Will ‘Bright Green’ Bring Discovery The Long Green?

Wall_street_journal_online_jpegOriginally posted March 21, 2008
By Sam Schechner, The Wall Street Journal

Comedian Annabelle Gurwitch is trying to show a bunch of fraternity
brothers the virtues of saving water. So, while a TV camera rolls, she
strips down to gym shorts and bra, and jumps into a low-flow shower
with one of them.

Ms. Gurwitch’s conservation-minded show is part of a two-year, $100
million push by Discovery Communications LLC to launch an
around-the-clock TV network called Planet Green. If successful, its
"eco-lifestyle" brand could prove lucrative, attracting
advertiser-friendly viewers who are willing to pay extra for hybrid
cars and organic food. But Discovery must avoid being snared in a
potential green-marketing backlash — or, worse, found guilty of making
boring TV shows.

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With Planet Green’s launch set for June 4, when it
will replace the Discovery Home channel in more than 50 million
households, executives are busy preparing a programming slate aimed at
a mainstream audience they refer to internally as "bright green."
Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse will host "Emeril Green," a cooking
program set inside a 65,000-square-foot Whole Foods Market Inc.
store in Fairfax, Va. Other celebrities are likely to appear in
short-form series — many likely to appear on online — depicting their
efforts to live a greener lifestyle. A docu-soap, executive produced in
part by Leonardo DiCaprio, will chronicle a Kansas town that was
leveled by a tornado, only to rebuild using eco-friendly techniques.

"It’s not going to be preachy," says David Zaslav,
Discovery’s chief executive. "It’s not a parade of horribles. If it
works, I think it’ll have an optimistic voice."

Discovery’s big investment is, in part, a wager that
popular and corporate interest in combating global warming will
continue to grow. Planet Green will join a marketplace already crowded
with broadcast and cable outlets that are chasing advertisers’
eco-friendly marketing budgets.

Landmark Communications Inc.’s Weather Channel
recently expanded its "Forecast Earth" series to an hour a week.
Sundance Channel, jointly owned by General Electric Co.’s NBC Universal, CBS Corp. and Robert Redford, will soon premiere its second season of "The Green," its bloc of environmental programming.

In April, Discovery will unveil much of its
programming lineup for the channel to advertisers. Already, though,
several companies have signed deals to market on the new channel,
including Clorox Co., Whirlpool Corp., S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., Waste Management Inc. and General Motors
Corp. GM plans to use Planet Green ads to promote vehicles like the
hybrid version of its Chevrolet Tahoe sport-utility vehicle, as well as
its research into biofuels and a test project involving vehicles
powered by hydrogen fuel cells, according to a spokeswoman.

The ad buys are a way for companies to make a
statement that "we are actively going to support this network,’" says
Jason Kanefsky, a national media buyer at Havas SA’s MPG who sees green
TV as a viable programming niche. But ratings must follow, Mr. Kanefsky
cautions: "If no one’s watching it, there’s no statement to make."

Discovery Home isn’t rated by Nielsen and Discovery
says it isn’t likely to use ratings as it sells Planet Green
advertising in the near term. But some advertisers will eventually want
hard numbers, say analysts and ad buyers. Derek Baine, a senior analyst
at SNL Kagan, estimates that to be successful, Planet Green will have
to find an average viewership of, at minimum, 0.2% or 0.3% of
households in which it’s distributed — above what the bottom third of
rated cable ad-supported networks achieved in 2007.

Meantime, corporations’ rush to embrace
environmentalism — and the "green" moniker — is raising concerns in
some quarters. Environmentalists are increasingly vocal in decrying
deceptive or misleading corporate environmental claims, known as
"greenwashing." The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has stepped in, and
has begun hearings to revise environmental-marketing rules from the
1990s.

The issue is a delicate one for Discovery, which is
working to maintain authenticity among environmentalists, even as it
courts advertisers and tries to make environmental programming appeal
to a wider audience. In part to illustrate its bona fides, Discovery
has linked with environmental groups and retrofitted its Silver Spring,
Md., headquarters with water- and power-saving modifications to achieve
the U.S. Green Building Council’s highest rating for existing
buildings. The company also spent approximately $10 million last summer
to buy TreeHugger.com, a green-lifestyle Website.

The new channel is a key initiative of Mr. Zaslav, who
brought the germ of the idea with him when he came from NBC Universal
to run Discovery Communications at the beginning of last year. Mr.
Zaslav — who at NBCU oversaw the company’s portfolio of cable channels
— had pushed to turn the Sundance Channel into a 24-hour green
network, according to three people familiar with the discussions. Soon
after his departure, Sundance launched "The Green" programming bloc.

Since his arrival at Discovery, Mr. Zaslav has been
overhauling the company, slashing costs domestically and
internationally, and repositioning its biggest channels such as
Discovery and TLC. So far, adjusted operating cash flow is up, but
revenue has grown more slowly, according to securities filings from
John Malone’s Discovery Holding
Co., which owns two-thirds of Discovery Communications. (The other
third is owned by closely held Advance/Newhouse Communications, which
has tentatively agreed to combine its stake with Discovery Holding’s in
a new public company, with Mr. Zaslav at its helm. The deal is expected
to close in the second quarter.)

Next, Mr. Zaslav wants to capitalize on what he calls
the company’s low-rated digital channels that are nonetheless available
in tens of millions of homes. Turning Discovery Home into Planet Green
is part of that initiative, as is Mr. Zaslav’s recently announced plan
to transform Discovery Health into OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.

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Initially, at least, Planet Green’s programming will
be mostly personality-driven fare with informational components, often
online. The channel is shooting 40 hourlong episodes of "Renovation
Nation," in which Steve Thomas, former host of "This Old House," takes
viewers through green renovations, such as installing grass-covered
roofs. "Supper Club" will feature luminaries dining and discussing
environmental issues in an atmosphere Eileen O’Neill, the channel’s
president and general manager, describes as like that of "an intimate
Hollywood dinner party."

The show Ms. Gurwitch hosts, "Wasted," offers
households — from families to fraternities — cash incentives to
reduce their environmental "footprint" with simple tips, and equipment
like energy-efficient lightbulbs and low-flow toilets. On a recent
shoot at a young couple’s Spanish colonial house in Oceanside, N.Y.,
Ms. Gurwitch shot a few takes in which she consoled the
garbage-composting machine that the couple had rejected as too smelly.
"I keep trying to find out-of-the-box ways to convey information," says
Ms. Gurwitch, a writer for NPR and The Nation. "If it’s entertaining,
that’s the key, right?"

At times, however, at least one of the channel’s
producers has needed convincing on that point. Katie Carpenter, an
environmental documentarian, was initially put off by the channel’s
focus on lifestyle shows. "I was like, ‘Don’t talk to me about light
green,"’ she says, explaining she preferred the more serious tone of
"dark green" programs: "There was a color clash."

But over the intervening months, as she worked on
lighter series for the channel, Ms. Carpenter says she was won over by
the chance to package the content in a more broadly entertaining
format: "Not all of my world needs to be dark green. I can have a
variety of shades."

Write to Sam Schechner at [email protected]

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