Healthy Dose of Programs

Mar 1, 2004  •  Post A Comment

On any given week on television, viewers can watch a woman restructure her face with an electric current (Oxygen’s “Skin Deep”), learn how to make healthy meals such as a low-cal country stew (Food Network’s “Cooking Thin”) and follow the births of a heck of a lot of babies (eight series’ worth of baby-centric programming on the Discovery Health Channel alone). Plus, they can choose from more workout options than are available on Los Angeles’ health-conscious Westside, including a hunk leading an abs class on a mountaintop in Honolulu (FitTV’s “Bodies in Motion”) or for that matter a different hunk doing yoga in Maui, Hawaii, (Fine Living’s “The Morning Yoga Show”).
And we’re just getting started.
Now with their morning caffeine, Americans get an almost daily dose of health information from all the Big 3 broadcast network morning shows, including NBC’s “Today,” where Katie Couric once brought viewers something they probably never knew they were missing-scenes of her own televised colonoscopy.
Jack La Lanne, Richard Simmons and Dr. Ruth are its pioneers, and health-oriented programming has undergone an extreme makeover of its own in recent years, becoming a special interest that, at least after 9 a.m. weekdays, is dominated by cable, where no subject is too gory or taboo.
“Cable is always the first place to take a risk as far as something new,” said Debby Beece, president of programming at Oxygen, responding to the explosion of health-and-wellness-related programming on the current television landscape. Of course, it also helps that health programs, like most reality-based TV, are relatively inexpensive to produce.
Oxygen has its own health programming successes in “Inhale,” its weekday morning power yoga workout; “Birth Stories,” a series documenting the interwoven stories of 11 women and their loved ones going through pregnancy and childbirth; and the sex advice series, “Talk Sex With Sue Johanson.” “The aging boomer is a factor because they’re interested in staying forever young, and if they want to exercise in the morning they won’t watch NBC,” Ms. Beece said, referring to the Big 6 networks’ reluctance to air full-length workout sessions, as cable sometimes does.
When the broadcast networks do get on the health-and-self-improvement bandwagon, it works in a big way. “Extreme Makeover,” the reality series documenting Cinderella plastic surgery makeovers, has boosted ABC’s Thursday 9 p.m.-to-10 p.m. time slot by 44 percent over last year for a total of 7.8 million viewers. And the series has bumped up its appeal among audiences 18 to 49 by 75 percent over the same time period last year, producing the network’s strongest young-adult ratings in that time period in three years.
In syndication, King World’s “Dr. Phil,” the second-year hit series, has addressed weight issues on 19 shows already this season with the ongoing “Ultimate Weight Loss Challenge,” which follows the success of a group of participants adhering to a weight-loss program based on the host’s best-selling book.
On cable, the range of surefire subject matter is much broader, including babies, sexuality and dramatic, real-life health stories covering everything from cancer survivors to 911 emergencies.
“Babies, sex and diet” are the top tier at Discovery Health Channel, said Eileen O’Neil, general manager of the only 24-hour dedicated health channel. “Babies: Special Delivery,” which each week tells the stories of four to six high-risk births, is DHC’s top-performing series. Other baby fare on that network includes “Make Room for Baby,” “Then Came Baby,” “Birth Day,” “Adoption Stories,” “Kids Healthworks,” “American Baby” and “Life’s Little Miracles.”
“I definitely think health is only going to be an increasingly important topic to our national interest. We’re so bullish about the future of it,” Ms. O’Neil said. The Internet is opening new avenues of awareness for viewers, she said, and “because health care is becoming more expensive, people want to be empowered.”
One of DHC’s success stories last year was “The Residents Special,” a three-episode presentation of the documentary series “The Residents,” which followed a year in the life of young doctors at UCLA Medical Center.
There was a “great deal of interest” in the “Residents” documentary series, which premiered on DHC in January 2004 and will debut on its sister station TLC in March, its Emmy Award-winning producer R.J. Cutler (“American High”) said.
“This is an incredibly rich landscape for storytelling,” Mr. Cutler said. “It’s inherently dramatic.”
While cable has a well-earned reputation for running bolder, less inhibited programming than do the broadcast networks, Mr. Cutler said there has actually been something of a role reversal in unscripted television.
“At the beginning of the reality craze, anything went. Now the broadcast networks are finding shock reality programming like `Extreme Makeover,’ and on the cable outlets you’re finding more specialized reality,” Mr. Cutler said. “The Residents” and other health-related programming fit into this model, he said.
At Lifetime Television, Bill Brand, senior VP of reality programming, said, “Health issues are at the forefront of virtually everything we do.” There, the mix of health programs includes “Strong Medicine,” an original dramatic series, and “Speaking of Women’s Health,” a magazine-style show hosted by Florence Henderson of “Brady Bunch” fame on Saturdays. Lifetime considers this show, which just finished its third season averaging 400,000 viewers, one of its most solid daytime performers.
“We’re always looking for interesting stories or issues that can be presented in a way that can be captivating,” Mr. Brand said. “Women come to us to be entertained and to be supported and informed. It’s part of our brand identity.”
Each October, as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Lifetime airs a “Stop Breast Cancer for Life” public awareness campaign, which has included such programs as “Women Rock!” a prime-time concert special to raise awareness and benefit breast cancer education.
In December 2003 Discovery Communications launched FitTV (formerly The Health Network) into 33 million homes with 21 hours of programming dedicated to men’s and women’s fitness, exercise and diet programs. Discovery acquired the channel in 2001 from Fox Cable Networks but waited two years to relaunch it, said Carole Tomko, general manager. “With obesity and wellness and health and exercise leading every news story and headline, we decided this was the year,” she said.
It’s “like going to a gym and picking heavy exercise, cardio with Pilates or yoga,” Ms. Tomko said of the array of regimens to choose from-from “Urban Fitness TV,” which goes on location to find the latest hot exercise experiences, to “Fitness Resort & Spa Weekend,” a location show that spotlights trends in nutrition, exercise and beauty.
Fifty-four percent of the shows are U.S. premieres, having first aired in Canada; the rest have been acquired from THN or other networks, Ms. Tomko said. By this fall, she hopes for 75 percent original programming. In the next few months, her network is going into production with seven to 10 new series. “We have so much new talent lined up, both homegrown and established. We want to cover the whole range of fitness,” she said.
Even the folks at music channel VH1 must be chewing on celery sticks during programming meetings. In addition to the ongoing “Rock Bodies,” VH1’s quarterly salute to celebrity workouts, the network will launch “From Flab to Fab” in May, an hour-long series that follows the progress of ordinary women working with a rock star’s trainer and nutritionist.
“We do a lot of things because we’re filling 14 hours a day, and as the channel has moved into being about music and pop culture, this is part of it,” said Michael Hirschorn, VH1’s executive VP, production and programming.
Starting in April on Spike TV, former NFL defensive back Jason Sehorn will host “Men’s Health Minutes,” providing a ma
le take on living a healthy lifestyle. Another fitness-related show, “Eight Minute Workout,” will be added later in the year.
“Look at the nonfiction best-seller lists and you see what people are looking for,” said Bob Tuschman, VP of programming and production at the Food Network. Starting May 9 the network will launch “Low Carb and Lovin’ It” and “Calorie Commando,” both series starring chefs who’ve lost dramatic amounts of weight, as part of its Sunday afternoon Fast and Fit programming block.
“We did a documentary, `The Low Carb Revolution,’ that got a huge response,” Mr. Tuschman said. “We know there’s a hunger for this,” he said.