Three quarters of Americans get their news primarily from television—if it’s not on the tube, for most people it isn’t happening at all. That’s what makes environmental programming all the more important. And that where Ecology Communications comes in.
Environmental programming doesn’t have much of a place on ratings-obsessed network television, but it has found a definite niche on “narrowcasted” cable. The aim in 1993, when Ecology Communications first formed as The Ecology Channel, was 24-hour environmental programming in the context of an envisioned 500-channel TV universe. They had competition in realizing that dream from two other would-be eco-TV producers, Planet Central and Earth Television Network (see “Is TV Going Green? ” January/February 1995).
Unfortunately, 500-channel cable never happened, and no green TV networks were launched. But The Ecology Channel evolved into Ecology Communications, which has produced or acquired some 1,200 hours of documentary television. The programs run on 106 cable systems all over the U.S., reaching 10.5 million homes.
“We realized that a television network was not the only way to distribute our programming,” says Eric McLamb, Ecology Communications senior vice president. “At the beginning of the 1990s, there were 900 groups trying to launch cable channels, on everything from books to cowboys. But television is a really tough environment, with very high costs, and it’s difficult to sustain a business.”
Ecology’s documentaries are well-researched and even-handed. That’s the key to getting such programs as EcoView (a global environmental news magazine) and Good Green Earth (household and gardening tips) aired on the notoriously sensitive local cable franchises. Systems like TCI Cablevision in Walnut Creek, California slot the shows in amongst the local fare on the operators’ own reserved channels. Kya Arnolie of Cox Cable in New Orleans says “all the feedback we’ve received from them has been positive.” Ed Henderson of TCI in Denver adds, “I really like the programs because the production quality is high and they seem very informative.”
The company is now co-producing shows with colleges like MIT and existing TV networks like Outdoor Life. Revenues come from selling advertising slots in the documentaries, which cover the gamut of environmental topics from global warming to the Endangered Species Act. Ecology Communications would still like to become The Ecology Channel, but the form is evolving. Jack Hoagland, the company’s chairman, sees the future in Internet programming. “In many ways, a 24-hour network was a model for the 1980s,” Hoagland says. “Our niche is best served by the convergence of full-motion video and the web.” In the next few years, look for The Ecology Channel to deliver online video-on-demand to audiences all over the world.