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Discovery Finds That FitTV Was Best Fit After All

Discovery Networks U.S., partnering with fitness impresario Jake Steinfeld, plans to relaunch The Health Network next January, returning the channel to its old name — FitTV — and its former format.

On Jan. 1 Discovery plans to take the network back to its roots, as a destination for exercise and fitness programming. It's the latest chapter in the convoluted history of the service, which now reaches more than 31.3 million homes.

Discovery bought THN for $255 million in cash and equity from News Corp.'s Fox Cable Networks Group in September 2001. Discovery added it to its stable, which also includes Discovery Health Channel, a network focused on medical issues.

When Billy Campbell joined Discovery Networks as president more than a year ago, he nixed the notion of merging the programmer's two health networks.

"I thought [with THN] that we had the opportunity to expand and differentiate ourselves in part of the cable world that no one, even broadcasting, is really in," Campbell said.

He's enthusiastic about the relaunch, as fitness is one of the remaining programming niches not yet filled by a 24-hour network.

"Nobody has really tackled this area, which is why I feel it's such fertile ground," Campbell said.

More than $81 billion a year is spent in the United States on fitness and weight-loss related products.

As part of THN's relaunch Carole Tomko, most recently vice president of development and executive producer for Animal Planet, is moving over to become FitTV's senior vice president and general manager, Campbell said.

Steinfeld returns

For Steinfeld, it's déjà vu all over again, to use Yogi Berra's phrase.

He launched FitTV, originally called Cable Health Club, back in 1993, as part of Tim and Pat Robertson's International Family Entertainment Inc. News Corp. and its Fox Cable eventually wound up buying FitTV and merging it with the ailing America's Health Network in 1999.

"There are very few people that can say they were able to create something, launch it, sell it, and after all this time come back to it and basically resurrect it," Steinfeld said. "And it's going to be more powerful than it ever was at launch."

At one point, WebMD Corp. became News Corp's partner in THN, with plans to relaunch the network as WebMD TV in fall 2000. That joint venture unwound, and News Corp. wound up selling the network to Discovery.

FitTV will adopt a wheel format, most likely with a workout at the top and bottom of every hour, according to Steinfeld. But the wheel will also include information on health, nutrition and lifestyle, he added.

Campbell said he, Steinfeld and Tomko will work on the relaunch and new programming for FitTV.

"A lot of our programming will end up being exercise-related, but I think we want to encompass much more than that," Campbell said. "Jake's helping me with the programming, and there will probably be some programming that we might use initially from The Health Network. But our goal very quickly is to ramp up production, and we hope to have all original production."

New 'body' shows

Asked why Discovery is going back to the old FitTV name, Campbell said, "FitTV just really works. FitTV says exactly what it is."

Some of Steinfeld's old Body by Jake
programming now airs on THN. FitTV will have new Body by Jake
shows, as well as new exercise and wellness series and specials.

Steinfeld said he and Campbell have been friends for years, meeting when Campbell worked for now CBS-president Les Moonves at Warner Bros. Television.

When Campbell joined Discovery, Steinfeld and Campbell met and talked about THN.

At that time, Steinfeld — who had made overtures about buying THN — said he was finalizing and close to announcing plans for a new digital-cable network, Exercise TV, to be created with Tim Robertson.

Instead, Steinfeld opted to partner with Discovery on FitTV, in which he'll have an equity stake.

He was drawn to being "able to partner with Discovery, obviously with the brand and power that these guys have, and walking into an opportunity to light up a network again, and to have a substantial amount of subscribers."

50M subs in sight

THN has carriage commitments that will take it to 50 million subscribers in the next few years, according to Bill Goodwyn, Discovery's executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing.

Discovery Health Channel has 46.4 million homes, with commitments that would take it to 60 million.

In fact, THN has carriage deals with most of the big distributors, with the exception of EchoStar Communication Corp.'s Dish Network.

Goodwyn doesn't think that the change in THN's format will violate any content covenants in carriage deal, because "fitness is a sliver of health." He added that his discussions with operators about THN's future have been positive.

"They were really happy that we had some clear direction on what we were doing with the channel," he said. "THN has sort of been a placeholder. … We're going to make it into a very robust category.

"The business now is not muscle business. It's mind, body, spirit. We always felt it was a big enough category, if it was done well."

Prospects liked

Since Discovery took over THN, several programmers with new networks have approached, interested in jump-starting their services by acquiring THN's subscribers. Some major health-care players also talked to Discovery about partnering on THN.

Discovery sees huge potential for FitTV in terms of advertising and sponsorships, according to Campbell.

Discovery Health Channel launched its first national marketing campaign last week, a multimillion-dollar effort that will run across national cable, spot TV, network radio and national print.

The aim is to reinforce Discovery Health's branding as a network devoted to not just medical issues, but real-life human stories, feeling and emotions.