The environmental footprint of TV series : how the industry is going green

31 January 2022

The growing concern over the pollution generated by streaming, the creation of environmental labels, the rise of eco-friendly jobs on set…. let’s shine a light (preferably using LEDs!) on the many innovative ways the audiovisual sector is fighting global warming.

The binge continues. After a slight decrease due to COVID in 2020, a record-breaking 559 new TV series were released in the U.S. in 2021, twice as many as ten years prior. To use the famous expression coined by John Landgraf, “Peak TV” is here to stay. Not to be outdone, the European Audiovisual Observatory estimated that 20,000 episodes were produced across Europe in 2019. If these figures are making you dizzy, imagine how much CO2 was released in the atmosphere to bring these stories to life…supposedly to make us feel better.

From the energy consumption required to light a set, add the special effects in post-production and power streaming platforms, to the waste generated by the cast and crew, not forgetting air travel during the promo tour, television is not a green business. The latest study from French collective Ecoprod concludes: “the audio-visual sector is lagging behind in the climate transition.” In France, it amounts to 1.7 million tCO2 eq/year (excluding the manufacturing of TV equipment, mostly imported). Streaming represents half of the total carbon footprint, whereas the impact of production and shooting is 18%.

The good news is that efficient, sustainable processes are emerging everyday, alongside jobs designed to promote and implement them.

The good news is that efficient, sustainable processes are emerging everyday, alongside jobs designed to promote and implement them. For instance, the VoD giant Netflix recently appointed their first sustainability officer. And considering how many people are involved in the creation and consumption of TV content, every little step matters. Even you can help! Check out our tips on how to be a more responsible streamer here, and our selection of eco-produced TV series.

Regarding the role of larger entities such as TV channels, production companies, data centres and cultural institutions, we are still dealing with a lot of unknowns. Namely, there is not yet a universally recognized carbon calculator that allows to measure progress and, potentially down the line, take sanctions against polluting behaviours. Fortunately, this hasn’t stopped the launching of concrete initiatives aimed at evaluating, explaining and reducing the environmental footprint of our favourite shows. So let’s go meet the players who, behind the scenes, are making “screen” rhyme with “green.”

1) Streaming: the need to measure the impact

For the past few years, many articles have warned us that watching a limited series might be as harmful to the environment as driving a car. In 2019, the Parisian think tank The Shift Project issued a study contending that the greenhouse gas emissions generated by video on demand services worldwide amounted to the total emissions of the economy of Chile. An alarming conclusion, which has since been contested, revisited and reassessed. Regardless of the accuracy of those figures, COVID has made things worse by multiplying the number of subscribers. But mentalities are changing. The concept of “digital sobriety”–meaning the reasonable and enlightened use of the internet–is gaining traction, especially in France where the Senate recently published a report on the subject. In early 2022, three laws were subsequently passed, making it mandatory for the Big Five (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) to inform their customers about the consequences of their internet consumption in terms of air pollution.

The leaders of the market have, successively, promised improvements at the source, including investing in renewable energy and reaching net zero target, although we need to be wary of the sound-bite effect. On the plus side, a consensus on how to calculate CO2 emissions is crystallising around the DIMPACT initiative led by the University of Bristol: heavy hitters such as Netflix, the BBC, ITV and Sky are already participating in the research. The goal is to accurately determine their carbon footprint, in order to address the more problematic areas. Eventually, this could lead to the implementation of a platform-wide rating system, as suggested by the World Economic Forum, as a way to keep the pressure on these online entertainment companies that have become an integral part of our day to day life.

2) Institutions and associations: raising awareness from “above”

Did you know that Hollywood has been growing a green conscience even before Leonardo DiCaprio came onto the scene? In 1989, legendary TV producer Norman Lear co-created the EMA (Environmental Media Association) to promote environmental progress via “industry influencers and green icons.” The list of events they have put together for the past 30 years is impressive–check out these two gems. Their main functions are the IMPACT summit (Malin Akerman and Constance Zimmer are attending this year, with the title actor/activist) and the EMA Awards whose past winners include Ted Lasso, New Amsterdam, Mixed-ish and Chernobyl. Prizes are awarded to productions for their efforts to save the planet both in front and behind the camera. For this purpose, the association has come up with their own Green Seal to recognize cast and crew who have implemented EMA’s list of requirements, such as recycling, renting hybrid vehicles and using non-disposable bottles. 

The logic is sound: encourage, label and celebrate eco-friendly works to raise awareness and trigger a positive ripple effect on more sets. In France, Ecoprod is a pioneer of institutional change (we mentioned their study in the introduction). They launched in 2009 as a collective, when several French broadcasters recognised the urgency of climate action (amongst these were media groups Canal+, France TV and TF1). They have recently repositioned themselves as a non-profit association in order to welcome more members. We spoke to Ecoprod’s project manager, Alissa Aubenque, about the various tools they have made available for decision-makers, artists, technicians and operators of the TV world. These include: a guide on how to reduce, reuse and recycle, accompanied by specific instructions for each department (set design, make-up etc.); a carbon calculator called Carbon’ Clap (an upgrade is scheduled for 2022); short and long term certification programs, for instance on how to become an eco-consultant like Pauline Gil, who intervened on the large-scale French productions L’Effondrement and Germinal. These incentives are consolidated into a charter which groups together dozens of signatories.

The audio-visual sector is still facing a paradoxical challenge: to come up with a clear definition of what it means to produce a show responsibly”

Despite these various resources, the audio-visual sector is still facing a paradoxical challenge: to come up with a clear definition of what it means to produce a show responsibly and preferably using a standardised measuring scale. This is why the National Center for Film and Moving Images (known in France as the CNC) has partnered with Ecoprod and announced in 2021 their Plan Action ! to accompany the ecological transition. The first of three phases is to assess the current situation, then ask all projects that receive financial support to estimate their carbon footprint (2023), and finally the CNC will add green requirements before granting certain subsidies. Therefore, if the “good cop” method is still in place, it will soon be supplemented by more forceful strategies. Ecoprod’s goal is to rally professionals so “they can brainstorm together and co-construct the future of eco-production, rather than be subjected to regulations that might not take into consideration the reality on the ground,” adds Alissa.

The separation between entertainment and politics might still largely be upheld, but that doesn’t mean artists don’t have a crucial role to play as green emissaries. On set, they can encourage team spirit and exemplary behaviour: commuting to work by bike, eating organic food and using a composting toilet all seem much more glamorous if the stars of the show are leading the way. On her film Men on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, French actress-director Audrey Dana even took upon herself to act as eco-manager! In the U.K., the environmental organisation Albert, founded by the BBC, is putting this idea into action with their initiative Green Rider (similar to the inclusion riders). It takes the form of a contract in which artists and their agents can request more sustainable measures to be carried out on set, even before shooting begins. The Albert project has its own certification process: the royal TV show Victoria was awarded the highest grade of three stars…Prince Albert would have been proud. Other popular series such as Poldark and EastEnders have been recognised for their efforts, while Killing Eve’s producers celebrated on Twitter, ahead of the release of season 4, a reduction of CO2 per hour by almost 80%. Even the (fictional) British royal family now travels to France by train rather than by plane, as per the directives of The Crown’s Green Stewart.
This type of job also exists here in France, and is usually called eco-manager or eco-assistant. It’s the specialty of Secoya, a consulting company that was founded by Mathieu Delahousse and Charles Gachet-Dieuzeide, two former assistant directors accustomed to making the impossible a reality (at least on the screen). They wanted to embark on a new challenge: bring ecology into the ecosystem of producing a film or TV series. According to Mathieu, “the chain of command is broken between the managerial roles and the reality of the set, because decision-making is in the long term, whereas shooting is ephemeral. We are the missing link.” They intervene very pragmatically, in parallel with the awareness-raising efforts of their friends at Ecoprod. Secoya’s mission is to support technicians, liaise with service providers via local networks and find eco-friendly alternatives in four key areas: food, waste, transport (equipment and people) and energy (lights, generators etc.).

According to Mathieu, whose teams have worked on Baron noir and Find Me in Paris, his job description is constantly evolving, since every assignment is unique. And in an ideal world, it will eventually be obsolete. Indeed, if the emulation is successful, more and more people involved in TV production will adopt these behaviours. In turn, regulations will follow suit, hence making eco-friendly series the norm, not the exception. Until then, money remains the heart of the matter. Mathieu mentioned to us one way to keep a green intervention profitable: “to deconstruct and reinvent product placement.” With the pursuit of environmental sustainability having become a strong talking point for brands, eco-responsable productions are becoming more desirable for marketing purposes. Therefore, product placement could cover the extra cost of hiring a company like Secoya. It’s a win-win situation. Of course, consistency is key: the products in question should be ethically and/or locally sourced. Which is exactly what French social enterprise Pixetik is offering: partnerships with socially and environmentally engaged brands. They have already integrated green products and causes on the popular French soap opera Plus belle la vie, as when the character of Lola fought to prevent a centenary tree from being chopped down. 

What would the last frontier of television’s going green look like? Championing eco-friendly behaviours on set, as well as integrating the message into the show. That’s the angle of The Swarm, an environmental thriller starring Cécile de France, eco-produced on a European scale from Belgium to Italy. The entertainment giant Sky has also been working towards aligning its content and practises. In 2006, they became the first carbon neutral media company (via off-setting) and they are now committed to reaching net zero carbon by 2030. Additionally, they have the ambition to open the world’s most sustainable film and TV studio, whose construction is currently underway near Elstree, north of London. Can you guess the subject of one of the first original series that will be coming out of this ecological wonderland? Extinction, the story of a man stuck in a time loop and forced to relive time after witnessing the end of the world. You have been warned…

Marion Miclet (@Marion_en_VO) is a French-Irish journalist based in London.
She is a series critic for Le Point Pop and the author of Binge Watching New York and Binge Watching London.

You may like