By the end of the month, Fox’s Health Network may no longer be a health channel. The impetus for the reassessment is the recent split with partner WebMD, the Atlanta-based healthcare information company. WebMD sold its 50% stake in The Health Network back to News Corp (Fox’s parent company) in early January, one year after the partnership was forged. News Corp now has full ownership of the channel. ‘It’s very rare that you get this kind of opportunity with a network, to take a step back and look at what it should be,’ says Jeff Shell, president and CEO of Fox Cable. ‘We’re evaluating non-health related genres, and we’re evaluating partnering or selling. We are evaluating the whole range of options, just to be prudent, although our intention at the end of the day is probably to keep it as a health network of some kind, with a little bit more of a Fox twist. The key is to find something that reinvigorates it.’ He adds that Fox intends to make a decision by March 1.
News Corp maintains some ownership in WebMD, but WebMD will no longer have any involvement with The Health Network, Shell notes. In the interim, Donna Harrison has stepped in as head of the channel, replacing Pati Fili-Krushel, who is president and CEO of WebMD.
The Health Network’s primary competitor – Discovery Health – says it is staying put, however. John Ford, president of Discovery Health Media, says, ‘We’re definitely in for the long haul – no wavering of the commitment. In fact, we think part of the reason the Health Network may be bowing out is because we now have a slight lead in subscribers.’ In fact, Ford and Shell both assert their respective channels are currently in about 20 million homes, although Ford says Discovery Health has pending commitments that will take the channel into 50
million homes, and Shell says The Health Network has commitments for 40 million.
Shell insists Discovery Health won’t affect Fox’s decision. ‘I don’t think Discovery Health is a particularly compelling channel yet. The reality is there isn’t this huge formidable competitor out there that’s burning up the ratings. I think we have to look at whether there is something we can come up with on our own that’s compelling and competitive, and I don’t think Discovery Health’s position is really going to factor into that decision.’
If The Health Network remains, Fox will have to address the issue of its web presence without WebMD. Discovery Health has been building up its site for over a year, intent on extending the brand beyond the TV.
Says Ford, ‘We feel that online is a necessary brand enhancement for a health TV channel. That said, we don’t think it’s necessary to be the biggest health online service in the world and lose $80 million every year to prove it, because that way lies financial insanity and bankruptcy. What we want is to provide the best companion to our TV channel that we possibly can.’