Earth Day is coming, and with it, hours and hours of “green” television programming and print media coverage. People who hardly give the environment a thought all year will be “Green Watching” programs – and advertisements – about how to be more environmentally responsible. In the past, I always thought of this heightened awareness as a good thing. The added programming draws broader attention to serious environmental problems like the climate crisis, and I firmly believe an educated public is critical to generating strong climate action throughout society.

However, this Earth Day, I think it’s important to ask: At what point does “Green Watching” become a form of greenwashing? Should media companies lead by example on corporate climate and environmental action or, because of their importance in educating the public, is talk enough?  

Green Watching can get complicated.

Obviously, media companies (like all companies) are in business to make money. In 2009, the six major media companies Climate Counts scored brought in well over $300 billion dollars in revenue. It’s safe to assume that making money is somewhere behind the creation of all Earth Day, Week, and Month programming; if it was all altruism, there wouldn’t be hours of mostly-mindless commercials. Second, I think we all understand that a network’s brand is a critical part of how it builds an audience (and increases ad revenue). Network brands are becoming increasingly important as people have more information and entertainment options. A network that does environmental programming during Earth Week is trying to brand itself in a certain way.  Yet even if the motivation is profit and the strength of a brand, media companies do have a big impact on both the political debate and in setting cultural and societal norms.      

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So, how can we as consumers be informed Green Watchers?

The first is to know what commitment these companies have made to addressing climate change. But the facts will blow your mind. 

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Based on our latest round of scoring (released in November 2009), notoriously conservative News Corporation was near the top of green-committed media companies, with 68 points out of a possible 100. Notoriously hip Viacom (the parent of MTV, BET, Comedy Central, and VH1), however, was not only among the lowest in the media sector with just  three points, but among the lowest of nearly 150 companies scored in 16 major sectors.

You read that right. The company that owns Fox News and the Wall Street Journal is doing more to reduce its own climate impact than the company that is watched by the young, edgy, and culturally dialed-in. Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity work for the company doing more on the corporate side to address the climate crisis than the company that gives John Stewart and Stephen Colbert their megaphones. And perhaps what’s most striking is how little improvement Viacom and other low-scoring media companies like CBS and Time Warner have shown in the more than three years since Climate Counts began tracking their performance.

While Rupert Murdoch, the CEO and major shareholder of News Corporation, has been subtly stepping out as a mover on climate change for several years, his counterpart Philippe P. Dauman of Viacom has shown little to no concern regarding Viacom’s lack of even the most basic climate action. It’s hard for a company to score 68 points on our scorecard, but frankly, it’s even harder—almost laughable for any self-respecting, well-managed company—to score just three.

However, in terms of influencing political debates, News Corporation has done as much as anyone to confuse the public on the climate crisis, while Viacom programs like “The Daily Show” and CBS programs like Letterman’s “Late Show” have done much to educate viewers on the dangers of climate change.

But wait, there’s more.

While some of its shows may add depth to the public conversation about climate change, CBS launched an entire “Green Campaign” with the tag-line “putting our green where it counts” to do nothing more than promote its Emmy-nominated shows. With a score of 13 on our most recent scorecard, CBS has not demonstrated action to match its programming or its self-promotion.                

Time Warner, known best for news and entertainment divisions like CNN, Time Magazine, and HBO, earns less than a third of the points available on the Climate Counts scorecard for making real efforts to reduce climate pollution. And what is the contribution of media companies to climate change? Let’s start with the sheer number of people who work for or contract with these companies. Indeed, whole cities exist to support the media business. And then consider the energy their equipment, data centers, and facilities use. They’re not refining oil or mining coal, but their impact is not insignificant.

Even Disney, parent company of ABC, ESPN, Pixar and others, while relatively better overall than most of its competitors (47 out of 100 points, up 22 from the previous year), still has a very low score on its efforts to measure its climate pollution (one of the areas we track) and to take responsibility for its enormous supply chain, a massive sphere of influence.

 The truth is that “Green Watching” actually isn’t that complicated. People just need to know where these companies stand in all areas of their business—and urge them to improve. If you’re interested in becoming a more active and informed Green Watcher, follow Climate Counts’ new “Green Watching” campaign on Facebook and Twitter.  Next week on and around Earth Day, when all eyes are on the environmental programming of major media companies, help us urge big media companies to talk the talk and walk the walk.

Or are you just going to watch?

Wood Turner is the executive director of the non-profit organization Climate Counts.