'24' Goes Green

Howard Gordon was never much of an environmentalist. The executive producer of Fox's "24," the popular and sometimes controversial counterterrorism drama, Gordon, 46, thought the environment was too big a problem for one individual to effectively address. But after years of gentle coaxing by his wife, Cambria Gordon, a writer and environmental activist, he has officially gone green. Under his watchful eye, "24," which is set to kick off its seventh season once the Writers Guild of America strike is resolved, is now setting the standard in terms of green television productions. The show has switched from using regular fuel to renewable-source biodiesel, puts all its scripts on post-consumer recycled paper, and much more. Gordon, whose goal is to make "24"'s finale later this season TV's first carbon-neutral production, appears Dec. 12 at the Hollywood Goes Green summit, which brings together a cadre of entertainment industry heavyweights and insiders for the first time to discuss what the industry can do to increase its commitment to the environment. Gordon will be participating in a panel discussion titled "How Green Was My Production: Eco-Friendly Strategies for Film Production, Film Festivals and Premieres." In an interview with NEWSWEEK'S Jamie Reno, Gordon, a Princeton graduate and self-described moderate Democrat who had just finished a stint walking the picket lines (he's loyal to the writers' cause in this strike), talked about the upcoming summit, the somewhat surprising origins of his show's commitment to the environment and his own late-blooming turn to green.

NEWSWEEK: So how did a show like "24," with all its car chases and explosions, become a leader among television productions in terms of going green?
Howard Gordon: It came about from the very highest level. [News Corp. CEO] Rupert Murdoch embraced this as a corporate concept, and it trickled down to [Fox Television co-chairman]Dana Walden, who then called me, because she knew I was an activist by marriage. My wife Cambria is a longtime global-warming activist who wrote a book with Laurie David called "The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming." Dana knew I had an affinity for this, and she felt that "24" would be a good example, a good pilot show to try this very cool initiative that came down from the top. So I met with environmental consultants and made someone in my office the point person to audit all the things we were doing. We looked at ways to improve.

What are some of the things you are doing on the show and some of the things you hope to do?
You can do little things and big things. Little things that we are doing include converting generators to run on biodiesel, which are more costly but far less polluting. They're less gas-emitting. We've also had the lighting retrofitted inside our offices. Lights consume massive amounts of energy. LED lights can be dimmed and brightened, they're far more controllable, so we are now emitting less light. We've also encouraged our location people to drive hybrid and given them incentives to do so. And we're recycling paper, we're not sending messengers with scripts now, we're doing it electronically, and the scripts that are on paper are now on postconsumer recycled paper. Little things like that.

And the big things?
The big things include just really leading by example, and actively promoting this message to the public. Things like appearing at this Hollywood Goes Green conference. But "24" is a uniquely challenging show. It's not the first show you'd think would be able or willing to go green; you'd expect it to be a tamer show, like "House." It's a real challenge. There will be no creative compromises; the show will keep doing what we do. But by announcing some of the things we are doing to be more carbon-neutral we are hoping that our fans will consider embracing this as a strategy in their lives as well.

How much can you actually integrate your show's pro-green message into the scripts themselves? Will Jack Bauer be joining the Sierra Club?
That's a very good question. The truth is, within the show itself we can't do it. It just doesn't work. The show is about counterterrorism; it's not about proselytizing. I do think that integration is possible on other shows. It just depends on the show. On "Weeds," for example, the mother bought a Prius for a kid, replacing an SUV, but it was organically integrated into the subject matter of the show. It can be done.

Your writing staff is a mix of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. How does that rare Hollywood configuration manifest itself in terms of the show's green message?
To be honest, there are skeptics on the writing staff who aren't embracing this challenge with the same vigor as me. I respect all points of view among our writers. We do argue a lot at lunchtime. But even in my conversations with [Fox News chairman] Roger Ailes, he's talked about climate change. He just wants the global-warming discussion to be more about sharing responsibility with other countries, like China and India. As a political issue, I do think it's becoming depoliticized; the whole denial aspect is slowly eroding. This is something both Republicans and Democrats can support and are supporting to varying degrees.

Why did you decide to make "24"'s season finale the first carbon-neutral production?
Well, we hope it is still going to happen. We're aiming for it. I honestly don't know, it will entail a lot of advance planning, and it's tentative because of the strike. But we still hope it happens. We chose to do this because we think it's a great message to send.

Is Kiefer Sutherland on the green bandwagon as well?
Yes, absolutely. Kiefer is very aware of this issue. He's already done a public service announcement for this on fox.com.

Do you think "24"'s embracing the Hollywood green movement has surprised some?
I actually think the show has been given an unfair rap, largely because Joel Surnow ("24"'s co-creator) announced himself as a staunch conservative. It's an imperfect syllogism that because Joel is conservative and he created the show that the show is a conservative show. It is not a political show, it's a thriller, and I think any reasonable person can see it has no agenda. If anything, we show the complexity of such issues as privacy, civil liberties, and other issues. That's the reason everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Barbra Streisand to Bill Clinton likes the show.

How did you get involved in this upcoming Hollywood Goes Green conference?
I was invited by our network's public relations department. They knew I was involved in this issue. I said, "Sure, I would love to take part." I don't pretend to be an expert—as I said, I'm an expert by marriage. I don't really know the Hollywood environmental crowd. Laurie David is the closet friend I have in terms of environmental glitterati. I'm more of a layman. But I do contribute to the NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council], Heal the Bay and other organizations.

What do you think the tipping point was for Hollywood in terms of making a real commitment to going green—or has it come yet?
I think it has. There's a political will now, and it's an increasingly bipartisan issue. I recently read a compelling argument from an investment banker about the economic opportunities of the environmental movement. They can be very great. I think environmentalism in general is becoming more and more embraced by corporate America, from General Motors to Monsanto. Both in the entertainment industry and elsewhere, I just hope it transcends the trendiness. It has a danger of being a fad rather than a real consciousness-changer. But to the extent that the movement has aroused the political will of not only Hollywood but the entire country, we will see some real change, and I hope the media companies, which seem to be embracing it in terms of reducing their own energy consumption, stay on board.

What was your personal tipping point?
I've had my own gradual conversion, thanks to my wife. Part of it was simply reconciling the hypocrisy of our lifestyle. I feel now that doing something is better than nothing, but for the longest time I just felt that the environment was too big a problem to tackle. I've learned that once you take those first small steps, it gets easier. It's consciousness-altering. Like when you change your first light bulb, you then become more inclined to carpool, then you decide to get solar panels, and the influences and activities just continue. I was cynical for the longest time. But I've come around.