Cable's medical front a mixed bag

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onsumer health was poised to become the next big thing in 1999. Print products abounded and health-related Web sites were in demand. On cable, Discovery Channel debuted Discovery Health that August. Health Network was created when News Corp. partnered with Healtheon/WebMD.

But growth in online has been slower than expected, media observers say. Several of the leading consumer health Web sites have been ingested by competitors in a flurry of mergers that included Healtheon/WebMD buying OnHealth. Others health sites have been plagued with layoffs.

Health cable networks have been similarly slow to take off. While Discovery Health says it's thriving with 22 million subscribers, the network still lacks commitments from many blue-chip advertisers. News Corp.'s Health Network appears to be on life support, in part because of its association with troubled WebMD.com, which last fall laid off 1,100 employees and is now focusing on the healthcare industry. News Corp. and the medical site have parted ways.

NUMBERS SMALL

Health Network's Nielsen ratings aren't impressive. Brad Adgate, senior VP-research director at Horizon Media, New York, says in the fourth quarter of 2000, Health Network reached only 8,000 homes in prime time. That's down from 10,000 the previous quarter.

"The problem with health channels," says Mr. Adgate, "is there's a niche because people are more health conscious. but it's an older audience and advertisers aren't that interested in an older audience."

Less than a year ago, Discovery Health and Health Network ranked among the top new networks subscribers said they wanted added to their cable systems, according to a July 2000 survey of cable TV viewers by Beta Research.

Todd Siegel, VP-national sales at Discovery Health, says his network's distribution has topped expectations and it has commitments through recent deals with AT&T Broadband and AOL Time Warner to reach 66 million homes by 2004.

This month, Discovery Health is busy unveiling new offerings for the upfront season. New programs include "Super Surgery," a showcase of medical technology where science is the star; "Body Challenge," an in-depth look at how six people make positive life changes and lose weight; and "Breast Health: New Hope."

"Discovery is a strong brand," says Discovery Health Exec VP-General Manager Kathryn Quattrone. "People are much more interested in having control of their health, so we're trying to keep up with the latest news and technology to have that sense of discovery."

Shows such as daytime's "Medical Diary" generate the most viewer response, she says, in keeping with the concept that women are the primary health investigators and decisionmakers.

Discovery Health's marketing theme is "Real stories. Real people. Real medicine." Advertising creative is handled in-house; Creative Media, New York, had media buying duties.

FARE DESIGNED WITH DUAL FACETS

All Discovery Health TV programming is conceived with both the TV and Web components in mind, so the two operations can enhance each other. Discovery Health is sold as a standalone offering and with the Web site (discoveryhealth.com), Mr. Siegel says.

Right now Discovery Health's distribution is mostly analog on basic cable. Ms. Quattrone says one of their biggest challenges to increase viewership "when you're on a number of parts of a platform, and also on satellite, is letting people know where they can find us. Where we're heavily penetrated we try to give channel numbers in the newspaper, on TV and in [newspaper] ads."

Recent viewings of Discovery Health show most advertisers to be either local retailers or national direct response marketers hawking such products as the Carb Fighter System and hair remover Epil-Stop.

But Discovery Health plans to announce some big ad deals with major pharmaceutical marketers later this year, Mr. Siegel says.

Media buyers say health-theme cable networks will need to reach 30 million households before they are a viable option for major advertisers. Mr. Siegel says: "Pharmaceutical companies have been waiting for us to cross that distribution threshold ... our advertising sellout rate is higher than other cable networks our age, but like other new networks, we are less than 65% sold out."

Discovery Health plans to be rated by Nielsen Media Research in the fourth quarter to promote ad sales in the 2002 upfront market, says Mr. Siegel. At that point, Discovery Health will likely be carried by such ad sales networks as Adlink in Los Angeles. Adlink VP-Marketing and Communications Vicki Lins says the ad rep company currently does not carry Discovery Health or News Corp.'s Health Network because neither has the necessary penetration of 1 million to 1.5 million households, in the Los Angeles market of 3.4 million cable homes, "to make them attractive to advertisers who buy a network."

Like other Discovery Channel networks, Discovery Health is also partly owned by Liberty Media Corp., which is owned by AT&T Broadband, a leading cable operator, making new distribution deals a little easier to make. Other Discovery Channel owners include Advance/Newhouse Communica-tions, Cox Communications and John Hendricks, Discovery Channel's founder.

At rival Health Network, News Corp. has been keeping a tight lid on its plans and continues to struggle to get broad distribution.

After last year's tech stock crash, former partner WebMD, with 50% ownership of Health Network, pulled out, leaving News Corp. as sole owner. Just a year ago, News Corp. CEO-Chairman Rupert Murdoch said: "It's about integrated platforms, one-on-one relationships with the consumer and delivering as much product and services as you can across every interactive worldwide." Health Network executives weren't available for comment for this story.

STILL UNCERTAIN

Mr. Murdoch's mission was to have the September launch of a WebMD platform with the planned title of Sky WebMD across digital cable, satellite, Internet and print media. It didn't happen, and News Corp. hasn't revealed what became of those plans. Tom Tyrer, senior VP-communications for News Corp.'s Fox TV, says the company is "still uncertain about the future."

Health Network programs now mainly consist of shows created for other TV entities. This fare includes "FitTV" and "Gilad's Bodies in Motion." One of the newer offerings is "Body, Mind & Spirit," hosted by singer Naomi Judd and Dr. Andrew Weil.

But despite this health-theme content on cable, Beta Research's latest survey of cable viewers, conducted last October, included no health-related channel among the top 10 viewers said they were "satisfied" with among "emerging networks."

"Health programming-like a lot of business TV programming-runs the risk of being way too technical or way too superficial," says Bill Carroll, VP of Katz Media, New York. It "is obviously an area of top interest for consumers, but finding a balance with the right kind of programming could be challenging for cable networks."

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