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Ade Thomas - Earth in Vision

Updated Thursday 28th July 2016

Ade Thomas, founder of Green.TV, shares his insights on whether environmental programming is doomed to be bad box-office, the opportunities of online broadcasting and the potential for new technology to report on the environment. 

Ade Thomas

Ade founded Green.TV in 2006, in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme, after a career in sustainable programme-making that stretches back two decades. Under Ade’s leadership, Green.TV is a leader of global sustainability content-creation broadcasting. Ade is a former environment journalist with the BBC. His radio and television programme work there includes the flagship and primetime titles: Costing the Earth, Countryfile, The Holiday Programme and They Think It’s All Islam.

Prior to the BBC, he worked for World Television. Ade graduated from Cambridge University in the early 90s, where he was an early student of climate change. He then went on to help BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman research his best-selling book The English

Transcript

Earth in Vision Project

My name is Ade Thomas and I am the founder of Green.TV which is an online platform for publishing sustainability, clean tech and conservation video content.

This is what I do

So, Green.TV’s mission is to communicate conservation, clean tech and sustainability issues. We do that via what we call a multichannel publishing platform; that means a system of channels which communicates short form video content across a whole bunch of very, very popular online platforms.

Our target audience are people who have an interest in sustainability, conservation and clean tech, but we try and target a broader audience by creating engaging, popular, short form content.

What got me interested

So, my first interest in environmental issues and sustainability came at university. There were two factors which neatly combined at the same time: one was a paper that I studied which was called War, Peace and Global Security; a little part of that paper was about sustainability, and particularly climate change, and I thought, well, if this is as big a problem as it might well pan out to be, this is something we really need to take care of and pay attention to. At the same time I started going out with a girl who was very passionate about environmental issues, so it was a kind of combination of the political and the personal, and those two together were a pretty powerful driver.

Television, natural history and me

In terms of television and natural history I am a strange character it seems, in that I absolutely love television and as a child I absolutely loved television. I watched television all day and every day at the expense of reading things like actual books. I wore out the armchair of my parents’ sofa because I watched so much television, and my mother worked nights so I had all day to do whatever I liked and what I liked was watching television. So I watched all of the natural history content that the BBC produced, Survival on ITV and everything and anything I could. I mean I didn’t consider myself to have a particularly overarching fascination in the natural world, more I liked television and within television I liked natural history content.

I liked the Survivals and obviously, like everyone you probably ever speak to, I loved everything that David Attenborough produced. The one thing that does stick out is the sheer size of the blue whale’s penis on Life on Earth because everybody at school would be chatting about that, so that <chuckles> I suppose that was the one natural history moment that really stuck in the mind.

What I’m most proud of

So the work that I was most proud of in television was probably a documentary on religion and football, which is a slightly left-field part of my career in that it wasn’t really my focus for much of my career, which was sustainability, environment. But that was a documentary which I devoted a year of my life to, I did a pretty good job on it, it was very well received, helped to propel my career.

The documentary was called And They Think It’s All Islam. It was looking at a Muslim football team in the East End of London. I spent a year living with the Muslim community, filming them myself, becoming part of their lives really, and at the end of that produced what was perceived to be externally a pretty well received documentary, pick of the day by The Guardian and got pretty decent viewing figures. And then a few months later they really did think “it was all Islam” because it was the September the 11th attacks.

Why I set up Green.TV

I setup Green.TV almost ten years ago now, nine years and ten months ago. I could see that online video was coming along, it was the year that YouTube was launched. I’m a fairly early adopter of technology. I happily lived in Bristol at the time, which was one of the first places to benefit from fibre optic delivery of broadband, so I got a fibre optic connection, started off with the lowest cost one, at the lowest speed, quickly realised the potential for this platform for video and upgraded very quickly to the top speed fibre optic connection. At that point I realised that the internet would be a very, very good medium for communication via video, streaming of video suddenly became a very real possibility. I was also interested in exploring new domain names, the .tv, the Tuvalu Island URL, became available, Green.TV was available. At that moment I could see that there was an opportunity to create a really interesting channel and that was that. I was off.

What was the potential of online TV?

At the time that we launched Green.TV I could see there were push and pull factors, that broadcast was losing its interest in world-disclosing issues and was becoming more of a navel-gazing platform, small, personality-led issues. The internet was opening up and offered a new possibility for taking up those world-disclosing issues. You could create content which opened up ideas in a way that were being closed down on conventional mainstream broadcast. So I could see that panning out and that was an exciting possibility that I wanted to pursue.

How has online TV evolved?

I think the changes that have happened in both broadcast and online video have been fundamental and unbelievable. In the first few months – first year or two of launching Green.TV when we spoke to partners about the idea of an online video channel or set of channels, people would say, for the first half of the meeting, they would say, ‘Well I don’t have broadband and I don’t know anyone who does and I don’t watch video online.’ The idea that you would then, ten years ago, watch perfect streaming video quality on your smartphone, when smartphones didn’t even exist, would’ve been impossible to conceive. Now there’s a world of incredible content, a world of fantastic channels, a world of broadband possibility, smartphone delivery of video, which is an exciting one.

Sustainability: The opportunities of online broadcasting

Green.TV definitely reaches audiences that television doesn’t reach. Television has pretty much given up on using its conventional broadcast mainstream channels to communicate sustainability issues. That’s not to say that they don’t still exist; I mean the BBC News platform, for example, often carries sustainability, conservation, clean tech stories and they are often the number one most read story on the BBC News website. But in terms of devoting time on mainstream channels to these issues, that just doesn’t exist anymore, but as I said, the opportunities in digital delivery are ever increasing. So over the last few years we’ve had channels like Huffington Post come along, like Vice come along, like BuzzFeed come along and all of these are using really interesting, creative means to communicate some quite abstract, quite dense, quite complex conservation, sustainability and clean tech issues.

Mainstream TV and environmental issues

I think mainstream television has a real formatting issue with how it communicates quite abstract, quite serious messaging around environmental issues. The traditional 26-minute or 50-minute broadcast format is very stuck within the mould of dry, analytical, conventional reporting, and that doesn’t fit well with a subject which is quite depressing often and quite tricksy, but what does do a good job in communicating that are online video channels which have a great new way of using a short form, shareable, viral approach which is a genuinely creative way of quite entertainingly communicating those issues and is completely against the grain of a more formal broadcast approach.

I think longer form broadcast television thinks that it needs to go after mainstream audiences in a big way, that it needs to approach things in a kind of navel-gazing, rather than a world-disclosing way. I think that if broadcast television was creative and adopted some of the formats of digital media then there would be an audience for these issues. There’s an exciting world of opportunities opening up now, particularly with clean technology, smart electricity grids, smart cities, electric vehicles, the resurgence of renewable energy. This is an exciting new world of sustainable, clean technology that would really captivate and interest audiences, so I think there is a big opportunity there for broadcast television.

Has natural history reflected the decline in the natural world?

Natural history broadcast television had a big issue in selectively focussing in on some of the megafauna species, some of the beautiful species in small islands of conservation success, whereas all around it the environment was being ravaged, destroyed and fundamentally undermined and broadcast television, the Natural History Unit, deftly sidestepped all of that negativity in favour of focussing on positive stories of cute, cuddly animals. It focussed on an easy audience. If it looked at environmental issues in a more creative way then perhaps it could have generated an audience for those, and it certainly was a lost opportunity in terms of communicating some powerful narratives through the nineties, which is perhaps the time when we really needed to act on these issues.

You mean it’s too late?

Everyone’s talking about needing to commit to a 2°C warmed world. If you talk to UN climate scientists, they understand that that is a very difficult figure within which we should work and remain within a world which isn’t fundamentally compromised.

Television had a big role in the nineties in terms of communicating to wide, mainstream audiences, this was an age before the rise of broadband, before the rise of YouTube and smartphone video, so that was the time when television was really the only mainstream medium to communicate wider issues. So television did have a big responsibility then and one which I do think it fundamentally failed in, yeah.

Environmental issues: Are they bad box-office?

I think the idea that environmental issues are bad box office is, at best, fundamentally wrong and at worst just completely lacking in any creative interpretation and understanding of the subject. I refer back to the idea that when BBC News covers environmental stories you often see that they’re the most read, the most shared, the most viewed story on the BBC News website, and these are video stories. They tend to be delivered around more shareable, creative interpretation of those stories, so they can be very, very good box office. On Green.TV and on the channels that we work with we see videos that attract multiple millions of viewers, so I don’t think that’s bad box office at all.

Environmental can work

I think when you approach the subject of conservation, sustainability and clean tech from a creative, shareable angle you can deliver some really very strong viewing figures. From our world when we’ve looked at and produced content around electric vehicles, that generates upwards of a third-of-a-million views for that content. People are very keen to see this exciting new world of clean technology. Some of the other videos that I would reference from the world of online video have had multiple millions of views. There was a great video a few years ago from the Rainforest Alliance called Follow The Frog that’s had over five million views, very creative, very funny, playing with people’s sense of empowerment and disempowerment about what they can do to approach and tackle these issues, deeply entertaining content and very shareable.

Since 1970, wildlife has declined by 50%. How well has TV covered this?

The WWF Living Planet Index shows a very real and shocking decline in animal numbers around the world in biodiversity. At the same time, conventional broadcasters were completely ignoring this and focussing on lovely, cuddly animals, whereas around them biodiversity was being lost en masse, environments being fundamentally wiped out. So this was a big story, a massive backstory that was being completely overlooked.

Opening up the BBC’s natural history archive

So if the BBC released its long and illustrious history of archive, would that be a good thing? I can’t see that it would be, what would it do? It would release a legacy of positive images of animals that were shot under false pretences I guess, whilst all around them the environment was being degraded and lost. So you would have a set of positive images from a time when around that story there was a great big backstory of biodiversity loss. And I suppose at the same time that might be a damming indictment of broadcast in terms of focussing on that and not focussing on the wider story of why these species were in such terminal decline.

Blue-chip versus environmental filmmaking

Green.TV tends to focus on the stuff that the BBC Natural History Unit and National Geographic don’t focus on. So, we tend to focus on clean technology stories and the more sustainable story side of things, we tend to focus less on conservation. So it wouldn’t be too useful for us to have access to an image bank of Natural History Unit images.

Releasing the BBC archive: The opportunities

I think if the Natural History Unit archive of conservation species oriented images were made open there would be, in the context of a creative online world, the opportunity to think of very interesting ways of using that material to tell some powerful stories and open up some creative messaging.

The key point is that there’s a world of incredible, creative young talent out there now working in online media and they’ll be able to think of some incredible ways of re-purposing, re-editing, using that material in a way which we can’t envisage but would be highly engaging and may deliver a very, very large audience to re-think conservation issues, to think about the way in which we try and fix a very poorly planet.

Green.TV’s archives: The opportunities

Green.TV is now coming up to ten years old, we’re two months shy of our tenth birthday in the spring of 2016. So across ten years we have been gathering in quite a powerful archive of material around conservation, clean tech, sustainability and perhaps hope that that might be available to do some quite fun stuff with, some serious and silly stuff in years to come. Across ten years perhaps we’ve been gathering in content which does show a changing world and also a very positive story to tell around the advance of new technologies, renewable energy, electric vehicles, smart cities, this is a very good news story. I think in terms of climate change and a zero carbon economy, we’ve been very good at documenting that over time, and that’s a good story. I’m quite confident that we may move towards a zero carbon economy and Green.TV’s archive will be there to communicate that. The biodiversity story is another one which I think we are perhaps losing the … losing out on.

What is Green.TV doing now?

Projects that we’ve been working on over the last few months include electric vehicles, looking at the big UN COP21 climate change meeting which has proven to be a very positive one and hopefully we’ll all see the positive action ensuing from that. So we’re looking at the renewable energy economy. I’m very hopeful and confident that the kinds of projects that we’ve been documenting and producing creative stories on over the last few months really do pick up on the idea that there’s a zero carbon economy unfolding. Every week you hear about some great new technology which comes along – just yesterday the British announced that the world’s largest offshore wind farm got the green light for development so we’ll be hoping to cover that. These are the kinds of stories that we’re covering at the moment.

I think it was a really exciting story in terms of a zero carbon economy that’s unfolding over the next five to ten years. I think we’ll see autonomous electric vehicles becoming part of the mainstream, I think our children will look back on the idea that we used to drive fossil-fuelled cars with some mirth and comedic interest. I think we’ll see solar power and renewable energy becoming a main part of the British and the wider economy. So I think there is some really exciting new technologies that are coming along and I’m hoping Green.TV will be there to document and record those in a very exciting way.

Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?

In terms of a clean technology future, a zero carbon future I’m veering more towards a positive approach, a more optimistic approach. In terms of biodiversity loss, I’m very pessimistic. I think that’s the next big challenge. So perhaps there will be a new role for natural history programme making around biodiversity and the wider context of that story. Record it, document it, edit it well and put it out. You need to apply a more creative prism to that, you need to apply more interesting means to that… That might be motion infographics, animation... So, it does require a fundamental re-think, it’s not just a literal re-telling of a story but a creative application to that story.

The creative potential of online media

So a conventional broadcast documentary might find a story, go out, film it, edit it quite literally and broadcast it. In online media it’s not just a question of finding the story, it’s creatively reinterpreting that story and applying various methods to it. I mentioned the Follow The Frog Rainforest Alliance approach, that’s a completely creative re-think of the form, it involves drama and creative editing in a way that you just wouldn’t have seen five/ten years ago on broadcast television. There is a new form in online video that Green.TV has been playing around with – “Top Fives”, where that’s a major meme in terms of digital media that, again, just didn’t exist in broadcast. That’s not a particularly creative form but it’s a digital media meme. There are ways in which digital video just completely differs from broadcast television.

In terms of digital media there are new cultural forms, the coined digital term is ‘memes’ so there are, for example, top fives, there are how-to guides, these are a form which weren’t traditionally used in broadcast television but are now part of the aesthetic, part of the cultural landscape of digital video, and these are interesting formats for us to play with and to access very large audiences.

In the world of Green.TV we produced a top five electric vehicle drives across Europe, it was a very playful, creative form and a very beautiful use of imagery, short form, looking at those top five drives around Europe. How-to guides are really popular. For COP21, the big UN climate talks, we distributed a film looking at what the COP21 talks were all about, a very playful animation style, a kind of grown-up approach to the way in which animation is used. These kinds of films, these animations, they produce very large viewing figures.

Communication conservation on TV: ‘Deadly 60’

I think one of the best examples of communicating conservation and wider environmental stories is possibly the children’s TV series Deadly 60 presented by Steve Backshall. It’s the only example I can think of, of a children’s TV programme that was translated over, completely unchanged, to a prime-time evening slot for adult audiences because it’s such a great way of creatively communicating these issues. And Steve Backshall, within the context of things, does a good job in terms of communicating the wider story around conservation and biodiversity loss.

The potential of new technology for reporting the environment

So, in terms of a democratic way of people being able to create and share their own content, GoPro has been a major phenomenon, and perhaps the aerial drone camera side as well. So we now have a situation where people can produce amazing 4K ultra-high definition aerial shots and similar shots of environmental activity in a way which is quite remarkable, in a way which ten years ago would definitely have been the preserve of blue chip documentary filmmakers. And this kind of content can access incredible examples of biodiversity, landscape, environment and conservation storytelling.

New media and audiences: The potential

I think audiences are increasingly intelligent and understand complex ideas. The internet, Facebook, YouTube has opened up an opportunity for people to engage with really serious challenging material, shareability has meant that people love to share stuff that makes them look like they really understand some interesting ideas. So I think shareability of quite highbrow content is something which is an exciting possibility.

The idea that you have to be an academic or have a degree to be interested in quite highbrow issues, I think, is a thing of the past. I think everyone now has access, via channels like Facebook, to engage with really interesting ideas, quite highbrow ideas.

I think platforms like Facebook enable people to really share and understand some quite abstract highbrow ideas. People like to impress their friends that they’ve engaged with these ideas and it opens up a lot of opportunities for communicating using video, using social media platforms, in a way that maybe wasn’t possible a few years ago.

Social media and conservation: The potential

I think there is an amazing democratisation of knowledge across social media platforms and online video platforms. People have really educated themselves using social media and they’re able to increasingly do so by sharing video which communicates environmental issues, conservation issues, biodiversity issues, in a really powerful way. I don’t think there are any particular institutions that should be using social media; it’s about individuals from across all walks of life being able to gain access to information, share information and really understand the world around them.

Democratisation of knowledge: The health example

In terms of the democratisation of knowledge, I mean to step aside from conservation and sustainability issues for a while and look at health, I mean health I think is the interesting high watermark of all this, people now perhaps understand more about their own health, their own medical issues than perhaps their GP does. So people now will go to their GP armed with an incredible knowledge about their own symptoms, their own medical situation, and often pick up and inform their own GP. I think health is a great example of how the democratisation of knowledge has really moved ahead and I don’t see why we can’t replicate this in the world of conservation, climate change and sustainability.

What will Green.TV be doing in the future?

I’d like Green.TV to be seen as a major brand in the environmental and clean tech space. We’d like to have an increasing number of channels across mainstream and popular platforms. I’d like us to be producing some amazing content for some of the world’s leading organisations that really help to very clearly and entertainingly communicate a new zero carbon economy. 

<End of Interview>

 

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