The Health Front:

Health programming is spreading across the television dial faster than germs during flu season. Around the globe, broadcasters are snapping up shows on everything from arthritis to aromatherapy in the quest to win over audiences, particularly women aged 25-54. In the...
October 1, 1999

Health programming is spreading across the television dial faster than germs during flu season. Around the globe, broadcasters are snapping up shows on everything from arthritis to aromatherapy in the quest to win over audiences, particularly women aged 25-54. In the U.S., the trend has advanced one step further, with at least three channels – Fox’s Health Network, the Discovery Health Channel and Kaleidoscope Television – totally devoted to health and wellness topics.

One of the advantages for programmers is that the spectrum of topics related to personal well-being is huge. ‘Health today is not just the nuts and bolts about how the body works,’ says Scott Hanock of Sherman Oaks-based Unapix International. ‘I’ve found this whole marketplace of health – [including] wellness, medical science and technology of health – to be one that takes form in a variety of ways.’

Alex Graham, managing director of London-based Wall to Wall Television, agrees. ‘The interesting thing about what people call health programming – and I think this is probably part of the appeal for Discovery and Fox, in terms of launching channels based around this kind of theme – is that it’s very consumer-oriented. And in terms of programming, it’s an umbrella term that covers a fantastically wide range. You can create a channel that goes from fairly low-budget programs about diet and nutrition…right through to the top of the range programming, which looks at health and medicine.’

Although Graham points out that Wall to Wall does not specialize in health docs, the company has produced several higher-end shows (for the likes of the BBC and ITV at home, and TLC and PBS in the U.S.) that marry health and science. Body Story, a US$3 million 6 x 60-minute coproduction for Discovery and Channel 4, is one example. ‘The great advantage of stories about health and medicine is that they bring a human dimension to science,’ Graham says. Both Discovery and Channel 4 want more, and Graham says he’s hoping to go into production on a second Body Story series this month.

But is the demand for health shows limited to the body-image-obsessed members of Western society? Not at all, according to Hanock, who says demand for health programming has been spreading regionally. ‘Places like the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, these developing nations that have been deprived of public health funding to provide health and retraining information to their community, now recognize that television is a real, popular and effective tool to get information out to their audience.’ Hanock says he has been involved with health, medical and lifestyle programming since 1984.

However, not every region wants the same type of show. Even Brits and Americans have different sensibilities when it comes to certain topics. Graham recalls that for one episode of Body Story, about sexual arousal, the American broadcaster (Discovery) wouldn’t allow the action to go as far as the bedroom. ‘We had to re-cut the whole version, where we kept the boy and the girl on the dance floor. They were quite happy for them to kiss and cuddle, as long as they stayed upright. The production team ended up calling the one for America the vertical version and the one for Britain the horizontal version.’

Despite some prudish tendencies, U.S. broadcasters seem to be taking the lead in providing a selection of health programs on TV, in some cases 24 hours a day. Discovery Health, Fox’s Health Network and Kaleidoscope, in particular, have jumped into the fray, not only in terms of TV programs, but in conjunction with the other hot consumer venue for health info – the Internet. Each has posted a website in sync with its channel, a provision which allows them to extend their reach globally, even while their channels remain domestic. The following is a look at how these channels are faring on the health front.


For John Ford, president of Bethesda-based Discovery Health Media, the time was ripe to launch a cable health channel. Why now? In Ford’s opinion, a large part of the answer has to do with the baby boom generation. ‘The demographic argument is one of the most powerful,’ he says. ‘You have 80 million baby boomers in the U.S. alone, people born between 1946 and 1964, who are rapidly approaching, or are just past, the milestone age of 50. That tends to focus your interest on health and medicine.’

The Discovery Health Channel made its debut this past August, with preceding it by one month. ‘There were two key reasons [why the website came first],’ explains Kathy Quattrone, Discovery Health Media’s senior VP of programming and production. ‘One is because we wanted the website to begin to build enthusiasm for the overall service that was going to be provided by Discovery Health Media.’ (dci has created a stand-alone company to oversee its health venture and develop content across various platforms. See pg. 6, RealScreen, February 1999 or search ‘The second reason is it’s very competitive out there, and we wanted to get things up and running as quickly as possible. It’s certainly as competitive on the Web as it is on television.’

The site features news stories from such sources as Johns Hopkins News, a library of health and medical information, medical dictionaries, hospital and physician locators and e-commerce areas for buying health products. In addition, the website and channel are integrated; the channel directs viewers to visit the website for more in-depth information, and the website tells surfers how they can sign up for the channel.

Programming on the Discovery Health Channel, according to Quattrone, is ‘designed to address what research shows to be main consumer interest.’ For example, such primetime offerings as The University of Chicago Hospital (15 x 60-minute series produced by California-based Morningstar Entertainment, see Sidebar, pg. 44) address general viewer interest in real-life stories, while such daytime series as SheTV (40 x 30-minutes produced by New York-based ABC News Productions) take aim at female viewers, who are reportedly the health decision-makers. (Ford says their target demo tends to skew female.)

As is the case with the other Discovery channels, Discovery Health does not produce anything in-house, preferring to commission or acquire. While both Quattrone and Ford declined to go on the record about commissioning rates, producer Gary Tarpinian of Morningstar Entertainment (The University of Chicago Hospital) says the budgets for medical hours he has worked on for Discovery generally range between US$75,000 and $250,000. Ford confirms that Discovery Health Media plans to invest $350 million in the venture over the next five years.

Spurred by the global Internet reach, Discovery Health could be making tracks around the world in the not too distant future. ‘We are looking at it [international expansion]. All of our international networks are interested in it, and there are plans in the works to be able to incubate Discovery Health on Discovery Channels worldwide,’ says Ford, adding that it will likely happen over the next 18 months. ‘Latin America is a very strong market for health…. Given that, it would be sensible for us to act [there].’


Fox’s Health Network hit the U.S. cable airwaves in July, the result of a merger between Fox’s Fit TV and America’s Health Network. Fox created the new Health Network to attract a wider range of viewers to one destination. ‘Fit TV, when it was relaunched in January, was relaunched as a healthy living, healthy lifestyles channel,’ says Marc Krigsman, the Health Network’s VP of programming and production. ‘America’s Health Network was much more medical, much more clinical, dealing with specific concerns, specific disorders.’ Put the two together, he explains, and ‘you have a complete network, a total health network.’ is an expanded version of the website originally designed to accompany America’s Health Network. ‘We have an editorial team that sits over both cable and Internet, ensuring that we have this unified experience,’ Krigsman explains. ‘So when you watch our show, say it’s Fitting It In, which is one of our nutrition and exercise programs, you’re not just going to turn on the website and find just the recipes. Instead, you’ll be able to go and find some really thorough follow-up material, some nutritional information. You’ll get a lot more detail, a lot more depth, a lot more material that you can use.’

Other elements of the Health Network’s website are a personal health diary, community profiler (which allows users to access health info about their community, including its health risks) and anatomy explorer (a 3-D interactive tool that allows users to learn about the human body).

The Health Network’s new approach to programming is to offer shows aimed at communities of viewers at specific times each day. ‘Hopefully you’ll identify the time of day that is appropriate for you and your community, and find material and programming that is specifically related to you and the point of life you’re at,’ Krigsman says.

One of the targeted communities, for example, is parents. So for viewers who belong to that group, such in-house produced programs as 9 Months and Counting, a 13 x 60-minute series about pregnancy from both the parents’ and the baby’s perspective, and Generation Next, a 13 x 60-minute series about three women who explore the subject of childbirth, can be found on the Health Network’s slate around lunchtime. Other communities include women and viewers with heart concerns. Like Discovery, the Health Network tends to skew female 25 plus.

The majority (around 70%) of the Health Network’s programming is produced in-house, according to Krigsman, and the remainder is commissioned or acquired. In addition to series, both half-hour and hour-long specials will be considered for the schedule. Although Krigsman would not comment on programming budgets, sources at the Health Network say the low end of the scale is $15,000, while the upper end is $200,000 per project.

Over the next year, Krigsman says he expects to see Health Networks rolling out across the globe. (The Health Network launched in Canada in September via Bell Express Vu’s direct-to-home service.) ‘We will probably have a mixture of content, so if you were watching the Health Network in the U.K., you might see a combination of some of the shows that air in the U.S. and then specific shows for that region…. There has to be that level of customization.’


Compared to Kaleidoscope, Discovery Health and Fox’s Health Network are the new kids on the block. Originally launched in 1990, Kaleidoscope became a 24-hour nationally broadcast cable venture in 1995, seven days a week. Executive VP of programming and production Ron Dixon says the channel’s mandate is ‘to communicate, in consumer language, information related to health, wellness and ability, and to make it as understandable as possible, so [viewers] can participate in their care and improve their lifestyle.’

In addition to its cable channel offerings, Kaleidoscope also contributes to `PAX Family Health,’ a 3-hour programming block that airs on U.S. broadcast network PAX TV. ‘One of the things we did was form a strategic partnership with PAX [in June],’ says Dixon, adding that PAX is available in around 75 million homes. As part of the joint venture, Kaleidoscope now maintains two websites, and

While Dixon says Kaleidoscope will continue to operate as a cable channel for the time being, information from PAX indicates that a separate, 24-hour, PAX-controlled health network is in the offing, so Kaleidoscope may ultimately be rolled into a new PAX digital television channel down the line.

Seventy-five percent of Kaleidoscope’s programming is produced in-house, and the remaining 25% is acquired from outside. ‘The in-house generation comes from a variety of sources,’ Dixon says. ‘Production from the ground up, as well as working with our national advisory board [250 national voluntary and professional health and human services organizations, such as the American Cancer Society and the American Diabetes Association], who have opened up their libraries to us. We take a lot of programming that way and package it for the consumer.’ Dixon says program budgets can range anywhere from $30,000 to $400,000.

Unlike Fox and Discovery, Kaleidoscope’s future plans are directed inward, with plans to focus on the local levels of the American market, rather than looking at markets outside of the U.S. ‘We’ll do a lot more emphasis on local issues because we can do that as a broadcast facility, as opposed to a cable facility,’ Dixon says, adding that ‘health care is local, it’s not national.’


Checking the pulse of hospital life: The University of Chicago Hospital

The prospect of a three to six-month hospital stay would dampen the spirits of most people, but not Gary Tarpinian of Morningstar Entertainment. The Burbank, Calif.-based producer was happy to be admitted to the University of Chicago Hospitals and Health System (UCH). Unlike the patients, though, he checked in to film The University of Chicago Hospital (w/t), a 15 x 60-minute reality series about life (and death) inside the hospital, commissioned by Discovery Health.

Tarpinian’s first step was convincing the hospital to allow him to shoot the series, next was convincing the patients. However, both Tarpinian and executive producer John Grassi (of Discovery Health) say staff and patients have been very cooperative. For example, in one episode, titled ‘Twins,’ the parents of two newborns allow filming to continue, even after they’re told one of their children is going to die.

‘There’s this wonderful scene in the intensive care unit when they’re monitoring the heartbeats, and the one heartbeat is normal but the other is declining,’ Grassi recalls. ‘The heart rate drops and drops, and it finally gets to the point where the doctors says, `We have to talk to the mother.’ And they say, `Your little girl is not going to make it, would you like to have your child baptized?’ And the woman says no, she wants to hold her baby. And the cameras follow her, and it’s a very, very powerful scene.’

Adds Tarpinian, ‘They knew we were going to be there, and she cried and they hugged, and we covered it. You feel bad in some ways that you’re sort of prying into their personal life, but they had agreed to do this, and they thought it was important to do, and we were there.’

Anyone who appears on camera is asked to sign a release. In the case of unconscious patients, family can provide consent. Says Grassi, ‘The agreement with the hospital, and of course with the production company, is that we stop when patients say no. It’s not the hospital saying, `We don’t want you to see such and such a scenario.’ We stop when the patient says no.’

Tarpinian has two or three crews at uch around the clock, covering everything from the emergency room to surgery. ‘The hard part is this isn’t planned like if we were shooting on a sound stage,’ Tarpinian says. ‘It’s tough to get there, to get everyone to sign releases, to ask the right questions, to get the right coverage and, last but not least, to make sure the audio and video are good.’ Hospital pr staff accompany the crews on each shoot, and often facilitate in getting the releases.

To get the footage, each crew uses a Canon DV1 digital camera, which is both small and light. ‘They’re less intimidating, not as intrusive. When they [the patients] see this camera, it doesn’t seem as scary as the big Beta SP,’ says Tarpinian. ‘The audio is digital, the picture is beautiful, and I would say that when we play it back, no one could tell that it’s not Beta SP. And yet it’s a camera that cost US$4,500, not $45,000.’

On occasion, the crews will use lipstick cams – small, surveillance-style cameras (no larger than a tube of lipstick) that can be placed in strategic locations, such as attached to an operating room light. ‘We don’t use them a lot,’ Tarpinian says. ‘When we’re doing surgery, we’re in there shooting with [Canon DV1] cameras.’

The camera equipment doesn’t need to be sterilized, but the cameramen have to don scrubs, cover their hair and wear `booties’ over their shoes, whenever they enter the operating room. ‘We try to stay off to the side, not be in the way,’ Tarpinian says. ‘I don’t think we’ve ever impeded anyone from doing their most important job, which is taking care of their patients.’

Finding a niche within health programming: The Recovery Network

The co-founders of the Recovery Network came up with the idea for a channel devoted entirely to social and behavioral health issues – including substance abuse, eating disorders, depression and violence – as a way to compete in the world of U.S. cable. ‘You have to have a concept that is unique,’ says chairman and CEO Bill Moses. ‘As well, it had to be something that could be done on much lower budgets than what other traditional networks need to be launched for.’

The four-year-old cable channel produces 40% of programming in-house, at an average budget of US$10,000 per hour, and acquires or commissions the balance. Recovery’s five million subscribers, scattered across the country, can tune in to the Network for nine hours each day.

‘Using the television media and the internet media has really been an effective way of disseminating this information to people that normally are inhibited from going out to traditional sources of help,’ Dixon says. Recovery’s website is

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.