As executive VP and general manager of Discovery Health and FitTV, Eileen O’Neill is concerned on a daily basis with the delivery of accurate medical information to consumers across multiple platforms. She talked recently with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman about the challenges her job presents and about how her network approaches health journalism.
TelevisionWeek: What is the mission statement for the Discovery Health Channel?
Eileen O’Neill: Discovery Health Media Enterprises is Discovery Communications’ full offering, and that is to say that we are Discovery Health Channel, we’re also DiscoveryHealth.com, FitTV, a VOD called Discovery On Call. … All these platforms are really designed to bring accurate and trustworthy information to consumers on health topics so that they can ideally find solutions for themselves.
I think how we do it is relatively unique, first and foremost, because of the number of platforms that we provide the information on. Also, the channel in particular has distinguished itself in its storytelling, so what I like to say is that we bring the voices of experts and experience to our consumers. If you are confronted with a health consideration, whether it’s impacted you or someone you know, you generally seek out two things: (1) an authentic expert voice like a doctor or a nurse or a medical practitioner who’s reliable, and (2) someone who has had the same experience. We think we do a good job in bringing both of those voices together on our various platforms.
TVWeek: Other than what you are doing, what do you think of the quality of the health-care reporting being presented on television?
Ms. O’Neill: The good news is that there are a lot more sources for health-care information, and that’s really very important for consumers to be able to have access to quality information. The question may be more about the strength of the information out there. It’s a bit of a “consumer beware” world, and what we’ve done effectively is provide information that is very authentic, like partnering with the American Cancer Society. We are very transparent with our sources of information.
I think for the players in the broader media world that are able to identify and demonstrate the trustworthiness of the information, [that] is what’s going to keep them in the business longer. So the good news is there is more information.
The challenge is whether that information is strong enough, but also in-depth enough and applicable for the person or consumer looking for that information.
One thing I would clarify, too, is that it’s not only the 5 p.m. newscast with a thumbnail sketch of a leading health story or an online story. We definitely understand that consumers get a lot of information on health from the dramas as well. “ER,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “House” are very influential in people’s perception of quality health care, or ideas or inspiration for making changes in their lives. When I think of health journalism in the media, it’s quite a spectrum.
TVWeek: How valuable are conferences such as the Association of Health Care Journalists Conference to the industry?
Ms. O’Neill: It’s an opportunity for us to spread messages about what we’re doing, but it’s also a great learning environment for us to understand trends and meet opinion leaders in this field. It’s a unique opportunity to get more information. One of the real privileges of my job is when I get to go out in the field and in hospitals and research areas to meet people in the health-care area. That’s what I think is so extraordinary about running a health-care network like thismdash;working with people in the health community, because they are, by and large, outstanding. I understand what these people put into their jobs, and it’s just amazing. I think they’re underappreciated and I hope our channel exposes them so they get some much-deserved credit.
TVWeek: When people need medical information these days, is their first step to go to your channel or Web sites to self-diagnose their ailments?
Ms. O’Neill: I don’t know if they’re diagnosing themselves, but I would agree that they are immediately put into a hunting-and-gathering mode. What we really position our health assets to be is available along a spectrum of needs. If you’re diagnosed with a specific disease or condition, yes, I think you’re more likely to go to a forum where you have immediate access to a topic you’re interested in. Whether that’s a dot-com or a VOD or a podcast, that’s certainly more accessible when you need that information.
The other part of the spectrum is when you are looking for the inspiration and you find it on a channel like Discovery Health or in a drama, then that’s available as well. I think because we have more knowledgeable consumers, you can have a more effective exchange with your physician. There are also long-distance opportunities to consult with top specialists. … There’s definitely positive and negative in the changing nature of our ability to seek health care.
TVWeek: Your background is not in medicine; it’s in pop culture. Is it an advantage to bring a non-medical attitude to what you’re doing?
Ms. O’Neill: I would love to have a medical degree and an MBA degree. But that said, my experience and my degree work is great for these platforms. I know I’m our target consumer because I’m in that 25- to 54-year-old female demo. Women dominate the choices and interest level in health care. My background does suit it. It’s having this experience of a pop-culture background, along with being a consumer and a mommy and a person who just crossed into the 40-year-old group. I can really feel a lot of things our primary target audience is going through.
TVWeek: What kind of feedback do you get from your viewers, and what do they appreciate most about what your platforms are providing?
Ms. O’Neill: There’s an absolute need for quality health information. We get weekly logs of phone calls and e-mails from our extensive customer-relationship setup. In the cases where there are rare medical conditions, we provide a lot of hope to people who thought they were alone or didn’t know there were experts, doctors working in certain categories. Often the e-mail is asking for more information about that particular doctor because someone they know is going through that problem.
Viewers are also inspired by the personal stories on the network, which is to say the stories inspire them to do something or they become connected with the [person] and they want to know what happened or how are they. On our more informational platform, we find that they’re particularly interested in the categories of weight and exercise and parenting/pregnancy. Last would be sexual health.
TVWeek: How do you balance providing information and education with being an entertainment network?
Ms. O’Neill: You choose a great word: balance. It is a balance. It’s also knowing your platform and what it’s best for, so when you’re programming the channel you know that what people are using their television for is different than when they go to a dot-com or a Web site forum. So we try to be pretty smart about what people want to get from each of our platforms. The channel tends to be more storytelling and character; we get more depth in that area. We then support it heavily online with more detailed information that can pad out the personal lives for the viewer.
You may see an episode of the “National Body Challenge” where a family is working together to get healthier and lose weight, and then you can go online and design a diet plan for your family. It’s really about understanding which platform works best for the type of information you have.
TVWeek: What do you look for when you choose the hosts and personalities for your programs?
Ms. O’Neill: We typically do not go for “hair and teeth” people. They are super people, but they are really talent for the sake of talent. Our shows need authentic e
xpertise, so many of our talent are professionals, like Dr. Mehmet Oz, our senior medical correspondent. In terms of more lifestyle-oriented shows, we started doing more in the organic and green living area and there are people with credentials in their respective fields who we turn to.
TVWeek: Which Discovery Health programs have really hit a homerun with viewers?
Ms. O’Neill: There are several that come to mind. This winter we did “You: On a Diet,” which was based on the book by Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Michael Roizen, and it really struck a chord. It followed three characters through their weight loss challenges and offered a lot of great information. We had very high traffic for that show. That was a homerun for us.
On a special basis, we had a family where the mom and dad had a set of twins, beautiful girls, and then decided to have one more child, but wound up getting six! In terms of parenting, this is a really compelling story of how this household of fun and unbelievable logistics captured the interest of our audience. That’ll be a new series this spring called “John and Kate Plus Eight.”
The last homerun is a series called “Mystery Diagnosis,” and that’s about family heroes. It’s about that person who is an advocate for themselves or others, navigating through the medical system to find the answers to a problem when it’s not evident. The strength is in the storytelling and the strong advocacy of the person involved in the stories. We like to think that we were here before “House” with “Mystery Diagnosis.”
TVWeek: What kind of a reaction do you get to shows that are graphically surgical, such as “Plastic Surgery: Before and After”?
Ms. O’Neill: The deep, dark secret about those shows is that women will watch more than men. [Men] are a bit more squeamish than you think they would be. The response we get is that since women give birth, they can take it. People are fascinated by the human body, and the two things that are real big take-aways are understanding anatomically what we are like, but there’s also a deep interest in understanding procedures that might be something that they have to partake in.
TVWeek: One of your platforms involves broadcasting video in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices …
Ms. O’Neill: That’s called captured audience networks, and in general [they] have been on the growth path. You can see them now in elevators and checkout lines. There’s a very well-established company called Access Health that has been in physicians’ offices and waiting rooms for a while. They’re programmed by Discovery Health and CNN at this point, and that is [customized] content produced from some of our content and CNN’s.
TVWeek: What does the future look like for Discovery Health Channel? Where do you think your platforms will be five years from now?
Ms. O’Neill: That’s quite a leap in the health-care area. I can tell you the path that we’re on: We’re very strong in medical information that is expressed through great storytelling. We’re also interested in more personal health.
We really speak to the boomer population. They are concerned not only about their longevity but the quality of life. Increasingly, we’ll be doing shows that are more preventative or lifestyle-altering, so that you don’t need to experience certain conditions or ailments to relate. An example of that is two great cooking shows we have coming up, one led by chef Devin Alexander. She’s a terrific cook who was once 50 pounds overweight until she was able to make changes in her life, including the ability to take comfort foods and make it better for you. The other food show features Nathan Lyon, who believes that all good-tasting food needs to start fresh. He’ll take us to the farmer’s market, and he has a great presentation style.
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