It came as little surprise that the VNR industry took a huge hit during the months following September 11, when TV stations were running non-stop news coverage of the tragedy's aftermath. Today the industry is battling back, generating revenue based on what was virtually nonexistent airtime just six months ago - and healthcare is leading the way.Starting with the many health-related releases that addressed issues pertaining directly to the terrorist attacks - such as stress, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and poor air quality - healthcare is one of the few VNR-producing industries that has barely missed a beat.
Back to basics
"Since September 11, there has been a major trend in stations going back to the basics,
says Doug Simon, president of DS Simon Productions. "Journalists are returning to their true callings, and healthcare has always been a genuine area of importance.
Cast with a seemingly permanent somber tone, news providers are less accepting of stories that do not have meaningful implications. And, having had to rebuild around a new sense of normalcy, audiences have found comfort in maintaining their desire to live healthy lives.
Just what is it about healthcare that makes it such a winner among VNRs?
"Healthcare is number one because it transcends all age groups and demographics,
says Dan Johnson, president of DWJ Television. "Only certain groups are interested in sports or business, for example, but everyone cares about keeping their bodies healthy.
Although every drug approval, research study, or clinical trial does not directly apply to all audiences, tangible tactics are embedded in successful VNRs, making them informative and interesting to a great number of viewers.
"Seeing patients living better lifestyles makes the audience want that too,
says Mark Dembo, COO of West Glen Communications. In March and April 2001, West Glen distributed a VNR for PoleStar to promote a portable MRI that can be used during brain surgery. The release was run nationally by NBC and Fox, and locally by NBC, Fox, and CBS affiliates. West Glen's VNR was viewed by 3,694,000 people, and aired 47 times. Clearly, the majority of people who saw the release will never have brain surgery, but the technological advancement made it newsworthy and interesting to many. The general message about improvements in medical care naturally instills confidence and security in all viewers.
"Successful VNRs need to define what the story is and clearly state the news value,
continues Dembo. "We always play devil's advocate with clients when they present us with a VNR idea. It is necessary to ask, 'Who is going to care about this?'"
More of a way of life than a chosen point of interest, healthy living is an enormously popular subject that has resulted in almost all news stations, at all times, having sections dedicated to it. With so many existing media outlets needing to fill airtime, producers of VNRs are presented with numerous opportunities to have their releases run. With TV being the strongest medium for informing audiences and shaping attitudes, healthcare companies and those sending their messages are fortunate that stations are dedicating so much time to the issues. And on the flip side, TV stations are grateful for the information given to them by these companies.
"When dealing with healthcare, stations are more accepting of outside source materials than they normally would be because they don't have the resources to get the necessary information,
explains Simon. There is a sense of secrecy that accompanies healthcare news because everything is embargoed, so no one can breathe a word of the announcement before it is officially released. And because of the immediate nature of healthcare stories, television stations are willing and grateful to rely on VNR makers and the healthcare companies - often the only two sources that know the story - for this material.
TV stations want to see doctors, patients, lab footage, animation, and manufacturing information in VNRs to project a credible and newsworthy message so that viewers regularly turn to them as a reliable source. It is next to impossible for stations to gather these sources because of the great number of healthcare segments that run daily. This creates an unusual situation in which broadcast journalists and pitchers are equally dependent on one another.
Although it is clearly a market with vast potential, "producing healthcare VNRs is not like having a blank check, where anything you send out will get on the air,
warns Johnson. As much as TV reporters need healthcare materials to fill airtime, unless the information is accessible to them and viewers, it won't be used. "People want things on a silver platter,
says Ken Fry, SVP for On The Scene Productions. "Reporters and viewers want what they see to be as easy for them as possible.
Clean quotes, good visuals, relevant celebrities, and a local angle are all elements that score well on healthcare VNR report cards.
Rules VNRs must follow
Because of FDA regulations, the language in healthcare VNRs is sometimes censored, so producers need to work with what they have to ensure that audiences can clearly understand the message. Animation that shows the mechanism of action - how the drug or treatment actually effects the body - "can make the story,
says Brian Unger, manager of healthcare markets for TVN Communications. "When stations see animation they go gaga ... it's like Star Wars to them."
Beyond creating a VNR that contains appropriate material that viewers can relate to, the primary concern of producers should be to maintain the objective to inform, rather than promote or sell. FDA regulations include several rules designed to prevent healthcare VNRs from becoming too commercial. But industry professionals often debate over what constitutes being "too commercial."
"I don't think it is an overarching issue,
says one VNR producer, "because everyone knows what the FDA does and doesn't allow.
And these rules seem pretty straightforward: there can be no more than two product mentions per release; the product cannot be shown at the same time you are saying its name; and there can be no off-label promotion when a drug is being promoted for a use other than for what it has been approved.
However, it is suggested that some misinterpretation of the rules is taking place. "The FDA will eventually have to crack down to ensure that there is a level of credibility when producing healthcare VNRs,
another insider predicts. "Some of the releases done for drug companies are over-the-top promotional."