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April 2014
Issue: February 1, 2011

Cover Story: Green Days

By: Randi Altman

Are you green? Do you recycle every bit of paper and cardboard box that comes your way? Do you carry canvas bags with you from store to store? Do you drink water out of reusable bottles? That’s the easy stuff.

Want to get serious? Do you bring your own reusable garment bags to the dry cleaners? Do you own a composter? Do you drive your e-waste to a local facility?

The truth is, whether you do all or just some of the above, you are making a difference. The more people get educated to what can help and hurt the environment, the more likely they are to make small changes that could add up to big results.

There are many in our industry making a difference, but this month we focus on two entities. One is a large media entertainment company and the other is a mom-and-pop type production music library. 

GREEN IS UNIVERSAL

While much of the entertainment industry has started to embrace green initiatives, it’s hard to deny that NBC Universal has been leading the charge. Back in 2007 they started “Green is Universal” (www.greenisuniversal.com), the media and entertainment company’s initiative that focuses on bringing an environmental perspective to everything they do, such as green on-air storylines and incorporating more sustainable practices into day-to-day corporate operations, including at its Universal theme parks and on as many productions as possible.

“The reality is we are in a really good position to provide information, entertainment and experience on an important topic like the environment, and the creative process is unique every single time,” reports Meredith Feiner, NBC Universal Communications, Women & Lifestyle Entertainment Networks. “Specifically, behind the scenes with our operations and with more sustainable production practices, we are always learning and always evolving, but really creating that culture of sustainability in an industry where it’s not necessarily vital to the bottom line — it’s something that’s very important to us. This means finding and implementing those best practices not only across NBC Universal, but sharing that information with our industry peers. The more people who are doing it, the bigger the difference that can be made. Knowing there are a lot of studios out there, big and small, that can put a lot of these guidelines into practice and really make a difference is why we continue to do this.”

As part of Green is Universal, NBC Universal hosts green weeks twice a year. The first is in April and is focused around Earth Day; the other is in November prior to Thanksgiving. “During these two weeks you’ll see that little green peacock in the corner of the screen, and a lot of our shows weave relevant information into their script or coverage,” describes Feiner, adding that NBC Universal came out with a Green is Universal production guide last year that is distributed within the company as well as to peer studios.

Implementing these initiatives in productions — for television and film — is a huge part of Green is Universal, and Shannon Schaefer, NBC Universal’s manager of sustainable production, knows first hand that these policies are in place and making an impact.

In 2009, NBC’s television production group collected 17 green goals that are policies across all of its productions. “To have one show do everything is really great, but to have all shows follow our green policies is even better, because then we are raising the bar on what production does in daily operations,” says Schaefer.

So NBC Universal has rolled out green policies across all of its shows, which at any given time includes between 25 and 30 titles. These are network shows  on NBC, such as Parenthood, 30 Rock and The Office, and cable shows like USA’s Psych, In Plain Sight and Royal Pains, as well as Syfy’s Warehouse 13 and Being Human. The Today Show, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon are participating in addition to syndicated shows such as Access Hollywood and Jerry Springer. “The reach is very far, and that is exciting to us because it means a really big impact on saving the environment,” says Schaefer. She reports that a number of the shows often go further than what is required of them, including Parenthood, 30 Rock and Psych. 

In addition to participating in the company’s Green Committee — made up of a cross-section of crew members from each show — Parenthood has gone beyond the basics, using low-VOC paints, staying as paperless as possible, and offering comprehensive recycling. “They also compost their food waste when they are here at the Universal lot,” says Schaefer, explaining that they sort the waste so it can be sent to a compost facility off site. “Parenthood, like many of our shows, has done a great job of reusing set materials as much as possible and finding used materials to incorporate into new sets. In addition they use rechargeable batteries for sound, so cutting down on the amount of batteries they employ.”

USA Network’s Psych also takes being green very seriously. In October of 2010, the show was recognized with the EMA (Environmental Media Association) Green Seal Award, which acknowledges productions, entertainment and events for making environmentally conscious efforts. In addition to no plastic water bottles in the office or on set, all food wastes are composted off site (like Parenthood) and the paint department uses only low-VOC paints — no oil-based paints, stains or shellacs. In addition, they take all unused paints and reuse them as primers on future sets, and any paint left over at the end of the season is donated to theatre groups or drama school programs.

30 Rock has installed water filters in its offices, so they are not only eliminating plastic water bottles but reducing the transportation costs and carbon footprint of having those five-gallon water cooler jugs delivered. They also rent hybrid vehicles for below-the-line crew as well as some cast members. Outsourced uses only reusable water bottles on stage and they donate their leftover food to local charities.

“Warehouse 13 had a competition to see who could bike the most or use mass transit to get work, and Access Hollywood has transitioned their shooting suite to LED lights,” reports Schaefer.

NBC Universal’s internal operations are also participating. Its IT department, within the TV group, has set up video conferencing for shows that shoot outside of Hollywood. This reduces flight travel for executives, saving the carbon emitted from jet fuel. New York-based Royal Pains and Albuquerque, NM-based In Plain Sight take advantage of this initiative. The television IT group has also set up remote support for the shows, which reduces the driving around they have to do, even within Los Angeles.

Schaefer points to an idea that came out of a Green Committee suggestion about accounting practices going paperless. “We were able to change internal finance procedures at NBC to go digital and save thousands of pieces of paper each week.”

Feiner sees the Green Committees as mini think tanks for each show. “People are supportive,” she says. “You have to make it easy and realize it takes time. We need people from all different levels on the shows to be supportive, and that is what has happened.”

OMNIMUSIC’s GRASSROOTS  

For Doug Wood, his two companies — production music library Omnimusic and environmental health non-profit Grassroots — are so entwined that when he answers the phone he isn’t sure if he’ll be talking about lawn pesticides or ASCAP rights. 

“Every company wants to be green these days, and for us it’s easier than for a lot of companies because we have this dual life where we are music publishers on one hand and run this environmental non-profit on the other.” 

Wood and his wife Patty started Port Washington, NY-based Omnimusic (www.omnimusic.com) in their living room with a drum set and a piano, and it grew from there. “We always ran the thing together. Our kids were always at the office; when people have kids that’s where the awareness begins to grow about what’s in the environment and how it might affect them.”

The use of pesticides on school playing fields got the Woods moving toward environmental issues, and things just took off from there. “At the same time Patty was investigating the environmental thing, I was working as an activist in the music business,” explains Wood. “I got involved with the ASCAP board of directors, really trying to improve the lives composers and people who write music for media because at that time it was an unappreciated part of the music business; we weren’t really getting our fair share of royalties. So Patty and I both took activist tracks. Me music; her the environment.” 

While Grassroots officially debuted in 2000, Omnimusic had always been concerned about running their company in a socially-responsible way, packing their records and then CDs in recycled materials whenever possible. They have also banned plastic packing peanuts and instead use packing peanuts made of cornstarch. “You can eat if them if you had to,” says Wood, adding that they are completely biodegradable. “We use safe cleaning products and encourage our staff to eat healthy, including banning diet soda from our office — the chemicals in it are not really good for anybody.”

Wood reports that initially new employees “think we are a little nuts,” but after a few months, they get a thirst to find out more.

Grassroots focuses on educating the public about toxins in the environment and how they affect people’s health. “In many cases, technology has outpaced scientific knowledge,” he explains. “We have a marketplace full of products that claim to make your life easier, and they might, but it’s what else they do that concerns us.”

Wood reports that the children are often the most vulnerable to things that most people wouldn’t even think had toxins. He cites carpets in bedrooms and fragranced candles or air fresheners. “No air is being made fresh by the use of those things. They are chemicals that are based on oil and can really cause trouble for kids with asthma. Grassroots is also involved in reducing exposure to diesel exhaust, which is not only a known cause of lung cancer, but a cause of asthma.”

A recent big win for environmental health was when New York banned the use of pesticides on school playing fields statewide. Grassroots helped by producing a short documentary film about the dangers of pesticides on lawns. Wood transferred his audio talents to video on this one, shooting in HD and editing on Final Cut. Music was provided by Omnimusic, of course. “The jump to video wasn’t too hard for me. The pacing for music and video is the same thing; give your audience a chance to breath.”

Grassroots also researched and wrote a paper on the relative cost of organic lawn care as opposed to chemical lawn care — organic actually costs less. “I think that really helped turn the tide in Albany with the politicians,” he says.

Wood realizes that a large part of spreading the word is reaching out to the young, and wife Patty does just that, talking at schools about how to be environmentally responsible. She has two programs: “Gifts from the Earth” for first and second graders, where she talks about the gifts Earth has given us, which is air, water and soil; and “I’ll Have the Plastic Fish Special Please” for 4th and 5th graders about the proliferation of plastic in our society and where it ends up. “It breaks down to tinier and tinier pieces until it’s ingested by fish,” explains Wood. “Now we are pulling fish out of the water and can measure the amount of plastic in their flesh.”

For Woods, this isn’t rhetoric, it’s a way of life, often finding himself talking about environmental issues at shows like NAB and at ASCAP meetings. “You can live a healthy life in a toxic world. You just need to know how.”