NEW YORK — Viewers who tune in the new Planet Green network expecting a sober documentary on the plight of the yellow-breasted whooping finch will be in for a surprise.
Instead, they'll see celebrities such as Tommy Lee, Ludacris, Tom Bergeron and Adrian Grenier — and absolutely no lectures, promises Eileen O'Neill, the network's president.
Planet Green switches on Wednesday at 6 p.m. ET and runs counter to type. The environmentally conscious network will soft-sell its mission, making entertainment a bigger priority than education. O'Neill calls it "eco-tainment."
The network will immediately be available in 50 million homes, nearly half the nation's cable or satellite customers, because it replaces Discovery Home. Parent Discovery Communications is the latest corporation to realize that a "green" message sells, and guesses that a network devoted to the idea might do better than one lost in the glut of home renovation programming.
The immediate assumption is that Planet Green's programming would be largely educational, or similar to the sister Discovery Network's highly regarded "Planet Earth" series. But Planet Green executives saw that as a dead end.
"The network is not only not finger-wagging, it's sexy, it's interesting, it's irreverent," O'Neill said.
Planet Green doesn't want to be a network that appeals only to tree huggers and will always resist a heavy-handed approach, she said. Instead of scolding people not to waste paper by using juice boxes, the network will profile a person who built a business upon recycling them.
Most fledgling networks are built largely upon reruns of old network shows because money is tight. Since there was little existing material that fit its idea, Planet Green is starting with an unusual amount of fresh, original programming.
'Battleground Earth' contests
Fortunately for Planet Green, no place is greener than Hollywood.
Lee and Ludacris will star, beginning in August, in "Battleground Earth," a series of competitions between the rocker and rapper to determine who's the greenest. HBO "Entourage" star Grenier is host of "Alter Eco," where he and a team of experts show celebrities and ordinary people "the way to a hip green lifestyle."
"Supper Club with Tom Bergeron" brings a chef who cooks a "green meal" — whatever that is — while special guests talk about what's new in the environmental movement.
Although he's not on camera, Leonardo DiCaprio is behind the series "Greensburg," which profiles the Kansas town devastated last year by a tornado. Greensburg is being rebuilt in an eco-friendly fashion.
In "Wa$ted!," Annabelle Gurwitch illustrates ways homeowners can simultaneously save money and be friendly to the environment. "Hollywood Green With Maria Menounos," made with "Access Hollywood" as partner, showcases celebrities helping the environment. Bill Nye shows what happens to everyday items before and after they're consumed, on "Stuff Happens." Traditionally souped-up vehicles are pitted against eco-friendly counterparts on "Mean Green Machines." Steve Thomas of "This Old House" is host of "Renovation Nation," about changes made by green homeowners.
"I totally understand somebody starting a television network wanting to keep it entertaining and not too serious because anything too serious doesn't attract a wide audience," said cable industry analyst Paul Kagan. "If you make a television network for intellectuals, it's not going to attract a wide audience and it's not going to pay for itself. That's why most television is the way it is."
One need only check newsstands or track investments to see the popularity of the subject Planet Green is tackling, Kagan said.
"Because they're in the right place at the right time with the subject matter, I think they have a good shot," he said.
New for Discovery, too
O'Neill said she recognizes that the approach may initially seem jarring to committed environmentalists, or the "dark green" community. But she believes most will see this as the best way to get their message across to the most people.
This type of entertainment fare is also new to the Discovery networks — a discovery process for its executives, if you will.
O'Neill, a 41-year-old career executive at the cable giant, felt the culture shock when she met with Ludacris and Tommy Lee.
"I didn't know whether I should be wearing my hip-hop outfit or my rocker outfit that day," she said. "So I figured I'd just stay with my Land's End outfit."
Discovery also realized that a company starting an environmentally friendly television network ought to walk the walk.
The company installed 400-gallon reservoirs to collect rainwater. It put in motion-detector lights and toilets that use less water. Employees who bicycle to work are given a small bonus. Planet Green has a solar-powered Web site.
O'Neill bought a hybrid car and occasionally hops a bus to work.
"Taking the bus was a new thing," she said. "The only limitation now is that it stops at 7 o'clock at night and my job doesn't allow me to do that."
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