The green screen effect: Britain's first ever eco network is a smash hit

Naked cyclists, endangered lemurs and ruthless supermarkets may not sound like TV gold. But Britain's first ever eco network is a hit. Esther Walker switches on

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There is silence and blackness. Then, slowly, the words "Not long ago, in a supermarket not so far away" scroll across the screen, blue letters against the black background; a large shopping trolley moves across the screen, chasing a small basket filled with vegetables and firing red laser beams. Then two characters appear: Cuke Skywalker, a cucumber in a blond wig, and Obi Wan Granoly (who looks like a stick of Peperami, but that can't be intentional). The traditional ways of the "farm", explains Obi Wan Granoly, are under threat from "an empire of pollution and pesticides". Cuke must team up with Ham Solo and Chew Broccoli to rescue Princess Lettuce and defeat Darth Tater, who is "more chemical than vegetable".

No, this isn't a new offering by film parodists Adam and Joe, or the latest weirdness from YouTube; this is Star Wars according to organic vegetables. Renamed "Store Wars", the film can be found on green.tv, the first broadband channel devoted to environmental films. The channel went live in 2006 with seven channels covering air, land, water, climate change, people, species and technologies; films are sourced from around the globe produced by non-governmental organisations, community film-makers, public-sector bodies and other companies, as well as user-generated content. Each channel has a feature, a children's film and a news story.

"Store Wars is one of our best films," says Ade Thomas, the chief executive of green.tv. "It addresses serious issues in a playful way, which is the kind of thing I wanted for the channel."

Thomas had the idea for green.tv while sitting on the sofa at home three years ago. "It was a real eureka moment," he says. "I've always been interested in broadcast journalism and passionate about environmental issues, and green.tv is a way of combining those things."

Thomas searched the internet for a suitable domain name and found that "green.tv" was still up for grabs. "At that moment I knew I had a major new project on my hands and that my life would go in a completely different direction."

Thomas's interest in technology helps, although he admits it weakens his case for being, as he describes himself, a "hardcore environmentalist". "I am a little bit of a hypocrite when it comes to technology and it's not easy to reconcile those two parts of my life. I just tell myself that all the most interesting people have contradictory lines of thought. And it's impossible to be completely and utterly green.

"Also, I do think that we need some kind of big technological solution to climate change – some über piece of science to suck the CO2 out of the atmosphere – because it's up there, and we've got to get it back out."

Thomas first awoke seriously to the idea of climate change while he was studying Social and Political Science at Cambridge University; during his course he wrote a paper, which combined the subjects of military history and environmentalism. "That was at a time when climate change was still hotly debated and no one questioned the fact that most of the scientists who contested climate change were on the payroll of oil companies."

After his MA in Media Studies, Thomas worked for the Radio 4 environmental issues programme Costing the Earth, but was disillusioned with the BBC's partiality. "I had to toe the BBC journalistic party line, which was to question climate change." In search of more editorial freedom, Thomas found himself at 27 making films for the World Wild Fund for Nature. "Every three weeks I went off to make a film and I got to be impartial and tell the story the way I saw it, which was great."



Watch 'Store Wars' from green.tv


But back to that sofa. Thomas's big idea took a year of work to realise, before its debut on the inauspicious-sounding date of 1 April 2006 at the Cannes TV Festival. "Our biggest problem was to convince people, back then, that videos would be widely watched on the internet. It was extremely boring selling the idea to people because the first three-quarters of any conversation was me going, 'No, no seriously – people really will watch video on the internet' and then the last quarter describing what the site was going to look like and how we would organise it."

Once the ball was rolling, however, green.tv went from strength to strength: Thomas convinced the United Nations Environment Programme to be a partner to the channel, and Greenpeace International followed shortly after. Green.tv is also syndicated via iTunes; the channel is regularly splashed on a banner on the iTunes homepage and green.tv podcasts have made it into the top 100 most popular podcasts in the UK. MySpace has given green.tv its own branded channel and green.tv provides all of Tiscali's environmental content. The channel's viewing figures are 800,000 page impressions and 220,000 unique visits a month. Not as much as, say, YouTube, but not bad for a small channel with no budget for PR or marketing.

Ah yes, money. "I would say that our largest continuing problem is financing," says Thomas, who sold his house in order to fund the channel. "It just about runs along."

The channel is also buoyed up by money generated by Large Blue, Thomas's production company. Happily, the channel has just found a sponsor in the shape of Ecover, but advertisers have not exactly been banging its door down, a status quo Thomas hopes will change. "Online video is still a relatively young industry and advertisers are still lagging behind a bit. So media buyers and planners don't immediately turn to online video, but they're used to print, radio and broadcast so there still isn't really an industry to deliver online video advertising."

Despite that, the future looks bright for green.tv. It will shortly be launching a new online platform, which will include advanced technology to make the channel more interactive. "The aim is and has always been to combine the emotive power of television with the interactive possibilities of the internet. Our strapline is "Watch, Engage, Act" – and that's what we want people to do: watch the films, engage with them and then use the internet to buy the right stuff and sign up to the right things." It is also hoping to expand into the US, looking at establishing a base in California.

"It's important that we all make changes to the way that we live our lives; I think things need to change on a fundamental technological level. I think that on an ideological and cultural level, green.tv is part of that solution."

Green.tv's greatest hits

White gold

The cotton industry is worth a $1bn a year to Uzbekistan. The Environmental Justice Foundation argues that the costs to the Uzbek people and the environment are huge.

Global warming's front line

A short film about two orphaned rhino calves in Northeast India who were returned to Manas National Park from the Centre for Rehabilitation and Conservation in Kaziranga. They are the first rhinos to return since a poaching catastrophe.

Greetings from Death Valley

The tributaries of Owen's Lake in California have been diverted to serve LA's water demands. This film highlights the barren lake and dust storms badly affecting residents of the town of Keeler.

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