With the Program

In the last two years as concerns about climate change swept the nation, many trend-watchers dubbed “green” as “the new black,” referring to the fashion world's leading color. But that was a bit of a misnomer, implying that the green movement was just a fad.

A survey of the TV landscape over the last year indicates just the opposite. Green programming has grown in depth and breadth: The topic has found its way to new series on diverse cable networks from Fine Living to the Travel Channel, and it has surfaced on existing shows such as MTV's The Real World, perhaps the ultimate conveyor of pop culture zeitgeist.

“It is amazing how the public consciousness has changed,” said Kaye Zusman, vice president of programming and development for The Weather Channel. “For the vast majority of Americans the debate about whether climate change is real is over. The debate is now what is the best way to adapt. What is the greenest way?”

“In 2007 and 2008, it has been a time of investigating green and seeing what viewers are looking for,” said HGTV senior vice president of programming Michael Dingley, adding that feedback revealed people want different entry points into the green issue. “There's a lot of time, effort and money being spent on green — it's a big thing in the media now. But green should be and will be an everyday way of life from now on.”

The biggest new player in the field, Discovery Channel's Planet Green, has yet to launch, its debut having been pushed back from the first quarter to June 4 (see story, page 6A) but as the network's president Eileen O'Neill points out, “The mother ship always has a robust slate,” with green-related topics on Discovery, Animal Planet, TLC and Discovery Science.

Discovery will follow up last year's hit miniseries Planet Earth with another original special, Project Earth, in the third quarter and run Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth in the fourth quarter.

Of course, while the sustainability theme is maintaining interest throughout the year, there is one sweet spot in the calendar for scheduling green programs: Earth Day, April 22, which has essentially expanded to Earth Week.

NBC Universal is generating the biggest effort, over 100 hours across its combined broadcast and cable properties. CNBC will feature reports on the “Green Collar Economy” and “Green Stocks to Watch,” during the day, as well as green-focused episodes in primetime of shows like Fast Money, Mad Money and High Net Worth.

Sci Fi Channel will run what it calls several “cautionary disaster movies” each day. Even Hispanic programmer Telemundo will get in on the act, with green issues highlighted on weekend shows like Nitido and La Movida and green tips and news spread throughout various shows. Bravo, Oxygen and USA will mostly feature short form programming, PSAs and interstitials like USA's “Eco-Character Vignettes.”

Meanwhile, Weather Channel slated special State of the Planet for April 19 and 20, as well as reports on Earth Day celebrations and, according to Zusman, every night throughout the week the channel will feature green-related stories in primetime. National Geographic Channel will air its own similarly titled Earth Report: State of the Planet on Earth Day itself.

Also on Earth Day, HGTV will feature a marathon of its series from last year, Living With Ed, starring actor and hard-core environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. On April 20, it debuted its special 20 Ways Your Home Can Save the Planet.

Current TV on April 22 will feature a marathon of green pods, many created by viewers, with additional green programming throughout Earth Week.

Meanwhile, Sundance Channel will celebrate with a Green DOCday today (April 21), from 10 a.m.-9 p.m. The network is also introducing a new Web series on Earth Day, The Good Fight, about the rebuilding of Greensburg, Kan., a town that will later in the year also be the focus of a series on Planet Green.

Even networks not immediately associated with conservation or climate are tackling environmental issues. On April 22, Disney Channel's preschool outlet, Playhouse Disney, will touch on the topic in various shows, including a new episode of Handy Manny, in which Manny learns about reusing resources and using solar energy.

Playhouse's hosts, monkey puppets named Ooh and Aah, and other characters will also provide green tips to youngsters. “We could always find a situation for Manny to be using things that are recycled since his dog Fixit is recycled from old radio parts,” said vice president of original programming Paula Rosenthal. “It was an easy fit with Manny as a repairman. I'd like to think we can work this into more episodes.”

Rosenthal said the writers may bring ideas to them but the network is very involved with the stories and will lay out issues it wants covered. “It's an important initiative for us,” she said. “We're looking for opportunities in all our shows if there's an organic way to incorporate this topic.”

But it's the regularly scheduled programs that ultimately reveal the environment's staying power on the networks.

The Sundance Channel has made a 52-week commitment to its programming block “The Green,” with new documentaries, new seasons of anchor series Big Ideas for a Small Planet, the interstitials “The Ecoists” (about well-known activists) and “Eco-Biz” (about business innovators), as well as several new series.

The Green's hosts Simran Sethi and Majora Carter will be back, offering environmental editorials on assorted topics. The block's major backers, Lexus and Citi Smith Barney, have re-upped for another round. “We proved that there is interest from audiences, our partners and the press,” executive vice president of programming and creative affairs Laura Michalchyshyn said. “There's a huge appetite for this type of programming.”

But there is a slight shift in emphasis from Sundance, Michalchyshyn said, explaining that the new series will have a “lighter, broader docu-reality” flavor.

The BBC's Outrageous Wasters takes families to a “House of Correction” green boot camp while their home gets a thorough eco-makeover; and the Australian series Carbon Cops follows two scientists trying to get families to change their lifestyles, shedding bad habits for more sustainable ones. “They're both about people taking control of their lives,” Michalchyshyn said, adding that while the network has relied on imports in this genre it might at some point create its own.

Sundance also continues to add new short-form programming, which Michalchyshyn finds quite effective in this category — this season features three-minute profiles of 10 mayors from around the country (all of whom had gathered for an environmental summit), focusing on how they're trying to clean up their cities.

“Season one [of The Green] was very much a learning process for us,” said executive vice president of marketing, branded entertainment and sponsorship Kirk Iwanowski. “We've done as much research as possible about how to adjust the messaging.”

Iwanowski said the network is trying to still reach the niche of the dark green audience but is trying to gain traction in the general marketplace “with a bigger, broader message” to match its new programming.

National Geographic Channel, has already announced a second year's worth of “Preserve Our Planet” quarterly specials.

“Our channel has always had these types of programs in the mix,” said general manager Steve Schiffman, pointing to nature and science programs and specials like Living Wild, Extreme Alaska and Naked Science. “But these big specials take it to another level. And we're very encouraged by the response.”

He added: “Our brand is so broad we can touch on so many topics.”

Steve Burns, executive vice president of content, said as long as Nat Geo can find a “compelling concept and visual ways to present it” the network can show a diverse array of programs under the Preserve Our Planet umbrella. The first season has already featured Galapagos and Six Degrees Could Change the World.

The Human Footprint debuted April 13. And in July, the network will launch new series Earth: the Biography, which
looks at how everything from volcanoes to oceans to humans shape life on the planet.

The 2008-09 season lineup also includes Cave of the Giant Crystal, The Great Rhino, Epic Shark Journey and America's Wild Spaces.

“We look for entertaining stories and great adventures,” said Burns, explaining that one show may take an activist approach to saving rhinos and another is more a celebration of great natural areas. “Each of these allows us another way to examine the issues.”

Another indication that the audience for green fare continues to grow comes from the Weather Channel, which last year expanded Forecast Earth from a half-hour to an hour and has since added former CNN anchor Natalie Allen as host, moving climate expert Heidi Cullen from host to contributor.

“This allows us to send Heidi into the field for stories and for Natalie to have discussions with Heidi and with meteorologists during the show — telling viewers about what is happening in the long term with Heidi and more immediately with the meteorologists,” Zusman said.

Forecast Earth has added other contributors including Marcus Eriksen, host of the network's “Commando Weather” segments, and Bill Nye, well known on TV as “The Science Guy,” who hosts Forecast Earth's Climate Quiz, which appears across the network.

Zusman said as audiences grow more sophisticated and the issues get more complicated, the stories have evolved as well. She pointed to biofuels, long touted as the miracle solution to pollution problems by politicians but have turned out to be problematic, as a prime example. “We look at the compounded ramifications of things — something that looks great at point one but by point four may not make sense,” she said.

In segments called “Best Bets,” the network showcases different solutions without proclaiming one best.

Just as Zusman emphasizes that, “science and weather remain [Weather's] entry point,” other networks are finding their own way to tackle green concerns and not necessarily by delivering explicit messages on climate change or conservation.

At Current, viewers can vote online to determine what the top stories are during any given hour. As a result, the programming, much of it viewer-generated, can shift in various directions and the amount of green content can vary.

“Like a DJ on a dance floor, you have to sense the mood of your audience and adjust the playlist accordingly,” said programming president David Newman. “Last week there was a story about a huge piece of the Antarctic ice shelf that fell into the ocean, but other days it's not at the top of the agenda.”

Gavin Harvey, president of Versus, which features primarily outdoors-oriented fare, said hunters and anglers are more concerned with land conservation but he adds that many people now see the link between climate and conservation. “All the global warming messages don't swallow up our issues, they just heighten awareness,” he said. “It's all good.”

Versus began integrating a conservation message into its hunting and fishing series last year. “We are making progress — we're seeing the producers pick these themes up and insert them into the story — but I have a vision that can go very far beyond where we are now,” Harvey said.

The series Life in the Open, created by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, is “healthy and strong,” and the network is still working with the Union Sportsmen Alliance as a media partner to help give working men and women a voice on these issues.

“We took the issue head-on but we remained even-handed without taking an editorial viewpoint; we looked at land use and wildlife management,” Harvey said.

The network even created a video-on-demand initiative that attempted to get presidential candidates to answer a list of questions on conservation issues. Republicans Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee responded during the primary season; Harvey hopes to get the Democratic nominee before the general election.

The Sportsman Channel, which is exclusively dedicated to hunting and fishing, said all of its outdoors programming is implicitly conservation-minded. While its shows don't discuss climate change or environmental issues, there are episodes that are more explicit on wildlife conservation.

“Conservation has always been an integral part of what we do,” said CEO Michael Cooley. “It may not be specific to the focus of our shows but we were green before green was popular.”

Last year, Scripps Networks' DIY and HGTV tackled the green issue by finding hands-on ways for their viewers to get involved. The networks incorporated more eco-conscious ideas into existing shows in their own style. HGTV also followed Living with Ed last October with Carter Can, which was not a green-specific show but still has host Carter Oosterhouse taking viewers through one green segment per episode.

Oosterhouse also hosted HGTV Green Home 2008 in March, in which the network presented a new twist on its annual house giveaway promotion: A green house in Tradition Hilton Head, S.C. The online virtual tour also shows off tips not just for construction but for sustainable decorating. The winner will be announced during a live special on June 8.

Also in June, Oosterhouse will appear in another new series, Red, Hot and Green, spun off from a 2007 special. In each episode he and a crew will renovate one room in a house using sustainable materials.

Meanwhile, yet another Scripps outlet is expanding its environmental presence: Fine Living Network has had programs with green advice since it launched five years ago.

This June it will spin off its own Earth Day special, It's Easy Being Green,
into a series. The show, hosted by green living consultant and chef Renee Loux, known for her organic and locally grown fare, will feature celebrities sharing green stories.

General manager Chad Youngblood said the network is being selective in what celebrities it chooses — the Earth Day special features Paul Newman and Helen Hunt. “It can be a little squishy because with money we can get any actor, so we measure their commitment to the cause by their actions not by their agents,” he said.

Travel Channel is also starting to expand into the green realm, developing programs that fit the new genre. First up is Ecoluxe, a series debuting June 6 that shows off some of the best luxury eco-tourism adventures around.

“The key for us is to really immerse the viewers in the experience,” said Michael Klein, senior vice president of content.

At MTV, the network wants to encourage its viewers to think about living green at home. In addition to its ongoing cause campaign, the network made its most famous home green: The Real World's current base is a Hollywood home with solar panels, bamboo flooring, energy efficient appliances and recycled or reused products throughout. Additionally, the housemates drive hybrid automobiles and end each episode with an eco-tip.

“We wanted to model the behavior for our audience,” said senior vice president for public affairs Ian Rowe, adding that the network is looking to integrate green information into other shows too.

This shared dialogue has not generated a cutthroat sense of competition for the green space. “Everyone has a different mission and a different voice,” Dingley said. “But there is room for everybody.”

“I'll be competitive somewhere else. Here, I hope that all boats rise,” Youngblood added.

Stuart Miller

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.