- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Coming soon to a cable system near you: Rock star Tommy Lee setting off on an eco-friendly concert tour; chef Emeril Lagasse cooking organic at Whole Foods in Fairfax; and a documentary about the rebuilding — with sustainable products, of course — of a Kansas town that was flattened by a tornado.

Also on the air — not to mention on the energy-using giant plasma screen — are shows about making small changes, large renovations, and which Hollywood celebrity is working on saving the planet.

Planet Green, which debuts in more than 50 million homes in early June, is the most ambitious offering in green television. Sure, one could read about recycling, but now come documentaries, reality shows and lifestyle makeover shows on the subject. Discovery is investing more than $50 million in original programming as it reinvents Discovery Home into a 24/7 network about living green.

Are television watchers clamoring to watch how energy-saving windows are installed? Looking to assuage guilt over their sport utility vehicles by watching someone else drive a Prius? Is the programming a sneaky, non-threatening way to package environmentalist propaganda or simply a way for marketers to sell new Earth-friendly products?

Some of each, and it depends on whom you ask.

Planet Green joins smaller projects with a similar theme, such as Sundance Channel’s the Green, which features blocks of environmental programming, including “Big Ideas for a Small Planet,” and HGTV, which is offering up a 5,300-square foot South Carolina green home in its annual home-giveaway sweepstakes.

“This programming reflects what is going on in the overall social landscape,” says Eileen O’Neill, Planet Green president and general manager. “People are being more active [in the green movement] than ever. We will have something for everyone. We like to say it will be like life, only greener.”

The environment became a sexy cause after Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” earned big box-office numbers two years ago, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Pop Culture at Syracuse University. “One thing it did was get people to see dollar signs,” he says. “Now the environment is entertainment, and ‘green’ can include a whole bunch of things, not just stats on the polar ice cap melting. As powerful as Hollywood is at conveying messages, though, it cannot lead people like a pied piper to become interested in something they are not.”

Discovery executives began their project based in part on the viewership of the channel’s 11-part series “Planet Earth,” which aired last spring. It became the most-watched cable event of all time, with 65 million viewers.

However, not all media with an environmental message has been so popular. Last summer’s broadcasts of Mr. Gore’s Live Earth concerts fared poorly in the United States, capturing 2.7 million viewers.

“The 11th Hour,” a pessimistic environmental documentary produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, garnered thin box-office numbers last year. In the United Kingdom, the BBC recently canceled “Planet Relief,” a planned daylong special on climate change.

Could the market for “light green” environmentalism have peaked already? Maybe, says Laura E. Huggins, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and co-author with Terry L. Anderson of the forthcoming book “Greener Than Thou.”

“We were inspired to write the book when we began to feel saturated with all the propaganda that is out there,” she says. “It is nice and fun to see celebrities being green, but at some point, we need to ask ourselves, ‘Are they really experts?’ ”

Alarge part of the impetus behind green TV is the platform it offers to peddle merchandise, both in paid advertising and in how-to ideas such as renovating homes with sustainable products.

Planet Green won’t say which advertisers will be buying time on the network, but expect to see ads for hybrid cars, Energy Star-rated appliances and mainstream cleaning products’ new green lines.

“There will also be advertising that is not so much product-focused as corporate-focused,” says Jacquelyn Ottman, a New York environmental marketing consultant.

In other words, prime time is a great time for companies to get out the message “See, we’re not so bad after all.” First up: Wal-Mart, which recently began airing a lineup of commercials promoting compact fluorescent light bulbs as well as its own sensitivity to the environment.

No matter where one stands on climate change, there are realities, such as the rise in gas and home heating costs or the growing landfills. That means even people who don’t consider themselves “green” still might be looking for ways to cut energy costs or make recycling easier.

“During the 1960s and ‘70s, there was growing consciousness about the environment,” says Toby Miller, professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside, “but it fell off as things became cheaper. Now, oil prices are going up. We’re not going to see prices fall, so people want ideas on how to make [energy saving] part of their lifestyle.”

Programmers have enlisted celebrities to try to capture and keep viewers’ attention. Planet Green has Adrian Grenier of “Entourage” and Maria Menounous of “Access Hollywood.” The Green has Laurie David, Sam Waterston and Don Cheadle on its program “The Ecoists.”

Many viewers tune in to lifestyle shows because there is a fantasy element. Food Network’s Giada De Laurentiis can make braising fennel look exciting, and HGTV’s Carter Oosterhouse might inspire viewers to get to that deck project — someday. It remains to be seen whether putting up solar panels, creating a compost bin or changing to cloth napkins will be as naturally captivating.

“The question is, ‘Just because you want to be green, does that mean you will watch green?’ ” says Michael Dingley, HGTV senior vice president of programming. “We’re trying different things to get a sense of what the public’s appetite is.”


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