By Wayne Karrfalt
Special to TelevisionWeek
As television programmers turn increasingly to environmental topics, one independent-minded network is leveraging its credibility with activists and filmmakers to make a large-scale commitment to the issue.
Ten-year-old Sundance Channel will kick off the three-hour Sundance Channel Green programming block next April, featuring original series, documentary films and interstitial programming that celebrate sustainability and environmental consciousness. The block will be televised once a week in prime time and repeat twice in various dayparts, totaling nine hours of airtime each week.
Scout Productions (“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “Fog of War”) has just signed on to produce the block’s first original series. Tentatively titled “Change Agents,” it will profile inventive people and products on the cutting edge of sustainability. Each of the 13 episodes will revolve around a single theme, with commentary from activists, scientists and personalities helping to provide context to the agents’ contributions.
“The show is a positive look at people trying to make a difference. With shows like this, and original documentaries and interstitial segments around them, you’ll get a wide range of what’s going on in the green space,” said Lynne Kirby, senior VP of original programming for Sundance Channel. “We want to complement the programming with practical information about how to directly apply this knowledge to be proactive on a personal level.”
The idea of launching a green programming block had been percolating at the network for some time, said Sundance Channel Executive VP and General Manager Laura Michalchyshyn. After all, the channel’s founder and spiritual leader, actor Robert Redford, has been one of the entertainment industry’s most ardent conservationists for more than 30 years. The confluence of natural events and feature films such as “An Inconvenient Truth” brought the issue to the forefront in recent months, convincing executives of the network to jump into action earlier this summer.
Sundance Channel commissioned five production teams to each create a 15-minute presentation pilot in June. When Ms. Michalchyshyn saw the quality and originality of the submissions, delivered in the span of just two months, she knew she was onto a topic that was a source of inspiration for the creative community.
“To see the high quality of the proposals was reassuring,” she said. “Their interest was heartwarming and their submissions affirmed everything we thought when we started.”
Sundance executives returned from the MIPCOM television and film market earlier this month with some fresh acquisitions from Europe, where green-themed production is more established. The eight-episode “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” produced by the BBC, will follow “Change Agents” on the schedule. A sort of “Green Acres” meets “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” it chronicles the experiences of a well-to-do British family that sells its home in London to buy an old cottage in Cornwall and proceeds to turn the property into a model of green sustainability.
The BBC Four documentary “Art From the Arctic” was also acquired, produced by artist David Buckland and directed by David Hinton. The 60-minute film was put together from 200 hours of footage shot by Mr. Hinton during three expeditions to the Arctic. The project was undertaken to call attention to how severely global warming is affecting what he calls “nature’s sculptures.”
An ambitious multiplatform strategy is also in the works, with a mini-site aggregating additional green-related content. The site will feature video clips and behind-the-scenes footage from original series and acquired features, user-generated video and multimedia content and blogs from notable environmental commentators and activists. Sundance Channel Green content will also be distributed via DVD, video-on-demand and mobile platforms.
The initiative got a head start in terms of awareness within the green community months before it will launch. Former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev presented Sundance Channel with a Global Green award for the Green block last week. Meanwhile, Mr. Redford is gearing up to host the Sundance Summit Nov. 12-14 in Sundance, Utah, where 60 U.S. mayors will convene to share best practices on climate protection.
Green Can Be Fun
The network’s ultimate goal with Green is to entertain and inform rather than preach, said Sundance Channel’s founder, Mr. Redford. The idea is to inspire people to make a change in the way they live by showing them an alternative in a fun way, he said, rather than try to guilt them into it with dire warnings of the sky falling.
“People are attracted to good stories, well told. That’s our focus,” Mr. Redford wrote in an e-mail to TelevisionWeek. “The programming needs to be informative, entertaining and in concert with our Web effort, interactive. We will inspire and trust the audience, not simply beat them over the head with messages. Our programming will be empowering. There’s enough doom and gloom out there when it comes to dialogue on the environment, and we seek to strike a balance between problem and solution.”
Mr. Redford’s clout in Hollywood, as an environmentalist and a patron of independent film (the channel operates independently of the nonprofit Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival, but a close connection exists), guarantees attraction of high-profile names to the initiative. Friends who have already pledged their support include Leonardo DiCaprio (who serves with Mr. Redford on the Natural Resources Defense Council), Cameron Diaz and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an NRDC lawyer and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance.
Sundance Channel, a venture of NBC Universal, Viacom’s Showtime Networks and Mr. Redford, also has a wealth of library titles from which to draw. Films that will show up on the Green bBlock include “Dust to Dust: The Health Effects of 9/11,” narrated by Steve Buscemi; “Darwin’s Nightmare,” about the destruction of the ecosystem around Lake Victoria in Tanzania; and “Go Further,” a countercultural romp undertaken by documentarian Ron Mann (“Grass”) and eco-activist Woody Harrelson to promote hemp and healthy living.
The network is seeking green-friendly sponsors for the block, a new direction for the premium channel. Until now commercial-free, Sundance will begin to introduce commercial messaging in January to help fund additional investment in original programming. Ms. Kirby described the new sponsorship model as following in PBS’s footsteps, with “presented by” messaging rather than 30-second spots. She said potential sponsors will be rigorously vetted to ensure that they have clean environmental credentials.
“We’re looking for like-minded brands that make sense for Sundance,” Ms. Kirby said.