MEDIA PROFILE: Discovery channel gets a healthy dose of creativity

The Discovery Health channel and web site seeks to 'engage' its viewers, unlike its competition. Claire Atkinson provides the pitching prescription.

The Discovery Health channel and web site seeks to 'engage' its viewers, unlike its competition. Claire Atkinson provides the pitching prescription.

Got a headache? Feeling stressed out? Experiencing lower back pain?

Discovery Communications ? a new cable channel dedicated entirely to issues of good health ? has the tonic for all your ailments.

Discovery Health launches August 2 with a schedule rippling with everything from sex to personal empowerment. The service will air shows on health in its broadest sense, including subjects on nutrition, parenting and stress reduction.

Discovery Communications is financing the station and Internet site to the tune of dollars 300 million. But the potential upside is huge. Discovery estimates healthcare spending in the US has topped annually dollars 1 trillion, with companies spending dollars 1.5 billion of that total on direct-to-consumer drug advertising (from March 1998 to March 1999).

Around 40% of Americans turn to TV for health information, says Discovery.

But aren't the airwaves already awash with endless health advice slots on breakfast shows, talk shows and news magazines?

'On TV, health information has succeeded in being factual and failed at being engaging,' says Discovery Health Media president John Ford. 'We want to use our skills to solve that puzzle and be authoritative and credible.'

However, Ford emphasizes that Discovery Health will not be giving medical advice, but rather, 'medical information.' That leaves plenty of room for public relations pros to suggest ideas and concepts to the channel.

The point of contact for pitches is George Kralovansky, who is production coordinator.

Ford is currently in frantic-launch mode, his days spent in back-to-back phone conversations with a variety of recruiters, cable operators and producers. He still plans to add some 30 or so staff to the department ahead of the launch. The Internet site,, due to open for business this month, will carry editorial content along with a retail area selling everything from prescription drugs to soothing music.

Discovery is also looking to gain a roster of experts and is in discussion to form alliances with research institutes such as John Hopkins University and Duke University.

The company is also putting together a 400-strong panel of health professionals including doctors, nurses, pharmacists and educators to predict future trends.

The media giant, which also owns the Travel Channel and Animal Planet, has commissioned a national quarterly survey about health and medicine to give it an idea about how plugged in Americans are about health topics.

The research will look at issues such as women's health, fitness and disease.

The first stop for PR pros with program concepts and ideas should be the 10-member in-house production team headed by former PBS programming chief Kathy Quattrone. Then, perhaps try one of the production companies working for Discovery to suggest experts, doctors, book launches or the latest wonder drug.

One such company is North Carolina-based Advanced Medical Productions, which is creating 21st Century Medicine, a film about the future of healthcare. Production manager Deanie Wilcher says: 'I love PR folks. I couldn't do my job without them. The PR team at a hospital we filmed at recently, really paved the way for our production.' Wilcher is happy to hear from PR pros who have suggestions for 21st Century Medicine.

Another LA-based production company, Morningstar, is filming at the University of Chicago medical center, the real-life setting of NBC's ER. Producer Gary Tarpinian says he can be contacted by PR people with ideas in the Chicago area. He is making a 15-part series, called Chicago Medical for a show named Metro Hospital.

A major program partner is CBS News Productions. It is producing Discovery Health Update, a series of 10 one- minute bulletins on research and healthcare developments; Medical Breakthroughs, an hour-long documentary on subjects such as the search for an AIDS vaccine; and Health Files, a one-hour newsmagazine aimed at helping expose health fraud and abuse.

Discovery Health is aimed at adults between the ages of 25 and 54. It aims to capture different demographics during the day. The early morning schedule is geared toward mothers, with shows such as Baby Anthology and Spilled Milk. A women's-oriented show titled SheTV, which airs during the day, takes a look at a new generation of women who define themselves by taking control of their own health and fitness.

Personal empowerment and survivor stories are covered in Take Charge, airing in the early evening. Body Almanac, described as an accessible look at anatomy, features the biochemistry of thought and intelligence in accident, infection, disease and death. Lifeline, a behind-the-scenes look at hospitals and medical centers, will form the bulk of prime time.

Ford says the channel will be up-to-date and accessible: 'We want to become an essential resource for people who take an active interest in their well being. By providing fresh, accessible information across media, we hope to satisfy people's curiosity as well as address their specific medical information needs.'

Ford is no stranger to the world of PR. As part of an 11-year career in public television, he conducted press/community and government relations and also helped raise funds. For six years, Ford was VP of Philadelphia TV station, WHYY.

He left public television for Discovery, becoming VP of corporate partnerships.

Ford later made a move to the program department at Discovery sister service, The Learning Channel.

Ford says the Discovery Health channel will reach around 15 million households by the end of the year. When Ford joined The Learning Channel seven years ago, he took the self-improvement service from 15 to 70 million households.

Whether Ford can do the same thing with Discovery Health Media is still to be seen. It will compete against News Corp's Fox, which is also launching a health network.

Discovery will also be the latest of many entrants offering health advice on the Internet. It remains to be seen whether a media brand can turn itself into a trusted health brand.

Morningstar producer Tarpinian says that the concept of a health channel will prove popular and offers this anecdote: Tarpinian took his friend, an emergency room doctor, to a recent party attended by a handful of celebrities.

When Tarpinian returned from the kitchen, his friend was inundated with people fascinated by his job. And the celebrities were left in a corner to themselves.

Discovery Health Media
4330 East-West Highway
Bethesda, MD 20814-3579
Switchboard (301) 986-1999

President: John Ford
Program and Production SVP: Kathy Quattrone
Director: Eileen O'Neill
Production coordinator: George Kralovansky
Tel (301) 771 0400
Fax (301) 657 9198


CBS News Productions
Executive producer: Joel Heller
Tel (212) 975-2458
Fax (212) 975 7996

Advanced Medical Productions
Executive producer: William Hayes
Tel (919) 933-3553
Fax (919) 933-3613

Producer: Gary Tarpinian
Tel (818) 559-7255
Fax (818) 559-7551

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