Sundance CEO discusses network's new block of programming devoted to the environment

With the success of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" and the major international focus being placed on climate change, the Sundance Channel has premiered a new block of weekly programming that will strictly be devoted to exploring environment-related issues. During today's OnPoint, Larry Aidem, president and CEO of the Sundance Channel, discusses this block of programming called "The Green." Aidem explains why his network has decided to devote an unprecedented amount of weekly airtime to this issue. He addresses competition from other networks and explains how Sundance's programming differs from that of its competitors.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Larry Aidem, president and CEO of Sundance Channel. Larry thanks for coming on the show.

Larry Aidem: Thank you for having us.

Monica Trauzzi: Larry, Sundance Channel has just premiered a new block of programming called "The Green". What can viewers expect when they tune into "The Green"?

Larry Aidem: Well, every week we're devoting an entire primetime block to "The Green", Tuesday evenings from 9 p.m. to midnight. And what we're going to do is a mix of original programming, a series like "Big Ideas for a Small Planet", "ECO BIZ", and other kinds of interstitial material. And we're going to marry that to features and documentaries about this topic. The other thing I would add is it won't be just the viewers at a linear channel, that's not the only place you'll be able to find this material. Not only is it the biggest investment we've ever made in an initiative, it is the most multiplatform expense we've ever embarked upon. So there's online, there's off channel, there's video on demand, there is -- anywhere the viewer is and whatever they want to view us on we're going to be there.

Monica Trauzzi: So you don't have to be a Sundance subscriber to view the content?

Larry Aidem: You can only view the full three hours on the channel, but there will be a lot of interactive stuff. For example, all give you Simran Sethi, who is one of the co-hosts of "The Destination", along with a woman named Majora Carter, has an avatar that you can see on Second Life. So we're going to have screenings on Second Life and you can go into that world and converse with Simran and watch short-form elements. But no, if there's an element behind your question of can someone just bypass that pesky cable or satellite operator, no. If you want really the volume of content that we're intending people to consume, subscribe.

Monica Trauzzi: What are your goals in putting out this block of programming? Are you hoping to spur legislation? Are you hoping to spur action among citizens? What are the goals?

Larry Aidem: You can take away the legislation point. We are not embarking upon this as an overtly political initiative. I do happen to work for a man who's devoted 30 years of his life, I'm referring of course to Robert Redford, to this cause. And yet I would describe it - there's a lot of things where I think people will argue vigorously for one side or the other. There's not too many people you can come across who are against the environment. It happens to be a cause that unites a lot of folks. That's not to say everyone has behaved well. There are either companies or individuals that have not, and I think some of the programming we show will raise awareness about what's going on out there. And I think to your question I think that's the most significant intention here, is to raise the overall awareness of this and not purely in a way that's doom and gloom. I think that you're not going to tune in every week and see "An Inconvenient Truth". You're not going to tune in and see the kind of film we showed last night, which is a crude awakening, which is a story about oil that is profoundly depressing. Not Up with People kind of stuff, but "Big Ideas for a Small Planet", "ECO BIZ", a series about of short pieces featuring people like Tim Robbins, Darryl Hannah, are very positive. They're about positive change. And also about people you've never heard of doing things you've never heard of that are, in a lot of ways, I think uplifting and fun.

Monica Trauzzi: So why is now the time to put forward this type of programming?

Larry Aidem: Well, I think there's no doubt if you've just been alive over the last few years that we've crossed this threshold. Someone can point to "An Inconvenient Truth" and say that was the moment. You could point to the un-frigging believable weather patterns that have afflicted the whole world over the last year. It's quite clear, on a daily basis, that something is not right. And I think we are one part of this mosaic. We're a television network. We're a cable and satellite television network, but however what we want to do and what we are doing is we're making the boldest foray into the space that anyone has done so far. No one is devoting a weekly primetime block to the environment. And we're very proud of that and yet I can't sit here and say that being first was what it was all about. It was about doing it in a way that we thought was true to what this brand is all about, that was credible and it's something we could look at and be proud of. I also want to add that we couldn't have done it without some like-minded sponsors. We don't take advertising in the traditional sense and yet we are embarking upon pretty much simultaneous with this branded sponsorship. So Citi Smith Barney and Lexis are, for the foreseeable future, going to be presenting "The Green" every week. And we're thrilled with those associations.

Monica Trauzzi: So like you mentioned, you do need to be a Sundance subscriber if you want to see the full package.

Larry Aidem: Yes.

Monica Trauzzi: So who's the audience that you're trying to get at with this material?

Larry Aidem: We are not preaching to the converted. We are much, much more eager to reach a broad spectrum, just as we have with Sundance Channel starting two or three years ago. We started to what we call open the aperture to go beyond independent film fanatics. We're not just for people who wait in line at the local independent film multiplex on Saturday nights to see a new film. We are going after people who would self-describe as independent thinkers, creatives, thought leaders, and who are looking, and this is our log line, for a change. We put programming on throughout our schedule, not just with "The Green" that causes people to think not in a homework-y way, not in a -- the word documentary itself sometimes is a turnoff. But in a way that after they've watched "CSI", after they've watched "Grey's Anatomy", after they've watched "The Sopranos", a lot of people get to a point in the evening where they say, you know what, I'd love to do something that's a little more challenging, something that causes me to think and be at the front end of something. And those are the kind of people we're going after.

Monica Trauzzi: Right, because for the ...

Larry Aidem: People like you.

Monica Trauzzi: Oh, thank you. Like the average American, the word green is sometimes a turnoff. It still has that tree-huggerish connotation to it.

Larry Aidem: Yup, yup.

Monica Trauzzi: Do you plan to reach out to them and change their mindset at all?

Larry Aidem: Yes, I think if you look at even the first episode of "Big Ideas for a Small Planet", which is called "Fuel", I don't think you could watch that episode, anyone could watch that episode and not be taken with some of the people in it. And I'll just give you an example. A guy named Joel Wolf this very self-effacing, big strapping mechanic from Ojai, California, auto mechanic. Says he was sitting around one day a couple of years ago and he was scratching his head and he said, you know, the original diesel engine was made to run on peanut oil. Why couldn't I rewire an engine to run on any kind of vegetable oil? And sure enough, and you see this guy in the show, he has now re-engineered 3,000 cars to run on vegetable oil. And he deep fries chicken, he takes the oil out from beneath it and he pours it into the tank and he drives off. I don't think there's a person who drives who wouldn't be quite taken with that and start to think, hmm, that's really interesting and it's not doing any harm to the planet. It just smells like fast food when you get done with your trip. But it is a really - it's very accessible. It is not just for that tree hugger, Sierra Club charter member.

Monica Trauzzi: And the show "Big Ideas" does focus on these different products that are available ...

Larry Aidem: Yes.

Monica Trauzzi: ... to consumers that are potential solutions to global warming. Do you think it borders infomercial though?

Larry Aidem: No, no, I mean I think, again, I believe I would highly suggest that any one wants them to be the judge. But each of them, as you just suggested, are themed. "Big Ideas for a Small Planet", "Fuel", "Build", "Cities", "Wear", "Eat", "Drive". Of course there are going to be products featured in each because a lot of this gets to what is happening in that space. But the one thing I'll say about it is most of these people are folks you've never heard of and we went to them because they had credibility in whatever space, in whatever the focus of that episode is, but we also have experts on it. Some of them you've heard of, some not. And it's coming to us, to the viewer, from a company called Scout, same guys who did "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy". They have huge credibility and, again, I think, I come back to the word entertaining. We cannot put this show on every week and preach or sell the pocket fisherman if you think this is an infomercial. We're not, this is about entertainment and I think if we do that I think it's going to be great for the viewer, it's going to be great for Sundance Channel and I think, finally, Lexis and Smith Barney will be very happy.

Monica Trauzzi: I want to talk about the advisory committee that was created for "The Green." You have groups like the Apollo Alliance, Sirius, Greenpeace, The League of Conservation Voters, NRDC, they're all taking part.

Larry Aidem: You read the press kit, I'm very impressed.

Monica Trauzzi: Thank you. It's my job to do that. What's the significance of having all these players take part?

Larry Aidem: Well, to go back to the multiplatform nature of this thing, community is a word that is used aggressively now in new media. And our original community was independent film lovers. We then enlarged it to include people looking for something different, people who like watching series like the "Iconoclast", where we put together high-profile people from different walks of life and watched them interact. This is opening it up still further. And I think one of the reasons, the main reason we went with this advisory board was, notwithstanding our heritage, not withstanding the fact that Redford I think has probably as much credibility as anybody in this space, we can't do this alone. And I think by enlarging the community, both on channel and, probably as importantly, off channel we're linked to all these various organizations. Web sites, we're talking about what they're doing. They're talking about what we're doing. There's a map on "The Green" mini site that physically points to what's happening in different parts of the country that these groups are leading. They're critically important. And I've got to tell you from my standpoint and the standpoint, I think, of many of my colleagues, we've met an avalanche of new people and more to come and it's a very exciting - not that we don't love independent filmmakers and we don't love making great original programming that is more closely tied to perhaps our namesake, but this, it feels, no pun intended, very organic to who we are, to have gone into this space and to be doing it with all these partners.

Monica Trauzzi: Final question, we're almost out of time. Other cable channels are coming out with their own program relating to green issues. We're seeing documentaries come out, you know, different types of programming. How is your block of programming going to compete with these other cable channels and how is it different?

Larry Aidem: I wouldn't use the word competition. I mean, yes, we're first. We're very proud of that. And when I say first I mean first with a kind of weekly presence. But, again, I go back to the fact that no one is against the environment. This is a cause that everyone can get behind and I would argue that what these other networks are doing and when they do it, I don't think they're going to have the depth of the commitment with the volume we've got. In most cases they'll have an individual show. Some may want to do more than that, but I think ultimately it has to fit with who you are. And I think what Sundance, there are certain networks, and I'm not going to sit here and trash talk some of the other cable networks, but it feels like most of our research, way before we did this and it's been validated by the response of our - it feels like a very logical extension of Sundance to be doing this when you're us. I guess I would suggest, if you're really asking about competition, you can't necessarily easily connect the dots with some of these other networks. I think to suggest that it's a great fit for some, absolutely, HGTV for example. I'm a big fan of what they do. We love Ed Begley. Ed Begley is in one of our ecoists. I think there's going to be a lot of talent being traded, going back and forth and that's great for all concerned. We don't have an exclusive on our talent or our ecoists and vice versa.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. Larry, we're going to end it right there. Thanks for coming on the show.

Larry Aidem: Thank you for having us, really appreciate it.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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