The GSB Interview: Vijay Sudan on 21st Century Fox, Fox Sports and Sustainability

Sports stadiums and arenas were the first to join the sports-greening movement. After all, that’s where the games are played and where tremendous amounts of energy is expended, including getting to-and-from the venue. Media companies, while a “second order” greenhouse gas emissions driver at sports events, still are part of the energy mix. Plus they of course communicate what is happening on the court, field or course to billions of people worldwide. How do they look at their own sustainability issues around sports? And how do they communicate sustainability-related issues to their viewers and listeners? To get into this question, GSB spoke with Vijay Sudan, VP of Social Impact at 21st Century Fox, the corporate umbrella under which Fox Sports resides.

 

GreenSportsBlog: How did you find yourself at 21st Century Fox (“21CF”), social responsibility and green-sports?

Vijay Sudan: It happened quite by accident. I’m not a huge sports fan, tell you the truth. At Johns Hopkins, I of course followed our top ranked lacrosse team but sports does not drive me as it does some of my colleagues. But, I had been working in management consulting at Bain & Company when I was given the opportunity to take a five month leave and start off in the Social Impact department at 21CF. It was meant to be temporary, but five months has turned into eight years and counting.

GSB: What was Social Impact like at 21st Century Fox when you joined?

VS: The CSR or Social Impact program is about a decade old. It has always existed as a corporate level initiative with business unit-level implementation. For the first seven and a half years of its existence—including when I arrived—CSR only involved environmental sustainability, what we called our “Global Energy Initiative.” Then, in 2013, News Corporation, the parent company, split into two, with the broadcast and cable outlets as well as film becoming 21st Century Fox, and the print entities—Wall Street Journal, Times of London, New York Post and Harper Collins, among others—remained under the News Corp name. Many of our initial sustainability investments—before the split—took place in our factories and print plants, which were on the publishing side.

 

vijay15998RETfinalScrop

Vijay Sudan, VP of Social Impact at 21st Century Fox. (Photo credit: 21st Century Fox)

 

GSB: That makes sense. You can save much more energy, water, ink, etc., in a factory than in an office environment or studio.

VS: Exactly. Once the split took place, our CSR strategy broadened to more of a “Social Impact” approach…

GSB: …Hence your job title, VP of Social Impact…

VS: That’s right. That broadening meant we now support initiatives in Creativity & the Arts, Sports & Well Being, as well as Knowledge & Exploration. These areas are all organic and closely tied to who we are as a business. Our operating units include the 20th Century Fox film studio, and the Fox broadcast and cable properties: the FOX network, FX, Fox Sports, Fox News, and National Geographic, as well as STAR, a large TV business in India. We’re a very decentralized corporation so we work with points of contact at each of our businesses who are our partners in delivering on our initiatives. My three colleagues and I manage CSR corporately and an important part of our jobs is to bring the various business units’ CSR efforts together where possible.

GSB: I am glad there are so many people on the CSR/sustainability case over there. What is the emissions profile of 21st Century Fox?

VS: Good question. Like I said earlier, since we spun off our publishing assets under News Corp, we really don’t have factories, which is where many of our prior environmental impacts were. So what are our environmental impacts now? Really, they’re relatively small. From our office buildings and other facilities, they’re less than 200,000 metric tonnes of CO2 annual Scope 1 and 2 emissions combined. That said, we are studying and working hard to improve upon our environmental performance in our film and TV production unit as well as in sports. For example, in terms of materials, we’ve looked at the temporary studio and other infrastructure that goes into large events like Super Bowl LI and the US Open golf, both in terms of sourcing the materials sustainably to disposal of the materials after the event. As for energy usage, we are looking at opportunities to increase the use of biodiesel, to move from generators to grid power where possible, and to trial other technologies like UPS systems to replace generators, or solar powered light towers.

GSB: It seems to me that it would be difficult to continually improve on energy usage on sets. How do you go about doing that?

VS: It is challenging. In a print factory, improvements made on energy are realized every day. With sets, our teams are constantly building new ones or are filming in new locations. We often have to use mostly new materials and get them to remote parts of the world. We shot The Revenant in Northern Canada, for example. And in some of these places your only option for power is usually diesel generators, unfortunately. Also, because every production is unique in size, location, and crew, solutions aren’t necessarily scalable. But we are making lots of improvements and trying out new technologies everywhere we can. And we’ve been a leader in the entertainment industry in that regard for many years. We had the first carbon neutral TV show with 24, also the first to use 100 percent Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified lumber. More recently we experimented with battery powered “generators” while filming Legion for FX in Vancouver and have trialed solar powered trailers for our talent on set.

GSB: What about the sports side of the business…Have you been able to make energy and materials usage improvements?

VS: Sports got ignored early on a bit. Compared to movie shoots, they’re relatively small-scale productions. And we’re really temporary guests at a stadium or arena. We bring two trucks to an event, plug into the stadium’s or arena’s power source and then head out when it’s over. The employees are, aside from the on-air talent, mostly freelancers. So the carbon footprint, like I said earlier, is relatively low. But, we looked deeper and realized Fox Sports, including our regional sports networks broadcast something like 10,000 events annually in the US, and even more when you consider our international businesses. Each event may have a small footprint but when you multiply that by 10,000 it becomes something meaningful and significant.

GSB: What kind of savings could you find that would, multiplied by 10,000, turn out to be significant?

VS: We asked ourselves this question: What kind of energy usage goes into a typical Fox Sports production? To answer it, we went to Miami to observe how we covered a Miami Marlins baseball game at Marlins Park, and a Miami Heat NBA game at American Airlines Arena. We sat in the back of the production trucks, surveyed the scene, and talked to a bunch of people on site, from replay editors to electricians to directors and more. Doing so confirmed that our energy usage is indeed low, especially compared to operating a stadium or arena and to fan travel. But as a result of gaining a better understanding of those operations, we’ve zeroed in on our supplier relationships, kicking off conversations about sustainability with our vendors, from the firms that own the production trucks to the catering companies that provide food. For both film & TV production and sports broadcast we’ve found that physical material and waste are where there are big opportunities for improvement. At this year’s Super Bowl we were able to divert more than 2,800 pounds of waste from the landfill including things like flooring signage from our temporary studio and fan areas, and almost 10 miles of Ethernet cable.

 

Heat production truck

Inside the production truck for a Fox Sports cable cast of a Miami Heat game. (Photo credit: Vijay Sudan)

 

GSB: That’s impressive. But, especially given the smallish carbon footprints, relatively speaking, of 21st Century Fox’s sports productions, the bigger impact would be from promoting your environmental and climate change bona fides on air, especially on your marquee events like the Super Bowl (when you have it every third year), World Series, FIFA World Cup, and US golf Open (men’s and women’s). Is Fox Sports doing that kind of thing?

VS: I agree, and we are telling some sustainability stories. For example we broadcast the championships of the US Golf Association (USGA), including the US Men’s and Women’s Opens. We’re working with them to reduce energy usage and food waste on site. The USGA asked us if we could tell those stories in an on air Public Service Announcement (PSA). Shortly thereafter we cut video spots with Greg Norman, our chief color commentator at the time, about our environmental efforts. Fox Sports is the conduit to the fans at home and we’ve been talking to many of our partners at the leagues and organizing bodies about how can work collaboratively to find ways to share their and our sustainability messages on air or online. Just this spring we teamed up with MLB, DePaul University and our colleagues who run Fox Sports University, which engages PR and marketing students at colleges across the US, to work on a project creating a campaign that engages fans and promotes Fox Sports’ and MLB’s sustainability efforts. I was blown away by the creative ideas the DePaul students came up with. Everything from seed packets designed like baseball cards for community gardens, to the “Strike Out Your Footprint” campaign that empowered fans to take action in reducing their own impacts. The “Strike Out Your Footprint” team won a “pitch-off” and was rewarded with a trip to Miami last week to see the 2017 Home Run Derby and MLB All Star Game.

 

DePaul Culpwrit

Members of the “Strike Out Your Footprint” team from DePaul University at the 2017 Major League Baseball All Star Game at Marlins Stadium in Miami. (Photo credit: Culpwrit)

 

GSB: Kudos to the winners, and what a great prize! Do organizing bodies of major sporting events tell you what you can and cannot say on-air? Because, for example, with the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia, I think environmental stories may well be big news, especially with the greenwashing that went on surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

VS: We always want to work collaboratively with our partners and find common ground. We haven’t had any conversations yet about the upcoming World Cup, but when we broadcast the Women’s World Cup in 2015 in Canada, I had a great series of conversations with FIFA, particularly around helping get more girls into sports and into soccer, which is an area we have invested in as well.

GSB: Finally, as a viewer, if I see a video about the good environmental work Fox Sports is doing, in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “wait a minute, this is the same company as Fox News and Fox News’ opinion shows are perhaps the most influential purveyors of virulent climate change denialism. I’m not buying this greening of Fox Sports.” I’m guessing I’m far the from the only person who has this thought. How do you and your team combat this?

VS: It’s not the first time I’ve heard something like that. To give a bit of context, each of our business units runs very independently from the others, and there’s also a firewall between our corporate entity and our creative and editorial outlets. Corporate will never dictate what stories to tell or how to tell them, whether for our creatives or our news teams. Beyond that, our various outlets often don’t agree with another on a variety of topics – and not only do we encourage and value a wide diversity of opinions, we think that’s part of what makes us unique. And so while some commentators may have skeptical attitudes on climate change, you’ll find many others both on the news side, and all across the company, that have strongly countering opinions.

GSB: The problem, the way I look at it, is that the commentators, like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and others, are mainly on in prime time, have higher ratings, greater social media traction and thus a more significant impact on the body politic than respected journalists on the news side like Shep Smith and Chris Wallace do, who are generally on during lower viewership periods. And the effect has been significant: A 2011 study from American, George Mason, and Yale Universities found that Fox News programs overwhelmingly rejected or ignored the scientific evidence on climate change, and promoted a false sense of balance by favoring guests who denied the planet was heating up.

VS: A Yale University study also found that one of the most effective communications to raise awareness and concern for climate change among the general public was our film, The Day After Tomorrow. Not to mention the hundreds of millions of people that saw Fox’s Avatar, a movie with strong environmental themes, making it the highest grossing film in history. So yes, we have a wide variety of programming and opinions expressed on screen across our businesses, and we also generate a lot of content that is crystal clear in its affirmation of the scientific consensus. The Simpsons, for instance, is regularly lauded for addressing environmental issues in an entertaining, lighthearted, but engaging way. I’m sure there are folks out there who have learned everything they know about climate from Lisa Simpson! And, of course, we also own National Geographic. Nat Geo has been very strong on climate change. As one example, they recently put out Before the Flood, Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate change documentary. We premiered it at the United Nations with then Secretary of State John Kerry. Nat Geo also aired the film globally in 171 countries and made it freely available for streaming online. The movie was watched by more than 70 million people worldwide.

 

The Simpsons tackle global warming with “None Like it Hot” (1:43)

 

GSB: Well, I certainly wish that the Fox News commentariat would move closer to their 21st Century Fox cousins on climate. While I am not holding my breath; what a huge benefit that would be to the climate fight. Back to Nat Geo, it also aired the second season of the amazing documentary series Years of Living Dangerously in 2016. Years examines the effects of climate change happening now, in real time. The first season aired on Showtime. Will there be a third?

VS: I hope so! I’m glad you like Years…

GSB: It’s more than like…it’s LOVE!

VS: Even better. The overall thing I’d like to leave you with is this: for the past decade 21st Century Fox has been committed to addressing its climate impacts, growing sustainably and inspiring others to take action. We’ve been vocal about the need for businesses to be transparent on their carbon footprint, we have advocated for climate legislation in the US, and we publicly supported the international climate agreement in Paris. We are serious about it operationally and in terms of letting our audiences know what we’re doing to help in the fight. Sports is a key venue for telling those stories.

GSB: I am glad to hear that. I’ll be even happier if I hear Years of Living Dangerously gets renewed for another season and if I see coverage of environmental issues on Fox’ air during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. I know that’s not your call but it can’t hurt to lobby a little bit.

VS: Noted!

 


Please comment below!
Email us: lew@greensportsblog.com
Friend us on Facebook: http://facebook.com/greensportsblog
Tweet us: @GreenSportsBlog

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s