Cable’s Eco Challenge

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The cable industry continues to roll out a variety of “green” initiatives — some out of a sense of corporate responsibility, others out of financial necessity. In the process, doing business in an environmentally responsible way is becoming a calculable responsibility for companies and their employees.

Cox Enterprises and NBC Universal, for example, have set specific goals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by a certain deadline.

“Being green is the intersection of modern business where capitalism deems you do the right thing and make a little money along the way,” said Lauren Zalaznick, NBCU president of women and lifestyle entertainment networks and chairman of the company’s Green Is Universal Council. “There is no harm in leaving the world a little better than we found it. I can deliver my numbers and be green at the same time. In many cases, it actually helps us make our numbers.”

Not surprisingly, many companies are creating positions focused specifically on eco-efforts:

In June, NBCU hired Beth Colleton as vice president of “Green is Universal.” Colleton and her four-person team handle marketing, content and corporate programs under the Green Is Universal banner.

Meredith Smith came on board last year as The Weather Channel’s vice president of climate strategic marketing to develop and execute the company’s environmental strategies. In 2003, Weather hired Heidi Cullen (host of Forecast Earth: This Week) to oversee climate and environmental content.

As Turner Broadcasting System’s manager of community relations and corporate sustainability, Betsy Holland splits her time between community outreach and gathering information on environmental issues that the company can use to trim its energy intake.

Larry Laque, Discovery Communications executive vice president of facilities and real estate strategy, focuses on eco-centric issues affecting Discovery’s offices and facilities around the world such as energy consumption.

RETHINKING METHODS



Rising energy prices and a failing ecosystem are forcing cable companies to rethink how they handle some of their most basic operations. Operators are looking at a variety of ways to cut gas usage and lower costs.

Over the past two years, Comcast has added over 700 flex-fuel vehicles and 85 hybrids to its fleet of 40,000 vehicles.

“We are literally buying them as fast as we can get our hands on them,” said Comcast vice president of corporate communications D’Arcy Rudnay. “But the demand is outstripping the number of vehicles being manufactured. They are very hard to get a hold of.”

Time Warner Cable’s San Diego division currently has 20 alternative fuel vehicles in its fleet. The natural gas-powered trucks are saving the division about $1.18 a gallon of fuel used in the cooler months and 30 cents a gallon in the warmer months, according to spokesman Robyn Watson. That’s a significant cost savings, but she also noted that natural gas vehicles emit up to 80% fewer emissions than comparable gasoline vehicles, making it a win/win for everyone.

Other MSOs, including Cox, Communications are making similar moves. But the swap is long and tedious. Even if they can obtain more fuel-efficient vehicles, operators can’t change entire fleets overnight. Moreover, no company wants to make the wrong decision, even if it is for the right reason.

WAIT AND SEE



Bend Broadband president and CEO Amy Tykeson wants her company to be as environmentally friendly as possible. But she is currently taking a wait-and-see approach to switching out vehicles. Bio-fuels are proving to be problematic to the environment, the economy and the world’s food chain, she said. And there currently are no four-wheel-drive hybrids, which would be necessary during mountainous Bend, Ore.’s snowy winters.

So, for now, Bend Broadband is concentrating on creating more precise routing techniques. Rather than cover the entire market, technicians are assigned specific areas and can take their trucks home if a scheduled appointment is nearby. The operator is also considering adding GPS technology but hasn’t made any firm decisions on which system to use yet, Tykeson said. At some point, the company may be forced to consider the idea of truck roll surcharges for customer calls, but Tykeson said she plans to put that off as long as possible.

Meanwhile, Bend Broadband is trying to be eco- and fiscally responsible through recycling. Paper, plastic and aluminum are regularly recycled at the company’s facilities; but the operator is also salvaging coaxial cable, cable ends, aluminum, cardboard, obsolete converter boxes, steel, copper, galvanized metal, circuit boards, PCs, laptops, keyboards, monitors and batteries. While many of these still cost money to unload, some — such as copper and aluminum — are actually generating a small amount of cash, at least enough to offset the cost of disposal, Tykeson said.

Bend is not alone. Turner recycles copper and computer parts and, in some cases, the copper has resulted in a windfall with funds being donated to various charities, Holland said.

But making the right decision isn’t easy. Turner, for instance, has explored the possibility of ditching all its disposable paper and plastic ware, including bottled water; but the concern is that water usage might skyrocket if flatware, plates and glasses have to be washed regularly. No small concern in Turner’s hometown of Atlanta, which is experiencing one of the worst droughts in the city’s history.

“Simple questions may not necessarily result in simple answers,” Holland said.

RECYCLING E-WASTE



With recycling becoming a way of life for most people, it’s no surprise that corporate recycling programs often turn into positive outreach efforts.

With the February 2009 deadline for the conversion to digital signals drawing near, many consumers are looking to upgrade their TV sets. But disposing of those old sets can be costly and, if done improperly, bad for the environment.

Comcast Colorado teamed with the Denver and Planet Green to hold and underwrite a “Screen to Green” recycling event on June 28.

It costs about $25 to recycle a TV or computer screen properly, according to Comcast spokesman Cindy Parsons. Area residents paid $5 per screen to recycle old devices properly. More than 70,000 pounds of e-waste including almost 1,000 TV screens and computer monitors were collected in four hours, Parsons said.

ESPN held a similar event for employees on Earth Day. Some 3,700 pounds was collected at ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters, according to spokesman Diane Lane. The company has collected 800 pounds this year, Lane said. ESPN also composts or recycles just about everything it uses, she said. Last year the company recycled over 2 million pounds of products, diverting 59% of its waste products from the landfill.

BUILDING GREEN



Comcast’s new 57-story headquarters building, set for completion later this summer, includes a number of energy conservation projects. Comcast Center’s water-saving fixtures should save 3 million gallons of drinking water every year and use 41% less than a typical office building, according to Rudnay.

Innovative heating and cooling techniques including the use of a glass curtain wall is expected to block 60% of heat from the sun, while allowing 70% of visible light to be transmitted.

In many cases, utility rebates have helped drive the launch of eco-initiatives and the results have often exceeded expectations.

Time Warner Cable’s Stamford, Conn., division, replaced about 900 fluorescent fixtures and over 1,000 fluorescent lamps with customized LED inserts at a much lower wattage. Watson said the new lighting is expected to reduce electricity consumption by 58%. Moreover, Time Warner Cable received $84,000 in rebates from the local utility.

But incentives are often geographically rewarded, so making an eco-centric decision based on a rebate or incentive from local governments or utilities can backfire.

“Our production facility in California could benefit from incentives if it installed solar power panels,” Turner’s Holland said. “But those incentives don’t exist in Atlanta. That doesn’t mean we may not do something like that here, but we can’t make a decision based solely on rebates or incentives.”

Cox recently installed a $650,000 solar power system on the roof of its system headquarters in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. The photovoltaic system uses nearly 600 roof-mounted panels, eliminating about 100 tons of greenhouse gasses each year. The company received significant tax incentives to install the system, but, according to system management, Cox Enterprises CEO Jim Kennedy’s drive to reduce the company’s greenhouse gas emissions 20% by 2017 helped drive the decision.

Alternative power sources like wind and solar are becoming big business in the West where the sun shines most of the year and there is no shortage of wind on the high plains. Alternative energy creation is a burgeoning industry in this region and has been strongly embraced by several governors including Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter.

For Bresnan Communications, experimenting with alternative power sources makes sense on several levels. Clearly, the energy requirements for headends are extensive. And what’s more, they’re difficult to trim. Equipment must be kept at certain temperatures to operate properly and the amount of apparatus requiring power can be gargantuan.

The MSO, with operations in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, is talking with various universities in Colorado and Wyoming to collaborate on ways to effectively use sunlight and wind to power headends. It could take years to develop but, if successful, it could provide operators with new ways to reduce their carbon footprint and perhaps save money in the long run. Like incentives, alternative power sources will vary according to region but the research is encouraging.

SMALL STEPS



Big projects like solar power can make huge differences in energy consumption, but smaller ventures can have an impact as well.

Discovery, which last month launched its Planet Earth network, was hoping for aimed for a silver LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification when it built its new headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., but wound up receiving a platinum certificate — the organization’s highest honor, Laque said.

The company conducted a grass-roots energy reduction program that included replacing traditional light bulbs with energy-efficient ones. It reduced the bulbs’ wattage and took out some bulbs altogether. Employees were given regular tips on how to conserve energy and water. In the end, Discovery reduced its electricity consumption by 26% year over year, Laque said.

WATER RECLAMATION



At the same time, Discovery launched a water reclamation project that recaptures rain water and is used to irrigate the campus’ landscape. The effort reduced the company’s water usage 25%.

“We went floor by floor, bulb by bulb,” Laque said. “It’s my job to help people do the right thing. They want to do the right thing, but too often they don’t know where to start. We used to have a large trash can behind the sink in the cafeteria. We had recycling bins, too. But sometimes it seemed easier to throw away everything than it did to take the time to separate everything out. We took the trash can out and recycling went through the roof. We made it easy to do the right thing.”

No matter how easy companies make it to “do the right thing,” employee buy-in and participation are crucial to success.

“Making sure we let our employees know what we are doing has been a big concern for us,” Holland said. “It’s often simple things like telling people when we will be recycling special items like cell phones or old electronics. We want to make sure we have employee input as well. Some of our best green ideas have come from our employees.”

When NBCU decided to become a leader in energy conservation, the company surveyed its employees. Some 80% of staffers ranked “being green” as important to them, Zalaznick said. But there was also some skepticism.

“We knew we had to have a strong message and be consistent,” she said. “We had to reach every level of the company. We did, and it worked. Everyone participated in our Green Is Universal week, and employees now believe we are serious when we say we want to be leaders in this area.”

Employee buy-in comes in a variety of ways. Cox’s energy policies include corporate, as well as personal incentives. Since 2000, Cox has reduced its carbon footprint by 10% and its CEO has mandated the company trim its energy usage by another 20% by 2017. But Kennedy is also intent on helping Cox’s employees to think globally by acting locally.

Five years ago, Kennedy decreed that the prime parking spots at all Cox facilities would be saved for the most fuel-efficient cars or carpoolers rather than top management. Today, the ground floor of the Cox Enterprises garage is full of fuel efficient cars. Even visitor parking is bifurcated: A number of close-in spots are dedicated solely for fuel-efficient vehicles. It’s the same for other Cox divisions.

Discovery and Weather Channel also reward employees who drive hybrid cars with prime parking spots. The demand has been so high that both companies are exploring ways to increase the number of special spots.

Internal contests have been big hits with employees wanting to participate in green initiatives and companies wanting employee involvement.

In an effort to reduce energy consumption at its headquarters, Discovery pitted departments and different floors against each other to see which could reduce its energy consumption the most. Innovative and winning ideas were shared across the company and not only was energy consumption reduced, costs went down as well, Laque said.

The Weather Channel held a companywide contest earlier this summer where employees were rewarded with cash prizes for carpooling to work. The company had to have random drawings because so many people carpooled on a regular basis that there were too many to hand out prizes to, Smith said.

“It was really a cross-company competition,” Smith said. “We wanted to undertake something that would be helpful, motivating and fun for our employees. We want to involve all our offices and employees in everything we do, and this was a good way to do that. It was very successful and showed that people could do something for the environment that was simple and easy.”

GREEN PROGRAMMING



Last November, NBCU launched a large-scale, week-long project that included airing 125 hours of green-centric programming over every NBCU outlet. TV stations, cable networks, NBC, NBC News, all the company’s online outlets and Universal Studios theme parks participated in ways that fit their specific strengths and audiences, Zalaznick said.

CNBC stock guru Jim Cramer, for example, created and tracked an index of eco-friendly companies. It proved so popular, he’s been tracking it ever since, Zalaznick said. The theme parks handed out free parking passes to people driving hybrid cars. TV stations ran hundreds of green tips during the local news. Every NBC primetime show featured green themes.

The week was so successful that NBCU gained $25 million in additional advertising that it would not have gotten without the project, Zalaznick said. Large and small companies took advantage of the programming slate: Longtime advertiser General Motors hyped its fleet of hybrid vehicles. SoyJoy, which makes nutrition bars, bought avails on NBCU outlets for the first time. NBCU plans to repeat the effort this November and intends to add another week of eco-programming in April.

Cable operators are also recognizing advertising opportunities associated with eco-responsibility.

Comcast Spotlight’s Colorado office launched the MSO’s first video-on-demand Green Channel on Earth Day last April.

Gov. Ritter endorsed the channel and provided a two-minute video introduction promoting the channel and the state’s eco efforts. The governor’s office also included the Green Channel as part of the state’s Energy Star package for new home builders.

“It’s a win-win-win for everyone,” Kennedy said. “The governor gets to promote the state’s eco initiatives. We are part of a great program that will benefit everyone in the state in terms of reducing and conserving energy consumption and we have an outlet that lets advertisers tell their eco stories and promote their green initiatives.”

To date, the channel has attracted advertisers including the Denver Recycle Center, Keystone Resorts, local car dealer Kuni Lexus, Ecel Energy and the Air Quality Control Council. National Geographic Channel, HGTV and The Weather Channel have provided the Green Channel with programming to wrap the ads around.

“We launched this channel because we live in a state where everyone is aware of the environment and the issues surrounding it. We knew it would be popular with viewers,” Kennedy said. “But our clients also wanted an outlet that would give them a way to promote their green initiatives in a way that went beyond the traditional 30-second spot.”

While a recent study by The Shelton Group suggests that too much green messaging could spark consumer backlash, cable companies are unlikely to cut back or halt their eco-initiatives anytime soon.

“We’re going green because we should be green,” Zalaznick said. “Employees become encouraged and proud of the company they work for. Consumers think more highly of companies that are eco-responsible and new advertisers are coming to us because of our eco efforts. All that contributes to why we do this. But in the end, we do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

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