The Biggest Loser” didn’t initially seem like a winner. Before its October 2004 premiere, the unscripted drama appeared to be yet another reality show aimed at mocking and humiliating its contestants — specifically, an overweight group that, in a competition to drop pounds and pick up $250,000 in cash, would endure both high-calorie temptations and torture in the form of hard-charging trainers.
Yet any reality show worth its product placement has twists, and “The Biggest Loser’s” was surprisingly positive: Rather than deride their competition, participants inspired and motivated each other. They lost staggering amounts of weight and, in the process, NBC gained a hit.
Now, more than four years and 100 episodes later, “The Biggest Loser” is the network’s top-rated reality series. Its seventh season bowed in January with its most-watched premiere yet, and the show — hosted by “Days of Our Lives” star Allison Sweeney — has already been renewed for the 2009-10 season.
“I think it works because of the combination of tremendous physical transformation married to this emotional journey these people go on,” says Ben Silverman, who co-created the skein along with his Reveille partner Mark Koops, David Broome and 3Ball Prods. before becoming the co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio. “Unlike other reality shows, who wins is almost less relevant than how their lives are changed. It’s powerful stuff.”
Koops believes the show has particular resonance for a country currently battling an obesity epidemic.
“Whether you struggle with weight or not, you know somebody who does,” he says. “It’s a very relatable problem. Granted, most people are not 454 pounds at age 19 like our heaviest contestant this season. But we’re all looking for inspiration and motivation, and that’s part of the show’s fabric –telling tales of ‘if these people can do it, so can I.’ ”
Getting the show on the air in the first place required perseverance akin to that required of a “Biggest Loser” contestant. When pitching the show to various networks, recalls co-creator/executive producer Broome, “I was specifically told by several execs who shall remain nameless that weight loss in primetime would never work. They thought it was too soft, that it couldn’t cut through.”
Broome felt certain that the subject, long a staple of daytime television, could be successful in primetime, provided it was done in the right way.
“From the beginning, I said, ‘Look, we’re going to have drama and emotion, but, at the end of the day, this is going to be a feel-good show,'” Broome says.
“I would love to claim that (weight losss) was based off greater science than salesmanship and hope,” says Koops with a laugh. “Obviously, we’ve seen the results. Never would we have thought we’d have someone lose 200 pounds, and now we have that happen on multiple occasions.”
NBC also was concerned the show’s provocative title would rub everybody — viewers, press, advertisers — the wrong way. Still, after debating it “endlessly,” as Silverman puts it, the exec producers decided to stick to their guns.
“If you call a primetime show ‘The Diet,’ you’re not going to get many eyeballs,” Broome reasons. “Then it just feels like an Oprah segment.”
Still, Koops admits, “It’s proven to be a better title as the show has grown and people have become more aware of what it really means.”
Or not. “I think the title holds us back from getting nominated for awards,” says executive producer J.D. Roth. “Some people can’t get past it.”
“Biggest Loser” may not get any Emmy love, but the producers remain heartened by its growing popularity with viewers. The series currently runs two cycles per season, and several international versions have been launched in recent years.
“I think we’ve done it the right way,” says Roth, who also provides the show’s voiceovers. “In season seven, we’re just hitting our stride. It’s been a slower burn, but I hope that means we’ll be around for a lot longer.”