This week marks a first in sweeps gimmicks: a major conglomerate network is “going green.” As anyone who has watched any shows on NBC, Bravo, MSNBC, CNBC, USA, or Sci-Fi Channel this week will know, the peacock corporation (NBC-Universal) has made it clear that “Green is Universal” (a clever way of saying “Universal is Green… or at least greener than our competing networks”).
This week-long stunt has resulted in (among other things) green network logos, on-screen graphics with tips for reducing carbon emissions, and reportedly 150 hours of green-themed programming across the NBC network family.
Specific show iterations of the “Green is Universal” theme include a task on The Biggest Loser where contestants learn how to exercise without electricity, a character on E.R. buying an energy-efficient car, and a plotline in Bionic Woman set at an environmental conference in Paris. The culmination comes tonight in 30 Rock—in what promises to be a hilariously self-reflexive episode—which features an Al Gore cameo and Alec Baldwin’s character concocting a catchy green mascot for NBC he calls "Greenzo.”
On the Today Show earlier this week, Ann Curry broadcast live from Antarctica, Matt Lauer from the Arctic Circle, and Al Roker from the equator. Cable is also getting in on the parent company’s campaign, with Bravo's Real Housewives of Orange County featuring eco pop-ups on how to "live with less bling and with more green” and USA's logo changing from "Characters Welcome" to "Environmentalists Welcome."
But what is this green onslaught really about? Why is it conveniently happening during sweeps month?
Lauren Zalaznick, president of Bravo Media and head of the NBC Universal Green Council, has argued that NBC’s green campaign is less about good PR or sweeps than it is about actually trying to make the world better: ''For a very cynical world, this is a very earnest effort… We have to leave our world more sustainable than it is right now. If we can use our power as media to do that, and take a whole lot of consumers along for the ride, why wouldn't we?'' NBC-Universal CEO Jeff Zucker added that “Green is good for the world and good for the bottom line."
Zucker is probably more honest than anyone with his acknowledgement that green is “good for the bottom line.” This is true both in terms of conservation activities lowering overhead costs, but also (perhaps more significantly in Zucker’s mind) in terms of building up the brand of NBC-Universal: as a high class, socially-conscious, forward-thinking company that is hip to current cultural concerns and political trends.
But herein is the problem. “Green” is obviously the cause célèbre right now. Outside my apartment in L.A. there was recently installed a huge billboard for Barney’s (a super high-end department store just down the street in Beverly Hills) that says “Have a Green Holiday” in a festive green font. The billboard includes a seductive picture of a model with luscious red lips and a gold mistletoe tree necklace hanging on her forehead. C’mon!
This sort of “green is sexy” notion has—of course—trickled down from highly-publicized celebrity involvement in environmental issues (led by folks like Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore) and is now the fad du jour. Everyone who is anyone is “going green”… whether with hybrid cars or $1,720 dollar Louis Vuitton re-usable grocery bags (Scarlett Johansson has one!).
Don’t get me wrong. It is GREAT that reusable canvas totes are trendy right now and designer plastic bags are not. But if Scarlett is going to drop two grand in a socially-conscious way, wouldn’t it be put to better use helping some kids in Africa than saving a tree or two? I feel like “green” is such an easy, comfortable, fashionable trend/cause to plug into for celebs or any company looking for some good PR. It’d be much less marketable, for example, if NBC pronounced November “Save Darfur” month or something.
Furthermore, I’m not sure that green really is universal. Being “green” is still very class-determined in the sense that low-income groups cannot afford to buy reusable or eco-friendly products, let alone a hybrid car. And frankly, if you’re in Darfur (or Iraq, or Pakistan, or 80% of the world), “going green” is the least of your concerns. Surviving is hard enough.
That said, I hope my cynicism about NBC’s “green” commitment doesn’t take away from the fact that the net result of the whole thing is definitely more good than it is bad. The environment is something we should be concerned about—even if its cooptation by the culture industry seems a tad problematic.