al Gore. But president of programming David Newman said “our audience's appetite for this material is only growing — we're getting more submissions and more feedback.”

And sponsors are taking note, as more businesses trying to paint themselves with green brushstrokes — Bank of America and Smith Barney, for instance — have become major partners for Discovery and Sundance, respectively.

“Everyone wants to do good, but this is a confluence of the public's interest with a chance to create programming that is not only entertaining but informational,” Katz Television Group vice president and director of programming Bill Carroll said. “The icing on the cake right now for the networks is that advertisers want to be associated with this issue. Most companies have a corporate strategy these days that is about being environmentally positive.”

Among this year's green offerings, Discovery Channel's Planet Earth and NBC Universal's multichannel telecast of the Live Earth concerts reaped the most headlines.

Planet Earth, a co-production with the BBC that spanned the globe and explored every ecosystem in great detail, was the genre's greatest spectacle of the year, averaging a 3.3 household rating over 11 hours and a total of 65 million viewers for Discovery.

Planet Earth also became the company's highest-grossing DVD ever. Yet the miniseries was, environmentally speaking, a soft sell, celebrating the planet's glorious abundance with only brief reminders of the serious consequences of climate change.

Still, the media and public clearly saw it as a bold and green statement, something Discovery Communications president and CEO David Zaslav attributes to changes in public perception.

Had the series aired five years ago, according to Zaslav, it would have wowed reviewers and viewers with the content but “there wouldn't have been the emotional connection there was now. People innately recognize that something has gone wrong.”

The Live Earth concerts, were, by contrast, happy to exhort and remind viewers about what they can do. Though it had a weak showing in the ratings for broadcaster NBC, it was a hit on the company's cable outlets, which ran longer and different selections — Bravo had its best Saturday ratings ever, especially impressive considering that the concert was available on several networks and that it was the weekend after the Fourth of July.

But most green programming is taking more of a small-scale approach, striving to shapeshift an issue that can be overwhelming, sobering and somewhat abstract into something tangible, personal and even entertaining.

It is also crucial, executives say, not to be perceived as political or even as advocates per se. “We are not taking a stand,” said Kaye Zusman, vice president of programming and development for The Weather Channel. “We're taking a look at the issues out there and letting the viewers decide for themselves.”

Still, as Weather Channel general manager and executive vice president Wonya Lucas put it, even without overt editorializing, the advocacy is implicit — if, for instance, a green program does a feature on an auto show it will be to highlight hybrids, not gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles.

Network executives also stress the importance of staying away from a heavy-handed “gloom and doom” approach. The main buzzword is “aspirational,” as programmers emphasize a pragmatic approach, focusing, for example, on what innovative Americans are doing or what viewers can do on their own.

“Viewers want something for their lives. They're saying, 'What can we do within our means and within the realm of the possible?'” Michalchyshyn said.

Newman said Current's viewer-created content reveals that same desire. The audience's “obsession is finding solutions,” he said. “They've given up on politicians and said, 'We're going to do it ourselves.' They believe in the ability of individuals to affect change, and that incremental change is real.”

Discovery certainly believes that's what viewers want. The company is investing $50 million in green programming, largely to re-brand Discovery Home as Planet Green, a channel that will emphasize the lifestyle side of eco-programming that other networks have also embraced.

Eileen O'Neill, who was general manager of the Discovery Health Channel and is heading Planet Green, said the channel will launch in the winter of 2008 with programs ranging from “the celebrity element of the green lifestyle” to transportation shows on topics such as hybrid vehicles or biodiesel potential.

For example, Cool Fuel, which will debut before the network's name change, will follow the journey of a man who drove 16,000 miles around America without a drop of traditional gasoline. Planet Green will also have series on recycling and reusing, ways to design healthier offices and homes, as well as new energy-efficient technologies and inventions.

One program that Planet Green has announced reveals how the network plans to make these topics both sexy and dramatic: a 13-part series executive produced in part by Leonardo DiCaprio will tell the saga of Greensburg, Kan., which was decimated by a tornado this year and is rebuilding itself as a model of sustainable living.

“The rebuilding of Greensburg is an important story. It gives us an opportunity to create a green model for the future. I am proud to be part of this project along side Planet Green,” DiCaprio said.

But Discovery is not limiting its green efforts to one channel. Its other networks will continue to produce related fare, although all such programming will now wear the Planet Green brand. Existing series Mean Machines is even being refitted as Mean Green Machines.

In fact, Zaslav said Discovery “feels so strongly about green” that in 2008 all its networks will be spending “a significant amount” on environmental specials designed to raise awareness of environmental issues and to promote Planet Green.

After 2008, Discovery's networks will continue showing related programming but within a more traditional budget.

The biggest project planned will be Discovery Channel's follow-up to Planet Earth called 10 Ways to Save the Planet. That show will also run on Planet Green but with extra material that “digs deeper,” Zaslav said.

While NBCU doesn't have an entire green channel, its Sundance Channel has made a year-round commitment with its weekly primetime block, “The Green,” wielding the credibility of Sundance founder Robert Redford, who has been a committed environmentalist for over three decades.

In keeping with the Sundance's film-oriented brand, the block features documentaries, as well as interstitials The Ecoist, with celebrities such as Laura Dern and Morgan Freeman talking about their environmental efforts, and Ecobiz, with short profiles of green entrepreneurs. The block also includes a weekly half-hour series.

So far, the network has debuted its original production Big Ideas for a Small Planet and BBC acquisition from It's Not Easy Being Green, which follows a family as it relocates to the countryside and attempts to build a sustainable lifestyle. Big Ideas tackles a different theme each week, from cars to the sports world, and looks at potential solutions to environmental problems.

“At Sundance, we're not a news organization and we shy away from heavy narration and voice of god stuff,” said Michalchyshyn. “We look for a good story or a unique voice.”

Sundance recently re-upped Big Ideas for a second season and Michalchyshyn said it plans to involve members of its advisory committee in creating content — for instance, the Sierra Club will be providing a series of short films. This fall, the channel will also attend the annual Sundance Summit for mayors to discuss how to fight climate change and will produce a series of two-minute interstitials featuring various urban leaders.

While Redford provided an organic link for Sundance to eco-programming, for The Weather Channel, the connection is much more direct. “Climate change is very closely related to the weather so providing the scientific perspective definitely fits with our brand,” said Lucas.

The channel hired climatologist Heidi Cullen and, after some tinkering with formats and branding over the last year, now features the hour-long Sunday programming block “Forecast: Earth,” as well as short vignettes throughout the day with Cullen discussing climate change issues.

“She has an ability to connect the dots for the average viewer, showing something like the scientific impact of recycling your water bottle,' said Zusman, adding that “our audience likes teachable moments.”

At the Scripps Networks' HGTV and DIY, understanding the science matters less than taking direct action. Both networks have produced episodes of long-running shows with energy-efficient suggestions, but Sykes said it was only this year that HGTV “began a targeted approach” to promoting those episodes as green.

Freddy James, DIY vice president of programming, added that his network has “gone back to the library” to pull out those green episodes.

HGTV's Living with Ed stars actor and hard-core environmentalist Ed Begley Jr., who rides a special stationary bicycle to generate electricity for his toaster each morning. “Not many people are going to do that,” Sykes admitted, but this series shows what is possible.

This fall will see the debut of Carter Can, featuring Carter Oosterhouse tackling different projects and working green tips into each episode.

“Ed is wall-to-wall green, but Carter is not setting the bar so far out there,” Sykes said. HGTV also plans to expand a one-off tip-heavy special Red, Hot and Green into a series for 2008.

DIY has produced a few specials and might turn one — Green Me Up, in which two families renovate their homes to see who can cut energy consumption more, with an eco-friendly car as the prize — into a series.

But James prefers incorporating ideas into existing programs. “We have certainly dialed it up and are pushing the production companies we work with to look for green ideas,” he said, but he doesn't want green segregated out into new series because “that suggests it's not part of the whole network. We want green to become the new normal.”

In each case, though, it's about finding the programming idea that fits the network's brand. Weather has science, HGTV and DIY have hands-on tips, but Versus is still seeking its own angle.

Formerly OLN, Versus now emphasizes competition yet retains its hunting and fishing series — all of which, said president Gavin Harvey, have been told to integrate a conservation message.

Some like Life in the Open, created by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, already embrace conservation as central to their mission.

But Harvey said Versus is now trying to find the best way to navigate climate change. “One way might be to focus on something like striped bass, which has one of the biggest migrations on the planet,” he said. “People are concerned what would happen if their water temperature increases because it could then have a huge impact on an entire ecosystem.”

At National Geographic Channel, in keeping with the society's mission, the network is stepping back to see the big picture. While it has run conservation and global warming specials in the past, as well as series that occasionally touch on these issues, the channel is now producing at least four high-profile specials a year.

The first two are 6 Degrees, which shows what will happen to humans and the planet for each degree the average temperature climbs, and The Human Footprint, which lays out what an average American consumes in a lifetime, such as 45,000 cans of soda.

“The trick for us is figuring out how to do it in a way that is fresh,” senior vice president of production Michael Cascio said. “Viewers have said they're interested but they want something new that they didn't know before.”

While many of the programs seem to emphasize personal change over policy change and the incremental over the dramatic, Treehugger's Hill says they can have a significant impact.

“It takes a lot of small things to start turning a big ship,” he said, and if these shows motivate consumers to make green a criterion in consumption decisions just like price or functionality, then businesses will respond. “The challenge is getting people from knowing to doing.”

Still, he added, the networks are “being too timid. They're going for the low-hanging fruit.” While it is “hard to rally people around abstract concepts [like climate change],” the networks may also be wary of alienating viewers or corporate sponsors (many of whom are car companies) by making declarative statements on topics such as fuel efficiency standards.

As Carroll sees it, the public is just now beginning to accept and grapple with the issue of global warming, and “television is reflective of what's happening in the country.”

Michalchyshyn added that as audiences grow more sophisticated about the issues, the programming will evolve. “This is not a fad, these programs will not go away because the issue is not going away.”

The catch, Cascio said, will be finding a sustainable pace for the evolution of those programs: “We have to stay ahead of audience but not so far ahead that they can't keep up.”

— Stuart Miller