The Greening of Cable Programming

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Cable is slowly falling in love with the color green.

I'm not talking cold, hard cash. The green I'm referring to is the color of the eco-friendly movement. You know, recycled paper, biofuels, battery-powered cars — anything and everything in the name of saving the earth from our own pollution-generating excesses.

Several networks seem to like the way green looks on their schedule. The Weather Channel last October launched The Climate Code with Dr. Heidi Cullen, a 30-minute weekly Sunday afternoon series which provides a platform to discuss the hot topics of global warming and climate changes, as well as a companion, video-rich Web site dubbed One Degree.

Sundance Channel decided primetime was the best time to focus on ecology. The network's three-hour block of environmentally-friendly programming, “The Green,” launched April 17 and will include such shows as Big Ideas for a Small Planet, a 13-part documentary series that undoubtedly have conservation and organic living as its theme.

If a block of programming isn't enough, Discovery Networks U.S. is going to devote a whole linear channel to the topic. The company will paint its Discovery Home Channel green in 2008 as it commits $50 million toward its global, cross-platform Planet Green initiative.

Other networks, such as the Documentary Channel and Current TV, offer short and long-form programming on global warming and how to live a green lifestyle.

How did a topic which only a few years ago was dismissed by most people as the musings of crazy left-wing radicals become such a hot commodity for cable?

Much of the credit for waking up cable and viewers to the dangers of global warming and the positives of embracing a green lifestyle goes to a movie made by a former vice president. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, Al Gore's Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth laid out in layman's terms the negative effects of greenhouse emissions on Mother Earth that many scientists have been warning us about for years.

And people seem to finally be listening.

In the spring of 2004, only a quarter of Americans in a Gallup Poll said they were worried “a great deal” by climate change, according to New York magazine. That number is over 40% today.

“The movie An Inconvenient Truth made the issue of ecology and the buzzword green fashionable and acceptable,” said Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for Katz Television Media Group, a seller of time on broadcast media.

Now that the subject is en vogue — Wal-Mart is aggressively selling energy-efficient, fluorescent light bulbs and Frito-Lay is cooking potato chips in low-fat sunflower oil — cable networks are jumping on the green bandwagon to offer programming that advertisers feel good about sponsoring.

Sundance Channel's “The Green” programming block for example has already attracted such big ticket companies as Lexus and Citi Smith Barney.

“Advertisers are always looking to be part of what's trendy, and [green programming] is trendy,” Carroll said. “They want to be associated with anything that seems positive.”

But such programs, no matter how informative and important, will eventually be judged by how many eyeballs are watching. And at least for now, a documentary about melting glaciers or a series about how to make your house green-friendly would be hard-pressed to draw a fraction of the viewers for an original episode of The Sopranos. As such, it's not surprising that TNT, FX and USA Network haven't jumped on the environmental bandwagon yet.

“People watch television to be entertained first and foremost,” said TV historian Tim Brooks. “I think you'll see some shows do well, but the big test will be whether you see any of the general networks try something within the genre. Maybe it could be part of a storyline, but it's hard to see major producer building a show around this subject yet.”

Eventually all television trends fizzle. If and when green is no longer in fashion, it's questionable whether the marketplace will continue to support a multiplatform green lifestyle service, such as Lime, or an around-the-clock cable environmental channel, such as the one Discovery has planned.

But for now it seems environmentalism is all the rage. Discovery Channel has managed to draw 46 million viewers to its 11-part Planet Earth series.

With those numbers, it might not be a bad idea for cable networks to bet some green on green programming.