Healthy Prognosis for Fitness Fare

Want to lose some weight, find information on how to control your blood pressure or learn how to do yoga? Look no further than your television remote control.

Cable television is quickly becoming the best prescription for consumers looking to better their lives through exercise, nutrition and health wellness via several traditional networks and video-on-demand channels.

Established health-based programmers such as Discovery Health Channel and FitTV are getting a good workout in competing with upstart VOD-based services like HealthiNation, Mag Rack and exercisetv. Meanwhile, multiplatform networks like Lime look to deliver the message of healthy living via nearly all video-distribution methods.

Executives from those programmers say there’s plenty of room for all to succeed in the burgeoning multibillion dollar health-and-exercise category. With baby boomers and Generation Xers alike focusing more time and resources on living well, executives say the category will only get healthier and bear more financial fruit in the near future.

The advent of exercise and health-based programming on television isn’t a new phenomenon — starting in the 1950s, The Jack La Lanne Show, featuring the venerable exercise guru, taught viewers the merits of exercise for more than 34 years. In the ’80s, videocassette players ushered in a new era of home-fitness video from such exercise mavens as Richard Simmons and Bodies In Motion star Gilad, as well as more-recent exercise movements, like Billy Blanks’ Tae Bo kickboxing series and Ana Caban’s series of Pilates videos.

With the new millennium, however, the category has exploded on cable television. Currently, linear cable networks like Discovery Health and FitTV offer health-and-exercise content on a 24-hour basis, while video-on-demand networks like Comcast-owned exercisetv, Rainbow Entertainment Services’ Mag Rack and independently-owned HealthiNation are providing yoga, “boxercise” and belly-dancing routines to couch potatoes and physically active consumers with a touch of a button.

And people are watching.

Cable-operator executives also said that exercise content shapes up as one of on-demand’s biggest attractions. “We find these to be very attractive offerings for our customers and exercisetv is continually one of our top 10-viewed ad-supported VOD services,” said Time Warner Cable senior vice president of video on demand Bob Benya.


Exercisetv and other health-related on-demand content are also strong performers for Comcast, said Page Thompson, the Philadelphia-based operator’s senior vice president and general manager of video services.

So why are more people taking their health more seriously? One reason, according to Lime CEO CJ Kettler, is that people have a greater sense of mortality since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

“I think some of it comes from the fact that after 9/11 people have turned inside themselves to some extent and were looking for some balance, and health and wellness come into that as part of that,” says Kettler, whose channel — currently in 7 million homes — focuses mostly on environmental and wellness content.

“There’s a greater sense of 'I need to find some sense of safety and some sense of balance for myself,’ ” she added.

Another factor is the aging of the baby boomer population: Today’s 45-to-70-year-olds are living longer than any other generation in history, and are very concerned about health and longevity.

“There are 10,000 people a day turning 50-years-old, and these people are moving into their retirement in a much different way than the previous generation,” said Mag Rack senior vice president and general manager Dan Ronayne. “They’re more active and they want to continue to be active.”

Kettler argues that younger viewers are even more in step with health issues than their parents, and are consuming more information about wellness-related issues. “I think that it’s the Gen X audience that puts this on their list of priorities in terms of their own lifestyles,” she said. “The Boomers are just waking up to the fact that this is important because they want to live longer, but Gen X has always lived in a healthier, more balanced way. That lifestyle is part and parcel with their daily actions.”

Gen Xers are also more tech-savvy, which has opened the door for health-oriented content providers to offer nutritional shows, yoga instructional videos and high-impact aerobic shows via cable, particularly through on-demand and broadband platforms. Networks like HealthiNation, a VOD health information service that launched on Insight Communications systems this past June, and exercisetv — a partnership between Comcast and fitness expert Jake Steinfeld, offering 20 hours a month of fitness and sports instruction — are taking full advantage of the personal, watch-when-you-want nature of VOD.

“These consumers let us into their homes, so we are developing a personal relationship with someone because health, weight loss and being in shape is very personal to an individual so we can program specifically to one person’s wants and desires,” said exercisetv general manager Chris Mansolillo.

“When you want to work out, it’s pretty hard to do that with appointment television — it’s hard for people to get engaged,” added Mag Rack’s Ronayne. Exercise and fitness-based video categories, like Personal Trainer, are among the top two or three most downloaded content within the 11.4 million subscriber service’s lineup.

“It works for people’s schedules and allows you to pause if something interrupts you and rewind if you’re interested in focusing on a certain aspect of the workout,” he added.


While men represent the lion’s share of live sports-TV viewing, health-network executives said women push the remote-control button more for health and exercise-related VOD content.

“I think women have always been more focused on health as primary caretakers, which includes partners and children,” said Eileen O’Neill, executive vice president and general manager of Discovery Health and FitTV. “But the good news is there are more men involved in health media whether you look at the growth of men’s health magazines. That’s a positive development, because everybody needs to be concerned about their health.”

Indeed, given the near-epidemic nature of diabetes, obesity and heart disease among Americans today, O’Neill said reliable, trustworthy content about heath issues is vitally important. Discovery has gone so far as to create a separate company, Discovery Health Media Enterprises — a new multiplatform business unit that integrates its linear TV channels, online assets and its Medical Education businesses.

Just recently the company launched a 24-hour broadband channel as part of its Web site, featuring more than 500 short-form video clips with expert advice, tips and trends in health care.

HealthiNation also offers short-form videos on health care issues such as breast cancer, high-blood pressure and asthma. Network founder Raj Amin said unlike other VOD categories, the health industry lends itself to more informative fare that doesn’t necessarily have to have the production bells and whistles that entertainment, news or sports shows require.

“It’s different from the traditional TV environment where you’re trying to aggregate a mass volume — in an on-demand world, we can serve the need to deliver real, valuable health info while making it as entertaining as you can,” he said.

In an effort to balance information with entertainment, executives look to attract high-profile personalities.

HealthiNation, for example will feature Boston Red Sox baseball pitcher Curt Schilling with his wife Shonda, who give a personal account of her successful battle with skin cancer.

Discovery Health will launch two new wellness series in January featuring natural living expert Sara Snow and lifestyle guru Dan Ho. Lime, features several personalities in the wellness and health field, including award-winning chef Michel Nischan, who hosts a healthy-food series that can be accessed via cable, broadband, VOD, mobile phones and podcasts.

“We’ve really come at the content area with the aligning with great talent with folks that are living that lifestyle and sharing that lifestyle,” said Kettler, who is a yoga enthusiast.

Executives say the health-and-wellness category shows no signs of faltering. In fact, Discovery’s O’Neill believes its popularity will continue to grow as distribution technologies such as the Internet, portable media players, cell phones and VOD disperse more health content.

“The health field is immense, in terms of its size — unlike some of the other lifestyle categories, it has a lot of info that changes on a regular basis,” she said. “To be successful, you really need to have clear, reliable and accurate information. It is a complex and emotional category — it can amount to some of your happiest and saddest times.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.