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Green Blends In

4/18/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Green is growing up.

At first, green was “the new black,” as TV programmers raced to show it was hip for cable networks and their viewers. Today, green has faded into the everyday palate — in a good way.

green leafRather than being seen as something vivid and trendy, cable executives say TV’s environmental movement has instead graduated to full-fledged mainstream status, an integral but permanent part of the landscape — one that requires a new generation of on-screen “eco-stars.” Their programming efforts, and the challenges they’re facing, reflect this change.

“Green has had an evolution from the fringe to the mainstream,” said Current Media president of programming David Neuman. “We have more green programming now — it is permeating the everyday consciousness and thus, it is becoming a part of all programming.”

For Earth Day and this entire week, many programmers — from Nickelodeon and PBS Kids to Sci Fi Channel to the Miss USA pageant on NBC — will serve up a healthy portion of green, but the most noticeable difference will come once that hoopla dies down.

“We’re coming at it differently then we did in the past,” said Animal Planet president Marjorie Kaplan. The planet — awareness of animals in the environment — was always the backdrop to everything we do, but now we’re moving the backdrop to the foreground.”

The nation’s sharpened environmental awareness may have helped elect President Obama, whose administration’s hands-on approach to environmental issues — a stark contrast to the Bush-Cheney years — means that the subject will become even more acceptable and mainstream, executives said.

Indeed, NBC Universal will “green” its entertainment and news programs this week, but the effort will now go on year-round, said Beth Colleton, the new vice president of Green is Universal, NBC Universal’s corporate unit that coordinates all its environment-geared efforts both on-screen and behind the scenes, such as Late Night With Jimmy Fallon’s new set that relies heavily on recycled materials and KNTV in San Jose, which is powered entirely by wind.

“We will not highlight green as the exception anymore,” she said, explaining that NBC’s research shows a jump in how the public now views green as relevant to their lives. (MSNBC is launching a four-part documentary series called Future Earth this year, but Colleton said messages would also seep into ongoing series.)

“Green is the new normal,” agreed HGTV senior vice president of program development Freddy James. His channel offers a perfect example of this development—while the network will again air an hour-long Green Home Giveaway special as part of its sweepstakes, it is not looking for new green series or specials.

“The most important thing is to think green across the board,” James said. “Every series we launch we are looking for green topics. Our producers present pitches for storylines and we are looking for green ones.

“Green, it doesn’t come across as radical anymore, just as part of the conversation,” he added, such as when Carter Can host Carter Oosterhouse discusses a potential bamboo floor with a family and explains that it’s not just durable, but that “that no trees had to die.”

As environmentally friendly programming proliferates across the channel lineup, it becomes more challenging for green programs to stand out. That may not be the case with a grand project like Life — a Discovery Channel co-production with the BBC which explores the diversity of life on Earth, from horseshoe crabs in the United States to reindeer in Finland — but it is for smaller specials and regular series. Thus, the networks have begun boldly experimenting with formats and genres within the green niche. Discovery’s increasingly ambitious slate ranges from the epic 11-part Life to the six-hour Nature’s Most Amazing Events.

“This is 'Green 2.0,’ ” said Sundance senior vice president of acquisitions Christian Vesper. “There was very much gloom and doom in the programming during the Bush administration. It’s amazing how much has changed.

“There are still many battles going on but there is certainly more breadth of programming and a new practicality out there, focusing on things like how people are using new technology.”

But formats — or even issues — don’t matter much without good characters.

“We need characters, people with a voice and vision,” said Planet Green president Laura Michalchyshyn. “We want to see who is writing books that have not been tapped by television yet and find the experts, the people who are doing the most incredible things in this space. We want to make television stars of them.”

As programmers seek personalities and faces that will hold viewers, a focus on “eco-stars” will intensify in the near future, executives agreed. On National Geographic Channel, Mike Fay will walk California’s mountains and forests on Explorer: Giant Redwoods as the young environmentalists of Garbage Moguls — whom Nat Geo executive vice president of content Steve Burns calls “hilarious and ingenious” — raid dumps to produce such items as a messenger bag made from billboard plastic and seatbelts, which can be sold at mainstream stores like Wal-Mart.

Sundance’s two new series, Eco Trip: The Real Cost of Living with David de Rothschild and The Lazy Environmentalist with Josh Dorfman, underscore this shift.

These shows have different styles and formats, said Sundance Channel executive vice president of original programming Lynne Kirby. Eco Trip is a single-subject investigative documentary that traces the life cycle of one item — say cotton or a cell phone — from production to disposal, revealing the environmental, social and health effects along the way. Lazy Environmentalist is a lighter look at environmental skeptics in different fields, trying to persuade them to get greener, with two stories per episode. But the shows are linked by the new approach.

“They’re different shows but in each, a strong voice is the key,” said Kirby. “We had not built shows around talent before.”

Animal Planet’s Kaplan says compelling stars don’t just draw in viewers. They allow the shows to go further in pushing a message. “Our job is to tell stories,” she said. “This is new over the last year, but it is helpful to have a powerful person at the center of what you’re doing — you can’t do a great story without great characters.”

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