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The Greening of Discovery

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Gurwwitch confronts the Hutchinson family about their wa$te. / PLANET GREEN

Tonight at 6 p.m., Discovery Home Channel becomes Planet Green, a testament to the fact that eco-mindedness has become part of the national consciousness, a mainstream attitude, and a really awesome ways for advertisers to sell things.

I’ve seen only a sampler of Planet Green’s shows sent by Discovery, but being a natural sucker for cable home shows in general, I’ll be checking out the live version soon.

For now, here are some of the reduced, reused and recycled themes that have emerged in the shows I’ve seen so far:

People are willing to save the planet, by any steps that a celebrity or quasi-celebrity tells them to take. The early Planet Green lineup relies heavily on star power and pseudo-star power, from “Supper Club,” and eco chat show hosted by Tom Bergeron, to Ed Begley’s Living with Ed, imported from HGTV, to upcoming green-living shows from Adrian Grenier and Leo DiCaprio (the producer of Greenburg, about the building of a “eco town” in Kansas.

Light bulb = idea. Planet Green’s first night of primetime includes the debut of Wa$ted!, hosted by Annabelle Gurwitch. Every episode, Gurwitch visits a different home—a suburban family, a frat house—to confront the residents about their waste, graphically. (She lays out the houses’ carbon footprint on satellite maps, stacks jugs of oil to represent the families’ energy use, etc.) It’s an entertaining—sorry, ecotaining!—show, but even after a few episodes the suggestions (and those on shows like Living with Ed) begin to sound the same. I lost count of how many times, screening Planet Green shows, I was told to buy compact fluorescent bulbs. How many cable shows does it take to change a light bulb? 24 hours’ a day worth, apparently.

Being green = spending green. I’ve made this point before, but there’s an unspoken conflict behind green programming. Ad-supported TV is ultimately about selling things, or it ceases to exist. Green living is partly a matter of making better consumer choices—but it’s also, sometimes, about making the choice not to buy anything, or to reuse merchandise by buying used. Not an easy sell to advertisers. More often on the Planet Green shows I’ve seen so far, the emphasis is on better living through spending. Wa$ted! in particular emphasizes the treats and gadgets people can buy to live greener. Using too much gas? Buy a new motorcycle! And a expensive warmup jacket to wear on it! The commercialism is even more blatant on the auto show Mean Green Machines. In one episode, a hybrid Chevy Tahoe squares off against a gas-engine Silverado—in off-road racing, acceleration, towing, slalom—amounting to a big fat for GM trucks no matter who wins.

There’s good and bad in Planet Green’s organic-vegetables-plus-dessert approach: nobody wants to watch TV to be harangued into wearing a hairshirt, even if the hair is pasture-fed and free-range. And if people won’t watch, people won’t listen. But Planet Green represents a challenge that faces environmentalism in general as it morphs into the nebulous upscale lifestyle concept called “green”: at what point does change become so inoffensive that it’s hard to distinguish it from the thing you’re changing from?