In Depth

Green Becomes Redford

Sundance Founder Discusses How His Channel is Tackling Energy, Climate Issues

In addition to ongoing shows such as “Big Ideas for a Small Planet,” a staple after two seasons for the network’s environmental programming block The Green, Sundance Channel has greenlighted the eight-episode series “Eco-Trip: The Real Cost of Living,” hosted by English eco-adventurer David de Rothschild. The network also has acquired popular satellite radio show “The Lazy Environmentalist,” which jumps to The Green with author and green entrepreneur Josh Dorfman in tow. Both shows will debut next year.

The Green boasts eco-conscious programming that includes documentaries and original series designed to enlighten, inspire and entertain viewers. But in an election year in which financial crises threaten to overshadow ongoing issues such as global warming, energy and resource allocation and food shortages, how does the environmentally conscious network respond? TelevisionWeek correspondent Jarre Fees recently posed that question and others to Sundance founder Robert Redford.

TelevisionWeek: How do you feel the energy and climate crises will play out in the coming election/administration, and do you feel Sundance has a role, especially now, in voter education?

Robert Redford: It better play out big because it is big. The evidence so long predicted is now right in our laps. Energy and climate issues are front and center now, and the candidates and their operatives realize that these are issues that people may well base their votes on this time around. Previously, all aspects of the environmental issues have been given lip service at best and are put at the bottom, for the most part. I think those days are over. Everybody says it’s about economics—but whether it’s war, Social Security, education, environment, healthcare, it’s all organically connected to economics.

The smart candidates see the economic opportunities in good, solid innovative policies: New jobs in the new green economy, better impacts on public health, new thriving markets, a more engaged citizenry dedicated to all of it and demanding action.

I think Sundance Channel has an ongoing role in public/voter education just by the nature of the range of information, ideas and perspectives we bring to audiences through programming on all platforms. Also, we’ve developed online platforms in particular which nurture a lively interactive community, and that, too, presents particular opportunities around civic involvement.

TVWeek: Among other types of programming, I’m told Sundance is now looking for more “personality-driven” vehicles. Why is this important?

Mr. Redford: Unfortunately “personality” is easily confused with celebrity, and that has acquired dangerous connotations. I prefer character-driven stories. If the stories and characters are rich enough, it will provide personality. Offering our audience character-driven stories and experiences, well told in interesting, relatable ways, tends to stand out from the din of images and noise coming at us all day and from so many platforms.

But really, I think it’s all about the personal, emotional connection. If you can’t reach audiences on those levels, you can’t build on it—or you may get them for a minute but you’ll lose them rather quickly. Someone like David de Rothschild can connect with an audience to tell a story in a very engaging way.

TVWeek: How challenging is it to keep things fresh for your regular viewers? Do you ever feel you’re preaching to the choir?

Mr. Redford: I think people come to Sundance Channel for something different, and as long as we keep to our core mission it will remain fresh and innovative. We try to remain true taking risks on new voices, new formats and new ideas and not be led by what we think a certain group of people might want. We’re not poll-oriented; instead we try to stay ahead of such stuff. As far as our programming goes, no, I don’t feel we’re preaching to the choir, because of the diversity of programming and perspectives we present. If anything, I would say that we’re trying to reach a new choir.

TVWeek: How do you attract new converts to The Green, which is essentially a big block of educational programming, without watering down the content?

Mr. Redford: We go below the headline of “Doom and Gloom” and show the light that shines beneath with new opportunities that are here and now for all of us. With that said, I believe people are attracted to good stories well told. That’s our focus. And we don’t want to be the propaganda network, and simply beat audiences over the head with messages. You can leave that to the broadcast bloviators. We want to strike a balance between problem and solution and let the audience take what they need from it. But it’s making creative innovation exciting and entertaining.

Just as important, we trust our audience. We don’t talk down or dumb down. I feel if you find the clarity of the information, create an engaging narrative and bring life to it in new ways, audiences will “get” it.

TVWeek: Sundance Channel has been a success for a pretty long time by industry standards. How do you keep your Inner Outlaw motivated to continue the work you’ve started there?

Mr. Redford: Working from within, being sure to keep humanity in the picture. Take risks, be freely creative, be around a highly effective, creative and talented group of hard-working executives who believe in the mission and bring it to life in very inspired ways. So it doesn’t take a lot of motivation to engage.

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