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How can we use TV to inspire viewers to decarbonise their lifestyles?

A guide for broadcasters and content creators

  • Blog
  • 1st Nov 2021

In recent years, powerful documentaries – such as Blue Planet, Seaspiracy, Plastic Nile, and even Jeremy Clarkson’s Farm have highlighted environmental issues. As world leaders pack their bags to meet in Glasgow for the COP26 Climate summit, we wonder, could content like this help us achieve Net Zero?

Mass media, such as television, can play a pivotal role in encouraging consumers to decarbonise. The majority of future emissions reductions – 63% – will need to come from changes in how we travel, how we power and heat our homes, what we eat, and what we buy. It seems only logical that broadcasters should use their unique platform to improve viewer knowledge, challenge their attitudes, and inspire them to take action against climate change.

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The size of the prize is enormous. An estimated 4.3 billion people watch TV content on different devices for an average of 2h 54 minutes a day, across the world. Television can educate, entertain and inspire viewers of the world – and even encourage them to change how they behave. Our latest research, in collaboration with Sky found that: 

  • 70% of people across Europe are willing to change their behaviour to address the climate crisis 
  • 1 in 3 viewers say a TV programme has inspired them to make a change in their lives
  • 1 in 4 viewers follow in the footsteps of a TV character to do something differently. 

Behaviour change via broadcasting and traditional media has historically been aimed at improving public health, boosting gender equality, and reducing violence. Imagine the potential for emissions reductions if the same methods were used to encourage sustainable behaviours! 

If just 10% of television viewers changed their behaviour to, for example, prevent food waste, avoid taking lengthy flights, switch to a plant-based diet or use an electric vehicle we could prevent 1.16 BILLION tonnes of CO2 emissions entering the atmosphere per year. 

The question must be not if, but how best to use this tool of persuasion for maximum good. 

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In our latest report, we provide new data on viewers’ attitudes towards green behaviours (a survey of 3,604 people across six countries in which Sky TV operates) and nudging. We go on to outline 10 recommendations for broadcasters on how they can use their content to encourage sustainability. 

Key findings

  • Broadcasters can help improve people’s knowledge, perceived ease and normality of sustainable behaviours, thereby boosting their willingness to take action. Looking at a mix of 19 sustainable actions, 66% perceive them as easy, 44% think they’re normal but just 16% know what to do and how. The lack of knowledge, in particular, stands out. For instance, just 2 in 10 know how to recycle, save energy at home, or which foods are more carbon heavy. 
  • Broadcasters have a clear mandate from viewers to encourage them to take up sustainable actions. 8 in 10 people support the idea of broadcasters taking specific actions using their content and advertisements to encourage viewers to adopt pro-environmental behaviours. This could include: educating viewers through documentaries; helping them to connect the dots through investigative news coverage; and featuring issues related to the environment more prominently in fictional content to increase empathy, shift values, and boost social desirability of pro-environment choices, such as buying an electric car or trying out a vegan recipe. Additionally, 6 in 10 viewers expect all production to become net zero, and 5 in 10 would like broadcasters to donate to environmental charities and run environmental awareness campaigns.

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BIT’s 10 behavioural principles for green TV content creation

What works

Good evidence of medium to high impact

  1. Put people centre stage. Shed light on the role of human behaviour and provide information on what people should do and model how.
  2. Give it screen time and make it explicit and engaging. Broadcasters should give green content more screen time, more salience in plots and scenes, and make it emotionally engaging for better impacts. 
  3. Target systemic change. Use content to influence public discourse and highlight systemic issues to politicians and business leaders for a big impact ‘upstream’.

What is promising 

Emerging evidence of medium to high impact

  1. Use credible and relatable ‘green’ messengers. Characters, presenters and talent must be trustworthy and relatable role models, in order to convince viewers to take up green actions. 
  2. Promote intergenerational spillover with kids’ content. Broadcasters should encourage positive environmental behaviours amongst children – their parents – using kids’ content.

What is helpful

Good evidence of small impact

  1. Make it implicit with background action. Use green product placement and model green actions in the background to improve familiarity, create positive attitudes and norms.
  2. Promote green choices through adverts and reviews. Ensure adverts and product reviews promote green products and behaviours, where possible. 
  3. Frame it closer to the individual. Zoom in on local environmental impact and highlight the co-benefits of individual action.

What to avoid

Evidence of negative impact

  1. Avoid negative tone. Fear-mongering, guilt-tripping, blaming, or preaching can be counter-productive. 
  2. Avoid boilerplate content. Ensure green content has integrity and is tailored across contexts.

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This research was commissioned by Sky, who are Media Partner and Principal Partner of COP26


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