Sustainable TV – myth or reality?

Sustainable TV – myth or reality?

By Stuart Kemp,
Wednesday, 8th June 2022
(credit: Appolinary Kalashnikova/Unsplash)
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The RTS hears how initiatives such as Sky Studios Elstree are helping to green TV and film-making.

The rocketing cost of energy will reinforce the drive to ensure that programme-­making is sustainable and that the TV industry hits its target to have net zero carbon emissions by 2030. That was one of the takeaways from a recent RTS event, “Sustainable TV studio production – myth or reality?”, which was held over Zoom to reduce its carbon footprint.  

The panel pondered everything from recycling and working with cardboard sets to reducing travel and helping suppliers to go green.  

“There’s never been a better reason to try and reduce carbon, because carbon has a price attached to it,” said Steve Smith, an award-winning TV director and executive producer at environmental production house Picture Zero. Its output champions climate-­change action and Smith is a Bafta Albert ambassador and environmental production consultant.  

He continued: “We’ve got our energy crisis, which we talk about from a domestic perspective, but the cost of energy is going to have an inflationary impact on our industry. The likelihood is that, over the next few months, some studio power charges are going to triple. If we can find ways of saving energy, then that’s going to help reduce budgets as well.”  

Smith is also a non-executive director at Elstree Film Studios. He explained that Elstree had recently opened two new sound stages incorporating roof-mounted solar panels to capture and store energy. This should lead to cost savings within a year. Elstree is also replacing gas boilers, retrofitting double glazing and putting in thermostats and renewable energy sources to ensure it is in line with 21st-century, eco-friendly ambitions.  

Phil Holdgate, head of production sustainability at ITV Studios, said that the energy cost crisis was an opportunity to invest in on-site renewables: “Generating your own electricity has become really appealing and the payback period is also a lot shorter [than in previous years]. We might see some accelerated progress amid a pretty dire situation with the energy market.”  

Sky Studios chief operating officer Caroline Cooper was gearing up for the opening of Sky Studios Elstree. Sky’s state-of-the-art film and TV studio goes live in the coming weeks. It will house 13 sound stages, ranging from 930m2 to 2,800m2. Sky hopes the studio will enable £3bn-worth of new production investment over the first five years.  

The development is being trumpeted as the world’s most sustainable studio facility. Sky Originals will be made there, as will movies from Universal Pictures, Focus Features and Working Title, plus TV series from Universal Studio Group and third-party producers.  

“There’s no getting away from it, ­studios use a lot of power,” said Cooper. “We made sure we got about 5km-worth of PVs on the roof.” (PVs, or photovoltaics, generate electric power by using solar cells to convert energy from the sun and can be used to power equipment or to recharge batteries.)   

Cooper hoped that about 40% of onsite power would be generated by these panels, while the rest of the energy supply would come from renewable sources. “Things such as LED lighting, rainwater harvesting and [shunning] diesel generators are all part of the plans,” she said. 

Albert, the industry-wide sustainability initiative, has many incentives in place to help drive green practices across TV, including production crew training and certification systems.  

Sky Studios Elstree (credit: Sky)

From this October, Albert will produce the first in what is planned to become an annual report, benchmarking studios against the studio sustainability standard, a voluntary standard for studio facilities.  

Albert special projects manager Michelle Whitehead told the RTS that the report would not be a league table of goodies and baddies: “It’s definitely a carrot and not a stick.”  

The plan is for studios to submit data and a scorecard of key performance indicators. Each studio will then receive a bespoke report on how it has been performing and be benchmarked against other participating studios.  

“They’ll be able to see how they’re performing across six key areas – climate, circularity, nature, people, management and data,” said Whitehead. “We’re hoping that it’s going to drive best practice within studios.”  

With paperless productions, digital call sheets, hydrogen-fuelled generators and reusable, heavy-duty, cardboard-built sets that can be moved quickly, studio production is innovating with sustainability in mind.  

In the quest for sustainability, the panellists hailed the use of virtual studios as a game-changer. The bulk of a production’s carbon footprint is down to location shoots and transporting the cast and crew there and back.  

Holdgate highlighted an ITV Studios case study where the production avoided filming overseas. Instead, it was shot virtually: “It worked out in excess of 90% less emissions compared with how it would have been if we had flown the crew out.”  

The panel agreed that there did not need be any compromise on the visual quality of a show filmed in a virtual studio. Smith recalled that, when he started out at the BBC’s Television Centre in the 1980s, filming the iconic drama I, Claudius, sets were built like those found in theatres. “Now, we’ve got this technology that can make it seem so realistic, we don’t have to have those hammy, theatrical painted backdrops any more,” he observed.  

Holdgate said there was no waste and few materials involved with virtual set filming – but he did acknowledge the vast amount of power required to create virtual worlds. Renewables and green tariffs could help to mitigate that.  

Cooper said virtual studio use could run from “full-fat Mandalorian creations” to using it to run through stunt sequences in advance so that fewer mistakes were made when shooting. Much of the outlay for such costly equipment falls on the studio facilities. “I don’t think we could come up with a commercial model that would have supported [all] the investments we’ve made in making that studio as green as possible,” she said. “We didn’t look at it through that lens. It would have cost less to build a studio in a slightly different way but that, for us, was never an option.”  

Much of the TV sector’s carbon emissions come from the supply chain. “For Sky and for the BBC to achieve their net zero ambitions, all of us who create content and work with broadcasters are going to have to do our bit,” said Smith.  

He added: “Our industry also has another, bigger, role to play, which is how we can inspire through content. We talk about carbon footprints a lot, but what’s the carbon brain print?” In other words, what can we all do to reduce carbon emissions in our daily lives?  

With Sky, the BBC and ITV all passionate about sustainability, the panellists agreed that it was important to help audiences understand what the transition to a sustainable future would look like. Shows such as the Picture Zero-produced documentary The People vs Climate Change, shown by the BBC, and the five-part series of animated shorts So Hot Right Now were helping to educate audiences. “A sustainable future is everyone’s responsibility,” concluded Holdgate.  

‘Sustainable TV studio production – myth or reality?’ was an RTS event held on 26 May. It was hosted by Alex Farber, deputy editor of Broadcast, and produced by Victoria Fairclough. 

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