Beefing Up Web Health Info

Beefing Up Web Health Info

By Jon Van
Chicago Tribune
06/17/07 4:00 AM PT

Chicago-based AnswersMedia is making programs on health topics such as hypertension and obesity, and will launch its service this summer. The goal is to have 17 programs, each about a half-hour, made before the launch. By the end of the year, the firm plans to have 38 programs finished.

The Internet is full of health advice. A Google search for hypertension produces nearly 35 million choices, while obesity scores almost 29 million and prostate cancer hits 19.5 million.

Some people might think that's enough, but Jeff Bohnson thinks there's room for one more.

A veteran of the TV business, Bohnson believes his startup company can make its way in this crowded field by delivering credible health information through highly polished high-definition videos. He proposes to make content free, making money on ads embedded in the videos, and he won't limit distribution to the Web.

A 'Platform-Agnostic' Business

"We'll make it available to cable television, broadcast television, podcasts, cell phones and everything else. We are platform-agnostic," said Bohnson.

The convergence of television and computers, which has given anyone the ability to produce and distribute content, is remaking the media landscape. Where once only large companies or networks could launch programs in hope of reaching national audiences, the barriers to entry have come down dramatically — though the chances of success haven't necessarily increased.

Bohnson's Chicago-based company, AnswersMedia, is making programs on health topics such as hypertension and obesity and will launch its service this summer. The goal is to have 17 programs, each about a half-hour, made before the launch. By the end of the year, Bohnson wants to have 38 programs finished.

Eventually, he plans to produce short, daily reports on health news.

The Associated Risks

Each longer program costs US$100,000 or more, and features experienced TV personalities as well as interviews with physicians and researchers from around the country, usually shot at their home hospitals. AnswersMedia employs 60 full-time people to make its videos, which rely heavily on computer graphics and digital manipulation.

Talon Asset Management, a Chicago-based venture capital firm, is AnswersMedia's primary investor, along with Bohnson and other company executives; he declined to disclose the amount of the investment. Before starting AnswersMedia, Bohnson founded, ran and eventually sold Orbis Broadcast Group, which had become the Midwest's largest independent production company.

Of course, the Internet is littered with optimistic business proposals that couldn't find an audience, and Bohnson recognizes that.

"There's risk in any startup," he said. "But we're painfully confident in our success because we are going with the trends — viewership of online video is rising, video-on-demand on cable is growing."

Making Deals

The company is negotiating with major cable operators with video-on-demand, Internet portals and newspaper Web sites, Bohnson said. It is also close to making deals with several advertisers, but isn't ready to announce specifics.

Production moves ahead at the company's headquarters in downtown Chicago. Each program's host stands in what amounts to a sea of blue in AnswersMedia's studio.

The scenery in each shot is filled in later by computer. This enables the company to insert and change advertisers' names and logos as desired. So a program seen on a Web site might have a plug for a drugstore chain in it while the same program seen in a podcast might be sponsored by a health insurance company.

The content itself is independent of any sponsor, Bohnson said, and is reviewed by Gerald Chodak, the company's medical director.

Good Science

Presenting medical information through high-quality video should help consumers to get nuances associated with many medical questions, Chodak said.

"There are millions of sites on the Web," he said. "How is an average person to know where to go? We provide someone who reports to the patient rather than asking him to read pages and pages. We give the information in a more usable way.

"We will give them good science when it is available and tell them when it is not."

By providing critiques and round-table discussions, AnswersMedia programs will seek to give some perspective to the medical questions people have, Chodak said.

The company also will produce programs about food, recipes and cooking, and expects to have about 75 hours of such content on hand by the end of the year, Bohnson said.

Borrowing Ideas

AnswersMedia's business model borrows some ideas, but puts them together in a way that is unique, said Jim Ericson, marketing vice president for Move Networks, a Utah firm that serves as an online distribution platform for the Fox and ABC television networks and several other customers.

"It's a great concept, especially doing it over several platforms," said Ericson.

One problem AnswersMedia may encounter is maintaining high-definition quality while delivering streaming video over some systems that cannot support the necessary transmission speeds, Ericson said. Bohnson said presents a challenge.

"The old adage of 'garbage in garbage out' applies here a bit," Bohnson said. "Starting with HD will definitely give the best viewing across all platforms, however we will need to 'dumb' it down a bit for the various platforms that can't quite handle the data yet, but the picture will still carry quality."

Jeff Pulver, who founded Network2.TV, a startup focused on helping consumers discover videos on the Web, said he thinks Bohnson's idea is "cool" and wishes him success.

"This should be a breath of fresh air," said Pulver, "but if they succeed and educate the market to expect higher quality videos online, you'll see a lot of competitors jump on that."

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