Wish fulfillment

Helping families worth more than ratings

They were two families with two very different stories: Brain Wofford, a widower with eight kids, was seriously ill with diabetes. His family was crowded into a 1,200-square-foot home with a leaky roof. Joe and Nina Priore were so overwhelmed with five kids — a 10-year-old girl and 8-year-old quadruplets — that she was having anxiety attacks.

What do they have in common? Reality TV helped turn around their lives.

ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” came to the Woffords’ rescue, building them a 4,700-square-foot dream house, while Fox’s “Nanny 911” helped the Priores learn to communicate better and work together as a family.

How did reality TV get into the business of helping people, anyway?

“To be honest, the original idea wasn’t born out of a mission statement to change people’s lives,” says David Goldberg, president of Endemol USA, producer of “Extreme Makeover.” “It was to come up with a show about home renovation, but to make it spectacular so it would resonate with network audiences as opposed to the smaller shows that were doing well on cable.”

Producers of both programs also knew that the people being helped had to be deserving.

“I’m an entertainment producer. My initial purpose was to make people laugh,” says Paul Jackson, CEO of Granada America and executive producer of “Nanny 911.” “I hope people laugh and smile and cry at the stories we tell, but if they also moderate their parenting behavior for the better, then good.”

Finding the right families is a lengthy process, with each show receiving upward of a thousand applications a week.

“We have a large department that does nothing but go through the applications,” says Tom Forman, executive producer of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” “They’re looking at the family and their story, looking to see who’d benefit most from a home renovation. We can’t change the world and can’t possibly solve all their problems, so whose problem is rooted in their home?”

Because “Nanny 911” imparts child-rearing advice, unique families are sought out. “We look for story beats that are very new and different,” Jackson says, such as a widow whose kids take their grief out on her or a child with adoption issues.

“They focus on the storyline they think will help the most people,” says Nina Priore, who had cameras in her home four days after learning her family had been chosen. The episode aired less than a month later. “Our commercials were already on while they were still clearing out.”

“It helped us as a family to get better at getting along, to get back on track,” says Joe Priore. “Granted, some of the things they showed I wasn’t that thrilled about, but it was true.”

The Priores say the experience made their children more self-sufficient and they keep in touch with Nanny Stella.

Wofford says his experience did more than provide a new home — it saved his life. His illness wasn’t discussed on TV, but when an article about his family’s experience on the show mentioned his insurance company had denied him gastric-bypass surgery, some attorneys interceded and the operation was approved. “I’m down 175 pounds, have no diabetes, no hypertension, no sleep apnea. The prognosis is I’ll be around another 30 or 40 years as opposed to three.”

“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” keeps in touch with its families, partly for maintenance reasons, but also because of the bonds that form during production. “I was a television news producer, I’m as cynical as they come,” Forman says. “Getting to meet these families and feel like in some small way you’ve impacted their lives is a remarkable thing.”

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