October 31, 2007

Another Green World: Environmental Content Is the New Programming Choice


From Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Our Daily Bread, which aired on Sundance Channel's The Green. Courtesy of Sundance Channel

Despite Kermit the Frog's lamentation about the challenges of being green, in the post-Inconvenient Truth era, being green in the environmental sense is hot...or cool. There is no doubt that "Green" content is gaining popularity among broadcasters, who are programming more and more environmentally oriented material and developing ever-expanding means to get that content in front of audiences.

"There's a lot more awareness for greenness, but awareness translated into action and passion really needs to be supported," says Eileen O'Neill, president and general manager of Discovery Communications' Planet Green, which will be launched in early 2008. "That's the exciting part of combining the power of the old media--in the sense of television, which can really inspire and entertain--but then really give, on a Web or mobile basis or other platforms, the opportunity to enable people."

O'Neill has what some may consider a daunting task in overseeing the upcoming launch of Planet Green, a round-the-clock environmental-centric network. "We start with a lot of content and a sort of brand equity in the space," says O'Neill. "It's absolutely an ambitious investment on Discovery's part, but we do think this makes a lot of sense in that we're really the best situated to produce a channel that provides what we call ‘the three Es'--it entertains, it educates and it enables."

O'Neill embraces the opportunity to develop environmental programming for the re-branded network currently known as Discovery Health. "I would refer to it as a content opportunity getting greenlit, as opposed to referring to it as a program," she explains. "The vital part of this is certainly making a strong television program, but as we do this, what about it makes sense for other enterprises? I think the trick is knowing what content is appropriate for what platform."

Environmental activist, journalist and multi-platform pioneer Simran Sethi agrees. "We're very conscious both at Sundance and at TreeHugger about what format is most appropriate for the information that we're trying to disseminate," says the co-host of Sundance Channel's weekly eco-friendly programming block, THE GREEN, and contributor to the all-things-environmental-site TreeHugger.com. "In certain instances, depending on the demographic, the Web may be the only place they see your content; the medium is the message. If people are watching something on their phone, it's very different from someone sitting down at home and committing themselves to a two-hour doc."

Sethi, who also leads a weekly discussion at SecondLife.com for Sundance, actually came to the attention of Robert Redford's Sundance Channel executives while programming and providing content in the form of award-winning video blogs for Graham Hill's TreeHugger.com initiative. Redford and Hill's shared interest in environmental sustainability led to a cooperative effort between the companies when Sundance decided to launch the largest multi-platform initiative in its history this past April.

"Sundance believed, as I do, that our brands work very nicely together, and there's a good fit there," says Hill, who went live with TreeHugger.com in July 2004. "We're the old school of the new school, so when various media start looking at doing Green, they tend to know about us already, or they can't help but run into us."

Visit either TreeHugger.com or SundanceChannel.com/thegreen, and you will find streaming video, videoblogs, traditional blogs and a vast reservoir of information about environmental issues that affect what Sundance Channel's Laura Michalchyshyn calls an "Eco-mmunity." "What we've done is build our site to encourage people who have maybe seen some of the programming and some of the promotion and are curious to find out more information, and also to augment what we've done on air," says Michalchyshyn, the network's executive vice president and general manager of programming and creative affairs. "There's so much more information than we can put in a three-hour block each week." Included in both the on-air and online content available from THE GREEN are ultra-short entries Ecoist and Ecobiz. The former consists of 60-second profiles of activist celebrities ranging from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to Moby, while the latter takes a similar approach with corporations and CEOs who are integrating eco-principles into their business.

"Those are the pieces that to me really whet the appetite," says Sethi. The profiles are also syndicated via iTunes and YouTube. "We're going to find viewers wherever they are and try to get this information across to them even if they don't get Sundance Channel in their home. They may not get to see the entire block of programming, but they will be exposed to a certain portion of it."

Already, producers pitching ideas to broadcasters find executives considering much more than just what will air on television, and the list of deliverables is growing. Such is certainly the case for the National Geographic Channel and its new Preserve Our Planet initiative launching this fall.

"We absolutely expect them to send us proposals that have a Web content and other forms of distribution," maintains Juliet Blake, senior vice president of production and development at National Geographic Channel. "We also support them very well when they deliver that."

O'Neill calls what Discovery Communications does in that area "‘Pre-purposing'--really looking at content as we develop it, not exclusively for a 45-minute time period or a 22/30, but what can live as on any platform. That's taking advantage of talent that might be associated with the show or resources that may not make the television program, but really make a lot of sense from a new media perspective. That means planning so that it's efficiently created from a time perspective and from a money perspective."

Blake maintains that added-value content online plays a key role in the success of the programs on television. "We believe that blogs can drive viewers to the shows, and we have absolute proof that does happen," she says.

Preserve Our Planet will include at least one big broadcast special per quarter, along with other content. Additionally, National Geographic Channel is working extensively with its affiliates in local communities through lectures and events, and by utilizing one of National Geographic Society's prime resources: its Explorers.

"We are now doing the documentary Six Degrees, which looks at what will happen to the planet as it becomes six degrees Celsius hotter between now and 2010," says Blake of Explorer Mark Lynas' book, published this past April. "It's at the very core of the National Geographic mission to protect the planet. It's not like we're jumping on the bandwagon; this is what we do."

In terms of demographics, all three broadcasters say they trust that their new initiatives will both deliver what their current audience expects and bring in new viewers. "Our audience loves creative, independent voices, and strong stories and documentaries have long been a huge part of the schedule at Sundance Channel," says Michalchyshyn. "I think what we've done with the block is provide more innovative stories in that space. It's all about the people and the stories that are going to make some of the more breakthrough initiatives happen."

"We're looking for good storytelling and high-quality TV production values," says Discovery's O'Neill, about what will make it to air. "We want this to be great content and strong TV programming."

The broadcasters are also intrigued, however, by the growing phenomenon of user-generated-content. TreeHugger.com, for example, devotes an entire website to user-submitted material at www.hugg.com. "Some of that may end up filtering through to television," National Geographic's Blake says of the blossoming citizen-journalism and amateur producer movement. "We're certainly looking at developing sub-content on the Web--circulating talent and incubating ideas, which will then move over to TV."

Sundance Channel embraced user-submitted ideas with its "What's Your Big Idea?" contest in conjunction with the original series Big Ideas for a Small Planet this summer. Thanks to the support of corporate sponsors, Mark Sanders received a $10,000 cash award and a one-year lease of a luxury hybrid for his Aqus invention, which uses grey-water from the bathroom sink to flush the toilet.

What's true for the growing environmental movement also applies in many ways to the evolving media landscape and its content providers. "There's a fundamental change going on, and that will continue," Hill says of Green initiatives. "There's just no way it can't. In fact, if it doesn't, we're probably not going to be around."

 

Christopher R.C. Bosen is a freelance writer/filmmaker based in Nashville, Tennessee. He can be reached at chrisbosen@gmail.com.

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