Finding the Ghost in the Machine

Ask Joanne Sawicki, founder and chief executive of Channel Health in the U.K., about the recent surge in spiritual and wellness programming and she'll credit the new millennium: 'In these times, people are questioning everything.' John Wilson, co-chief programming exec at PBS, might be a little less positive, suggesting the demand is fueled by aging baby boomers starting 'to confront their own mortality.'
July 1, 2001

Ask Joanne Sawicki, founder and chief executive of Channel Health in the U.K., about the recent surge in spiritual and wellness programming and she’ll credit the new millennium: ‘In these times, people are questioning everything.’ John Wilson, co-chief programming exec at PBS, might be a little less positive, suggesting the demand is fueled by aging baby boomers starting ‘to confront their own mortality.’

Whatever the reason, the mainstream marketplace is legitimizing the spiritual and wellness business with everything from Time magazine cover stories about yoga to ‘Remembering Your Spirit’ segments on Oprah. According to Sheila Shayon, VP of programming, production and operations for U.S.-based Wisdom Television, American consumers spend US$230 billion in the mind, body and spirit categories every year. Worldwide, that figure tops $540 billion. ‘It’s an enormous and growing market,’ she says.

The demand for non-fiction programming on spiritual and wellness topics is being stimulated by blossoming channels in the U.S. (Wisdom), the U.K. (Channel Health) and a forthcoming digital channel in Canada (One: the Body, Mind & Spirit channel), as well as increasing demand in established TV venues, such as Discovery Health. The acquisition fees, as one programming exec noted, might be closer to Animal Planet than TLC, but for doc-makers whose interests tend toward subjects like alternative medicine, feng shui and yoga, there are now more places to sell such productions than ever before.

‘We think Wisdom’s programming is the last big idea in television as we know it today,’ says Shayon. ‘This is a category that has not yet been mined.’ There are already health networks, of course, but Shayon says Wisdom is ‘a wellness network… We are about mind, body, spirit. Our society has excelled in the body arena. Medicine is a big, big business. But we lost the spirit along the way, and we lost the connection. Wisdom is trying to re-establish that triangle, that connectivity.’

Wisdom launched in 1998 and is currently available on Echostar’s Dish Network, a few cable systems and C-band. Its programming schedule, which includes the series Meditations (coproduced by Eversound, the Dunrite Group, Sacred Earth Film Productions, and Inspiration Unlimited) and Quiet Places (Omni Films), consists of 30% original productions and copros, and 70% acquisitions. Shayon says Wisdom is shopping for half-hour and hour series. ‘I need volume now, things that are attached in some way to a known brand or a known talent. We need new and different journalists and on-air hosts. And, above all, we’re looking for authenticity. We’re talking about influencing people’s life choices, so authenticity is key.’ She declined to provide an exact figure for acquisition fees, saying they are on the ‘low end, but bigger than the European market.’

Discovery Health’s VP of production and acting general manager Donald Thoms says spiritual and wellness programming (‘the lighter side of our health programs’) has been part of the lineup since the channel’s launch two years ago. Shows such as Healthy Retreats (Buzzmedia), an acquired series in which the host travels to some of the world’s best spas, and She TV (made with ABC News), a magazine program for women, help the channel strike a healthy balance between wellness and hard medical science. We need to make sure we cover the entire range of conditions for our viewers,’ Thoms explains. ‘Whether it’s pure wellness or an operation, we believe we cover the gamut.’

Discovery Health, whose target demographic is 18 to 54 and skews toward women, operates with 84% original productions and copros, and 16% acquisitions. ‘We do more original productions than acquisitions, because there aren’t a lot of acquisitions out there that we think are right for the channel,’ Thoms says, adding: ‘We tend to stay away from really personal stories unless that personal story is a story that’s really going to affect a mass audience. We don’t want an obscure program that people just aren’t going to come to.’

Channels that focus exclusively on spirituality and wellness programming are more receptive to personal tales. The U.K.’s Channel Health, for example, is looking for real-life stories where, says Sawicki, there is some kind of personal transformation. ‘We focus very much on people’s real-life stories. That pretty much drives most of what we do.’ As a free-to-air service on Sky Digital, the year-old Channel Health runs 18 hours of programming per day, divided between 25% original productions and copros, and 75% acquisitions. Its current lineup includes in-house productions Highly Alternative, a magazine program about alternative therapies, and Chill Out, a series on relaxation techniques. For acquisitions, the channel pays about US$1,400 per 30-minute program, according to Sawicki. A typical license period spans four broadcast days over two years.

Avoiding programming purgatory

Programmers and producers in the spiritual and wellness genres seem united in their goal to exploit this relatively untapped TV market in order to bring viewers crucial health and well-being information they are unlikely to find elsewhere in the 500-channel universe. At the same time, channel executives and doc-makers recognize there are potential pitfalls with such programs – certain lines that shouldn’t be crossed.

With spiritual programming, especially, there is a danger of appearing too preachy or biased toward a particular religious view. ‘You need to be mindful of the line, because if it’s too religious, then viewers aren’t going to watch it,’ says Jim Hanley, president of Toronto-based Sleeping Giant Productions, a 12-year veteran in the field of spiritual programming. Hanley says shows like Life After Death, a 10 x 30-minute series his company produced for Canada’s Vision TV, may examine religious customs and traditions, but ‘we are very conscious of not being religious and trying to be spiritual, if you can use those terms to differentiate. It’s not easy to do, and sometimes you need to get right into the religion to get the essence of it.’

In the wellness arena, where physical treatments are often discussed, producers have to shoulder a greater professional responsibility. ‘If we go on the air and say something works – spirituality, aspirin, it doesn’t matter – we have a responsibility that what we say is fair, balanced and honest,’ says Dan Birman, creator and executive producer of Alternatives: Uncovered, a 10 x 1-hour series on alternative medicine that ran on Discovery Health. ‘We have a responsibility to not mislead the public.’

Says Wilson of PBS, ‘It’s one thing to have a lot of different people offering a lot of different opinions, but there’s a line on the other side of which there’s a slippery slide down to snake oil and traveling carney folks. You have to make sure your expert is truly someone a reasonable person would agree is an expert.’

Paul de Silva, VP of programming for the Vision group of channels, which is launching One: the Body, Mind & Spirit channel in Canada this fall (with new partner, Alliance Atlantis), is keenly aware of the programming hazards that must be avoided. ‘One has to be cautious in terms of not seeming to promote any approach or theory that could potentially be misleading or, in the worst case scenario, detrimental to someone’s health,’ de Silva says. ‘Spirituality is part of a lot of people’s awareness of healing. At the same time, we want to be sure we don’t come on in a way that preaches any one perspective, but rather gives people choices, showing them what’s available in this area, and presenting it in an attractive, stimulating way. This is television, after all.’

Execs at One hope to key into the demographic that research shows has the strongest interest in the wellness area – women aged 25 to 34. ‘It should be of great interest to advertisers to reach that demographic,’ de Silva says.

The program lineup at One is still being determined, but ‘we’re going to be doing mainly acquisitions for the first year,’ says Lyse Lajoie, the channel’s director of programming. ‘We really don’t have much money, so we have to negotiate at a really low price.’

Naturally, trying too hard not to offend viewers can result in boring or ineffective productions. ‘You don’t want to offend anybody, but let’s face it, you’re going to in some cases. There are some people who are not going to agree with you, no matter what,’ says Thoms of Discovery Health. ‘We must produce with a sense of journalism, a sense of balance and a sense of integrity… presenting information so viewers can make up their own minds.’

Wisdom Television’s Shayon says one challenge facing her channel is to avoid being perceived as a ‘talking head network.’ With so much content featuring teachers and practitioners, it can be hard to convince viewers that the channel is about creating a lifestyle. ‘This is work. This is: ‘I want to change my life,” Shayon says. ‘You can’t just pop in and take yoga.’

At the same time, given the esoteric nature of some of Wisdom’s programming, the other challenge, she says, ‘is to not be perceived as cuckoo or granola country. The audience that is there already loves us, finds us, embraces us. But, there is still a resistance in the mainstream to come out of the closet and say, ‘We love this stuff.”

Perhaps some resistance remains, but Sawicki thinks the time is right for spiritual and wellness programming. ‘For a long time if you mentioned something that wasn’t completely rational or that wasn’t completely scientific, there was a great backlash. I think it’s correcting itself. I think there’s always been a hunger for this sort of information, but people weren’t willing to admit it.’

PBS pioneered much of this programming going back two decades with shows featuring such experts as Leo Buscaglia, Les Brown and Deepak Chopra. Oprah Winfrey popularized relationship and self-improvement concepts in her TV show and magazine. ‘Now with the niche-ification of television, it allows a whole channel to pursue it. It’s commercially viable,’ says Wilson.

‘It’s a signal of society’s quest for meaning and some sense that there is something more beyond work and income. It’s an indication of a maturing populace that is becoming a bit more introspective,’ he continues. ‘I think that drives it, and makes it a bigger market than it was before.’

Whither The Health Network?

Count one TV venue out of the market for health and wellness programming, at least for now. The Health Network – which recently dissolved its partnership with WebMD and scrapped plans to re-launch as WebMD Television – is in a holding pattern while executives search for potential partnerships, according to Neil Klasky, the channel’s director of business affairs. ‘We are not looking at any new programming at this time,’ Klasky says. Now fully owned by Fox/News Corp, The Health Network broadcasts 24 hours a day. ‘We rolled out new programming this year from some of our acquisitions last year,’ Klasky says. ‘By the end of the summer, we should be pretty certain on the direction of the network, when we can decide on the direction of new programming. Just hold tight and see what we’re going to come up with next. It should be exciting, whatever it is.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.