NBC, CW among the latest to add shows in hot genre
In “Losing It With Jillian,” NBC’s summer reality show, Jillian Michaels — “The Biggest Loser” trainer with the to-die-for abs — badgers a morbidly obese man to keep exercising. He’s winded but pushes onward, wheezing.NBC’s screener omitted the last act so as not to spoil the results, but one suspects the fellow will be shown slimmed down and dancing at his daughter’s wedding. Certainly, nobody would kick off a feel-good primetime series with an episode where somebody dies before its completion, as happened with an interview subject in CNBC’s recent documentary “One Nation, Overweight.” Television has a strange relationship with weight loss. America’s battle with the bulge is too readily relatable to resist, making the struggles of folks who sweat merely donning their workout garb ideal for unscripted fare. There are clear, quantifiable goals, registered by hopping on a scale while the music builds for dramatic effect. Yet at the same time, the nature of the medium — please sit your big butt down and don’t move till this show is over — is very much at odds with, and related to, our collective pudginess. First lady Michelle Obama has made combating childhood obesity a signature issue, but the preoccupation with dieting hardly began there. Given the stunning number of infomercials devoted to shaping up, with titles like “Hypnosis for Weight Loss” and “Insane Sexy Bodies,” direct-response marketers have a clear image of the audience hungry for help, whether quick-fix solutions come in bottles or amazing gizmos. Concern about weight remains a booming business for TV, despite the evidence of a correlation between viewing and obesity. As U.S. News & World Report’s “On Parenting” column recently concluded, “There’s more than enough evidence to connect TV- watching with bad health outcomes, for children and adults alike.” The real money, however, has been in crafting heart-tugging stories around the pursuit of weight loss. “Biggest Loser” sets the ratings standard, but has plenty of company. Basketball star Shaquille O’Neal sought to help overweight kids in “Shaq’s Big Challenge.” “Ruby” chronicled a 500-pound woman’s story. “One Big Happy Family” followed a family of four totaling three-quarters of a ton. There was the self-explanatory “Fat Camp,” “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” and the CW’s upcoming “Shedding for the Wedding,” not to mention “DietTribe,” “Celebrity Fit Club,” “Workout,” and “Dance Your Ass Off,” which just launched an outreach program and national ass-shrinking tour. Daytime is ground-zero for those seeking to slim down, including countless “Oprah” episodes and morning-show segments. Finally, there’s just about anything with Kirstie Alley, who has structured her career around being big. Children’s TV has gotten into the act with shows like “LazyTown,” an international hit that encourages kids to exercise — however incongruous the juxtaposition of the two activities might sound. If programmers and producers are plagued by the irony of these series — much less a wee tinge of guilt regarding the dubious value of fad diets and crash exercise programs, which seldom result in sustained weight loss — it’s not immediately apparent. Then again, inasmuch as their jobs depend on getting people to tune in, and considering consumers have plenty of information about the benefits of diet and exercise, it’s not up to TV to be the audience’s nanny, merely its motivation. Notably, scripted series are getting into the act too. Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva” — a fantasy about a model whose spirit winds up in an overweight woman’s body — will soon begin its second season. ABC Family will soon introduce “Huge,” a drama series about teens at a fat camp, and CBS has ordered “Mike & Molly,” a sitcom about an overweight cop and teacher who begin a romance. Of course, drop by any fitness center and you’ll find a wall of TVs strategically positioned opposite the treadmills and stationary bikes, proving the two aren’t always incompatible. Mostly, though, the hours people spend glued to a screen — computer, TV, videogame console — are in lieu of exercise, not augmenting it. That dichotomy might seem a trifle odd, especially in a society so obsessed with health and appearance. But as long as an audience remains eager and willing to find diet inspiration on the couch, will any amount of criticism or second-guessing thin the programming herd? Fat chance.