Why It's Called Planet Pictures

It was 1987 and a new kind of television was dawning. Just two years earlier,the Discovery Channel had

signed on and suddenly, for that relatively small part of America

It really IS a small planet!

that had cable TV back then, there was a channel running nothing but documentaries! A lot of people thought it was never going to work, especially around CBS, where I was working at the time. Who would ever want to sit and watch documentaries day and night? Why would the public pay a monthly fee to watch reruns of shows they’d already seen in first-run for free and still have to watch commercials? As a documentary writer and producer who’d hit the “glass ceiling” in the corporate world, I decided to throw caution to the wind, quit my job and find out what this new kind of television was all about. It’s hard to believe—that was 20 years ago.

1987 was also the year a lot of European viewers got their first glimpse of commercial TV of any kind. Until then, most countries had just a few channels and those were run by the government. But in the late 1980’s, countries all over the world started issuing TV licenses to private companies and overnight the channel lineups doubled and tripled and the demand for affordable, quality programming absolutely exploded, worldwide.

The Man and Me - 1984But something of much greater world importance was also just dawning in 1987. That was the year some very disturbing but still sketchy reports landed on the desk of then president Ronald Reagan. I’d just finished three years covering the Reagan White House so this caught my eye. I was a little surprised when the president reacted by specifically asking a scientist named Bob Corell to investigate. For the next two decades, Corell embarked upon a study that became known as the "Arctic Climate Impact Assessment." Among its findings: the polar ice cap was melting, the world’s oceans are rising, familiar weather patterns will become erratic, hurricanes will become more powerful, and polar bears, along with all kinds of other life, could be headed for extinction. Bob Corell is respected throughout the world today as one of the leading pioneers and reigning authorities on climate change.

And so it was in a convergence of trends—the dawn of fact-based television, a sudden global demand for new TV programming and the realization of the planet’s sheer fragility—that an idea was born and a company formed to see it through. What better to call it than PLANET PICTURES?

Within a few months, PLANET opened a pipeline of fact-based programming, mostly North American exports, bound for television screens across Europe, Asia and Latin America. But an additional priority also beckoned, in the form of a personal offer from Ted Turner—speaking of fact-based cable TV! Inspired by pilot, race-car driver, impassioned environmentalist and then life-companion, J.J. Ebaugh, Ted became the first cable network owner to claim the environment as a programming initiative. Turner offered to set aside a weekly slot for a new green-friendly show, following primetime ratings-winner National Geographic Explorer every Sunday night. J.J. networked her way to me and in late 1988 I moved—lock, stock and PLANET—to Atlanta. Shortly after, my wife Jennifer quit her job at the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, and took the PLANET plunge.

By the summer of 1989, a whole creative staff was busily moving into a previously vacant building owned by Turner, across the freeway from SuperStation TBS. I was Executive Producer along with Co-Exec and on-air talent Marlo Bendau. Around us, something of a dream team quickly coalesced. We brought in network writer-director Cort Casady, operations manager (and once the youngest news director in major market TV) Marc Doyle. We spirited Teya Ryan away from Los Angeles PBS affiliate KCET and made her Senior Producer. She would eventually ascend to VP status at CNN. Many other talented colleagues too numerous to properly credit by name here embarked along with us on the creation of a new kind of green TV. We launched that September and called it EARTHBEAT.

EarthbeatEARTHBEAT was the opposite of gloom and doom. When it signed on and introduced its “agenda for the 90’s”—beginning with global warming—co-host Tim White set the tone: “It’s not enough to wring our hands,” he said in the on-camera open of the first episode, “We need to do something constructive with them.” Thus began a series of bright, positive, solutions-oriented Sunday night half-hours. We would meet the Tree People and learn how to plant trees ourselves. We found out about how to save energy and money. We discovered sponsors keen to tout their own environmental victories and we showcased a new breed of “eco stars” ranging from Robert Redford to Ed Begley Jr. to the late Carl Sagan.

Co-hosts Mario Bendau and Time WhiteTed Turner fell in love with EARTHBEAT and invited the staff and management to work toward a common goal: To expand from its relatively modest beginnings as an “agenda for the 90’s” and re-launch as an in-house Turner production. Much of EARTHBEAT’s staff remained, including Senior Producer Teya Ryan who ultimately came to head the reincarnation of what we then called, with tongue very much in cheek, “EARTHBEAT with money.” It was a pop-journalism TV magazine featuring youthful correspondents roaming the whole planet for solutions-oriented content. Appropriately enough, it called itself NETWORK EARTH.

Network EarthTeya and her staff stayed true to the dream and Sunday night TBS viewers got one of the most entertaining and well-made shows about environmental solutions ever produced. NETWORK EARTH ran for five amazingly successful seasons.

Today, over a decade after NETWORK EARTH’s final episode, it seems all of television is going green. In a recent trade magazine interview Robert Redford was asked whether, after all these years, it was gratifying or frustrating to finally see mainstream media and the public paying attention to the environment. “Truthfully,” he answered, “it’s a little of both.” I will second that emotion!

But what really matters now is the future. Television is uniquely positioned to use its power to help bring about perhaps the most crucial paradigm shift in history. Nearly every country on Earth now has more than one of those channels that run nothing but “documentaries day and night.” Meanwhile, those of us who helped create green TV have spent these past two decades just trying to get everybody’s attention. Now we’ve got it. But what are we going to do with it? You will probably not be surprised to learn PLANET PICTURES has a few ideas.