Embarrassing Bodies; Maverick Television; Channel 4

If people feel that a health issue is too embarrassing to speak directly with their doctor about, why not encourage them instead to reveal all in front of 8 million Internet users? This seems to be the unlikely concept behind Embarrassing Bodies Live, the live Internet show accompanying Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies television series in the UK.

Embarrassing Bodies is a daring, provocative public health television show that tackles medical conditions people may feel reluctant to talk with their physicians about. But it is through integration of media channels that the show has achieved its most remarkable success.


Dr Christian Jessen, one Embarrassing Bodies’ doctors, speaks guest patient Keith Roberts on the television show


According to Stephanie Harris, Executive Producer at Maverick Television, makers of Embarrassing Bodies, Maverick deliberately set out to create an online experience that was completely integrated with the television show, rather than the website simply being a bolt-on resource to support viewers. “We know that the website has a huge user base, so we looked at how to put some of that back into the television programme”, she says.

Dan Jones, Maverick’s Head of New Media, says that with the first series in 2007, Maverick had launched a number of resource videos to support the programme, including self- check guides for men. “We also did mobile versions of the videos, cut down to around one minute… so you can take it to the bathroom, rather than sitting in the living room”, he says. The videos proved to be highly popular, with each self-check video receiving millions of views online, so more videos were added.

Maverick Television took the approach of trying different formats and content types, building on what worked well. “When we launched community features on the site and allowed in-line commenting, people took it up a lot more than we expected them to do, and did it in different ways. One of the ways was asking questions or sharing concerns. So we looked at the most popular themes, and recorded a series of twenty video responses with the doctors from the show”, says Jones.

The online experience was designed to provide practical health advice that complimented the television show. Where the television show might have attracted people initially for entertainment, the online content was focused on practical advice. “The TV show takes quite a provocative, fun, entertaining approach to getting health messages across, so we might be quite cheeky. But when people then go online, the video content is quite straight and informative”, says Harris.

Embarrassing Bodies took a ‘cheeky’ approach to address serious health issues

Reconnecting people with healthcare

Maverick Television’s Embarrassing Bodies seems to have done more to reconnect people with healthcare than any other initiative in our Healthcare Engagement Strategy Awards. Whilst the online world has moved from a broadcast-only, ‘web 1.0’ format to an engaging, two-way communication ‘web 2.0’ format, even so-called ‘interactive’ television has provided limited ways for viewers to truly engage. With Embarrassing Bodies, Maverick broke new ground by recognising that many of their television viewers were already engaged online, so it really was a case of being where they were.

“When we were developing the hour-long format, we developed it as one of the first truly 360-degree formats, thinking about how people are going to move between the platforms”, says Jones.

Users of the Embarrassing Bodies website can also support each other, by responding to questions and comments. Jones says that whilst a relatively low percentage of people have done this – around 100,000 out of the website’s eight million users, those who do engage with others spend a long time on the site.

The television show alone was Channel 4’s highest-rated show of 2010 with four million viewers – an incredible figure for what is effectively a public service programme.

Maverick Television also worked with the NHS to integrate content from the NHS Choices website. “We’re one of NHS Choices biggest referrers”, says Jones, explaining that Embarrassing Bodies has played a role in engaging people who would not usually visit NHS Choices.

‘Viewsers’ shape live shows

Embarrassing Bodies Live, launched in February 2010, was the UK’s first ever switchover from a television show to a live online show. The online-only show aired straight after the television broadcast, allowing Internet users to continue to watch live video and engage by uploading images of their own medical conditions. Users, or ‘viewsers’ as Maverick Television have come to call them, influence the show’s content by voting for those images that they want to be discussed.

Users were able to come on, and by uploading images or questions and voting on them, bring to the top the issues they wanted discussed. What we talk about is up to the users. It’s quite risky, but it’s fascinating to discover what people want to talk about... And it wasn’t just genitalia; one of the highest voted things was somebody’s athlete’s foot”, says Jones.

Embarrassing Bodies Live, the UK’s first ever television-internet crossover show

The show’s producers did not use Twitter as a managed channel for engagement, instead allowing viewers to discuss the show freely with each other on this platform. And viewers certainly did – each night that Embarrassing Bodies Live was aired, hashtag #embarrassingbodies became the top trending topic on Twitter. In one case, a woman featured on the show joined in the Twitter discussion, responding to the tweets of viewers.

You don’t usually get that level of engagement – you can’t talk back to the TV. Without this being formally set up in any way, it’s happening”, says Harris.

Jones says that Internet users use a range of platforms to engage around the show at different levels. “We offer the opportunity for people to get involved within the sphere of Embarrassing Bodies, via the site, and it’s quite controlled; then the Facebook group blurs the boundary – it’s an official group and we’ll respond to people asking about the series; and then on Twitter, we’re comfortable with just letting the audience talk about things. And it’s a different conversation.

Online tools

The Embarrassing Bodies website includes a range of tools that allow users to respond to what they have seen on television or in Embarrassing Bodies Live. The most successful of these is the STI risk-checker, which asks ten questions about your lifestyle and provides a personal risk report. It then offers information about local health services where you can speak with a healthcare professional. More than a million people have used this service.

The STI Checker has been the website’s most successful application

Another successful tool has been an autism test, placing people on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient, a measure of autistic traits in adults. Users were encouraged to send in their results – something that over 200,000 users did.  Jones says that this has led to a consideration of how the power of television could be used to help medical research.

Advice for others?

I asked Dan Jones and Stephanie Harris what advice they would give to others considering mixed channel initiatives for public health engagement.

Jones says that it was important to get the partnerships right, making sure that the right processes were in place such as with the collaboration with the NHS.

He also advises that online content should not be seen as a ‘cheap alternative’ to television. “Something that I really recommend to people making cross-platform content like this is, we don’t think ‘right, we’re doing a day of filming, so we’ll just tack on a bit of filming at the end for online; we have completely separate days for online filming, with full production teams, properly medically researched and scripted.” He points out that this is more expensive so in the case of Embarrassing Bodies it required buy-in from the broadcaster, Channel 4.

Harris says that because the television show dealt with personal health matters, there were many factors that were outside of the producers’ control, such as individual outcomes or recovery timescales after treatment. “Managing people’s expectations was important”, she says.

Embarrassing Bodies, for successfully bringing public health into people’s living rooms and reconnecting them with healthcare, we award you the Healthcare Engagement Strategy 2011 Unlocking Public Health Award.


Read about other winners of the Healthcare Engagement Strategy Awards 2011.

Contact Creation Healthcare to discuss your views and find out how their insights into healthcare engagement can help you achieve better health outcomes.

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