by: Joel Makower
This is "Green Week" at NBC Universal, a seven-day revelry of environment-themed content spread across the company's various TV channels and other properties. The 150 hours of programming — integrated into everything from news and sports to soaps and entertainment — is certainly a first for a major media company.
What, really, is NBC doing? Is this a one-off stunt intended to "green up" its image before it returns to, as they say, regularly scheduled programming? Or is this something more substantive, more integrated, longer-term — a milestone in the greening of the mainstream media? (Disclosure: NBC Universal, like its parent company, General Electric, is a client of GreenOrder, with which I am affiliated.)
I've watched the process unfold, reviewed strategy documents, and talked to the company about its efforts. My only-slightly-biased conclusion: There's more going on here than meets the eyeballs that NBC is trying to attract.
First, the basics. Green Week involves the full spectrum of NBC properties, including its eponymous TV network as well as CNBC, MSNBC, NBC News, NBC Sports, SciFi Channel, Sundance Channel, Bravo, USA Network, and Telemundo — plus Universal Studios and its related theme parks, and the company's websites, including female-focused iVillage. Dozens of shows will have environmental themes or messaging, from Sami and Lucas' green wedding on "Days of Our Lives," to MSNBC's examination of green issues in the 2008 presidential campaign, to "The Office" (based at a fictional paper company) considering recycled paper, to CNBC's broadcast from a clean-tech conference. Tom Brokaw, Matt Lauer, Bob Costas, and other heavyweight talents have been conscripted into the effort. Local NBC stations will incorporate green-themed stories into their newscasts and some will run a half-hour special on "Going Green at Any Age!" Universal Pictures will run environmental public service announcements as part of its online movie trailers and as ads in theater lobbies.
There's more. You get the idea. Suffice to say it's a full-court press.
The whole endeavor no doubt makes great fodder for cynics: What is the company's actual environmental commitment? Is it walking it's talk, or just preaching? Is this just another way to tap into the growing wave of advertisers' green(washing) pitches? Will consumers even care? And why only one week — shouldn't it be a year-round commitment?
In a nutshell: What's really going on here?
"The time became right to recognize that green is a rapidly growing cultural and business phenomenon and is presenting brand new opportunities and challenges," Lauren Zalanick, president of Bravo Media, who heads NBC Universal's Green Council, told me last week. "And that, as a company, we should be the green media market leader, and be ready."
Zalanick says the company identified three key "customers" for this effort: consumers of its programs, movies, theme parks, and other properties; advertisers, of course; and the company's 16,000 worldwide employees. Regarding that last group, she says, "We want college grads coming into the marketplace — 80 percent of whom say they want a job with positive environmental impact — we want them here. We want to be best in class in every way as an employer of choice."
Interestingly, when I asked Zalanick where she anticipated the most push-back about Green Week, it was this same internal group. "There's no one more cynical than a disgruntled group of large conglomerate employees. They have had many, many, many mass e-mails and initiatives. The longer they're here, the more they say, 'I've seen things come, I've seen things go.' So we have a great challenge to be very real."
"Very real," explains Zalanick, includes various efforts to reduce the company's environmental impacts, including replacing a fourth of its vehicle fleet with hybrids by the end of 2007, evaluating its paper suppliers for environmental content the company's office paper currently contains one-third recycled content), and conducting an environmental audit of its facilities worldwide. (NBC Universal will work with GreenOrder to provide an independent, quantitative analysis and verification of its environmental footprint.)
What about consumers? Does the typical viewer of college football care that next Saturday's Air Force vs. Notre Dame match-up will include a segment featuring Notre Dame student's and faculty's quest to capture carbon dioxide from power plants?
Zalanick believes they will. She cites research conducted last month in which NBC Universal measured viewers' environmental awareness, habits, and expectations. "We heard loud and clear that there was a very high expectation that consumers have about companies. Over two-thirds believe that businesses have some responsibility for the social good. That's a lot." She says the company plans to track audience awareness and actions over time. "We'd like to hear back that we've had an actual impact — that we caused viewers to buy a hybrid, to not buy plastic water bottles, to turn off their power strip instead of the on-off-standby switch. We want those kinds of activation results." It will be a big challenge "activating" mainstream consumers, as most environmental groups and others have learned over the years, but every little bit helps.
Green Week will no doubt rankle some critics as, variously, being too commercial, not green enough, not serious enough, not entertaining enough, or whatever. Says Zalanick: "We're going to be under a microscope. We're going to plead for a lot of attention, and we're going to get it, and we're really going to try to do everything right. What I hope is that the shoutdown of our perceived imperfections doesn't scare anyone else from trying to do it."
Viewed in its entirety, NBC Universal's approach, imperfections and all, strikes me as a substantive — and welcome — contribution from the mainstream media: a synergy of internal programs to reduce the company's footprint and engage its employees and talent, with an external focus on the company's massive, hydraheaded audience reach. And to do so in a wide range of styles, voices, and depth. One internal document positions the approach as "hopeful, empowering, and pragmatic, not moralistic or preachy." Sounds about right.
A big question, of course, is what happens after Green Week is over. Zalanick agrees that environmental content "should become part of the fabric and rhythm of our every day" and that this, indeed, will be the company's long-term goal. (Internally, this has been described as a "multi-year, ongoing initiative.") "I think it's like any pro-social initiative that starts with some particular mandate," she explains. "It starts out as something conscious, something you have to point to. And the road is filled with potholes and cynics. It would be like saying, 'Was our goal in 1987 to hire a woman, then never do that again?' No, the goal was to have it become the fabric of medical schools and law schools and board rooms and everything in between. The goal was to stop talking about it, for it to be part of the everyday."
No one says it will be easy. "We're learning how to walk," admits Zalanick. "In a few years, we won't have to think about walking any more, and our commissaries are going to be right, and our lighting is going to be right, and our corporate car fleet is going to be right. And we're going to know how to do it. What I found is that we were already doing a tremendous amount of stuff that, for a media company, we were not particularly good at communicating. We never took it on as something we needed to prove to the world. I actually think we were incorrect on that."
Will Green Week help position NBC Universal as "the" green media company, attracting new viewers and advertisers, delighting its employees, and luring the next generation of talent along the way? How will all this affect, or infect, its competitors? What will Wall Street think? The rumor mill has GE selling off its media business in order to better focus on its core industrial products. Will being seen as green enhance NBC Universal's market value?
As they say on TV: Stay tuned.