Waging war for Health

Discovery and Fox grapple to dominate niche; each now a viable buy for advertisers

A little more than a year out of the gate, the two competitors looking to own the definitive health network are running nearly neck-and-neck. Riding in on an expected investment of $333 million, Discovery Health Channel is in 16 million homes, with agreements for 50 million five years out.

The Health Channel, started by FOX just three weeks before the Discovery launch last August, is at 17.5 million with agreements for 40 million by 2004. FOX parent, News Corp., subsequently committed $560 million in cash and support for its health play under a 50-50 partnership agreement with Healtheon/WebMD, consummated last January.

Now that enough distribution is secured to make both networks a viable buy for advertisers, the race is turning to identity. Both networks are predicated on a type of programming that doesn't exactly blow the doors off Survivor, or even beat an average episode of Spongebob Squarepants. Both are doing newsmagazine, documentary-style medical programming, similar to The Learning Channel's Trauma-Life in the ER, that's tracking around a 0.6 rating.

Other shows are the type of exercise and lifestyle stuff that sunk America's Health before FOX bought it and rolled it into its own FitTV to create The Health Network.

Discovery is trying to stand out with celebrity sports figures. Last week the network announced its sponsorship of a 12-city tour of the U.S. women's soccer team to kick off after the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. Playing off the popularity of World Cup winners Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Carla Overbeck, Discovery hopes to raise awareness for Health.

"No sports team is more universally loved than this team. You don't hear about contract disputes and going to jail. They train hard, they play well and they win," said John Ford, president of Discovery Health Channel. He declined to say how much Discovery paid for the sponsorship, but he pegged the promotional value for the network at about $2 million.

One benefit will be just getting the name of the channel in print, given local sports pages will certainly cover the Discovery Health Channel Women's Soccer Tour. Discovery will no doubt be simultaneously pushing a new show featuring the soccer women throughout the tour. The FITeam Power Hour will launch on Discovery Health Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. with Hamm, Foudy, Overbeck and other team members talking teamwork and motivation.

(It also doesn't hurt that Discovery Chairman John Hendricks is the major domo behind the new Women's United Soccer Association, which hopes to get going by next spring.)

The Health Channel itself will be run on arena Jumbotrons during breaks, exposing the program to a potential audience of 130,000, the number of fans who attended a similar tour last year. Any exposure will help, considering the level of awareness for the channel, which is quite low.

Fox's first step toward differentiation is a name change planned for mid-November. The Health Channel will then officially become WebMD Television, named for the companion Web site created by Healtheon, a medical-information service company that has lost more than $800 million since launching in 1996. Healtheon/WebMD now manages the network.

Currently, programming is a combination of shows from America's Health and FitTV, but that will start changing when the network becomes WebMD TV, said Pat Fili-Krushel, the former ABC dynamo who is now president and CEO of WebMD Health.

New shows will target the type of people who search the Web for health information, for example, beleaguered parents trying to get their kids to sleep. There will also be a daily health show that's a cross between The Today Show and 20/20, and WebMD TV is setting up a single-camera studio operation to do breaking medical news, according to Fili-Krushel.

More details will emerge as the "soft" relaunch date approaches, she continued, adding that she will be hiring a general manager for the channel in the next two weeks.