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The Sundance Kid and The Environment

In 1969, the same year that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released, Robert Redford purchased a ski resort and some surrounding land in Utah. From this was born the Sundance Institute, the Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance Channel. But even nearly four decades ago, before the advent of Earth Day, talk of global warming and An Inconvenient Truth, Robert Redford was a committed environmentalist, speaking out and working on national and grassroots levels on an array of issues. So it was not surprising that earlier this year, the Sundance Channel introduced “The Green,” a weekly primetime block of environmentally conscious programming. Redford recently answered questions from Multichannel News contributor Stuart Miller via e-mail. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: Why did you think this was the right time and the right forum, given Sundance Channel's main identity as a home to independent film?

Robert Redford: I was very much involved. This was a continuing conversation for some time, and after years of difficulties getting traction on the subject, the combination of tipping points, economics, opportunities seen by a new breed of social entrepreneurs and evidence of consequences becoming more apparent made it the right time.

We have offered environmentally relevant documentary programming since the inception of Sundance Channel.

People taking control of their destiny, that is the essence of independence; so I felt certain our audience would be receptive. And, I knew Sundance Channel could do it in a new, serious, yet spirited way, substantive yet entertaining, interactive and empowering.

People are attracted to good stories well told.

I think we accomplished that in our first season both on air and on the Web. And because we were first out of the gate, we broke some new ground which is also very Sundance.

MCN: How involved were you in the actual development of “The Green”?

RR: Obviously, the staff deserves the lion's share of credit. But as on the overall slate and direction of Sundance Channel, they involved me seriously and genuinely. With The Green, my four decades of experience, advocacy and contacts proved helpful in various ways.

MCN: After all your years as an active environmentalist, is it gratifying to see the mainstream media and the public finally paying attention, or is it frustrating that it took so long?

RR: Truthfully, it's a little of both. My bigger fear is that there is now so much attention to all things environmental that the challenge will be to sustain it over the long term.

MCN: Do you think that the media and the public fully grasp the seriousness of environmental issues?

RR: We went into this wanting to inspire our audience, involve our viewers and most importantly, trust them. We wanted to strike a balance between problem and solution so they would come to their own rhythm in this arena. Sometimes we want people to move faster along a path than is reasonable. For us, the important part is that they stay on it.

MCN: Can programming dramatically change public perception?

RR: I imagine it could, but it's hard to say because programming doesn't stand on its own anymore.

Other mediums like the Sundance Channel Web site, for instance, play a larger role than ever before, so we always need to look at how best to support getting an effective message out through a variety of outlets simultaneously.

MCN: At some point, does there need to be a shift from aspirational programs to advocacy coverage of issues, or should that be left to news organizations?

RR: We're in a time where the line between news and entertainment continues to be more and more fuzzy, which concerns me. However, this doesn't mean that entertainment programming can't also be smart and informative.

News needs to stay the news, and journalistic ethic needs to prevail. However, we wouldn't be telling the whole story if we didn't provide access to such information via The Green.

It's all connected. It's all organic — no pun intended.

MCN: What kind of green issues and programs do you expect we'll see two or three years from now, as audiences' understanding evolves and deepens?

RR: Stories will continue to grow more and more global in context as American audiences truly understand we're part of a bigger picture and a bigger world society. I would also hope that innovation and success stories will continue to grow in predominance.

MCN: How hopeful are you for the future?

RR: Very. The public is engaged, corporations are engaged, the political realm is feeling the pressure at the national level, and that's only going to grow. Great strides are being taken in cities here and around the world. Innovation is booming.

Finally, we're close to the elimination of the old prevailing criticism that caring about the environment will be economically disastrous. All sectors are finally getting hip to the inherent opportunities in all these challenges.