The nation’s obesity epidemic is now playing out in primetime.
As American waistlines continue to grow, so does reality TV’s fascination with fat. Unscripted series featuring overweight folks are popping up all over broadcast and cable, with even more to come.
Next week, Fox launches “More to Love” — or, as it’s called in some circles, “The Fatchelor” — a dating show from “Bachelor” creator Mike Fleiss that features zaftig contestants looking for love.
That joins shows such as Oxygen’s “Dance Your Ass Off,” Style’s “Ruby” and the granddaddy of the trend, NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” in highlighting plus-sized people.
TLC has shown a particularly large appetite for everything super-sized, telecasting programs with titles such as “Obese and Pregnant,” “The 650-Pound Virgin,” “Big as Life: Obesity in America,” “Honey, We’re Killing the Kids,” “Inside Brookhaven Obesity Clinic” and “Big Medicine.”
Next up, the Discovery-owned cabler recently picked up “One Big Happy Family,” which follows a North Carolina brood in which all four members weigh in at more than 300 pounds.
“You can’t ignore how successful ‘The Biggest Loser’ has been,” TLC development VP Rita Mullin says. “But more than that, society is looking at the issue in a different way now. The kind of programming we’re doing on cable reflects that. We’re putting a human face to what had been, before, a punchline. When you watch a show like ‘650-Pound Virgin’ or ‘Ruby,’ suddenly you realize, ‘I can identify with this person.’ ”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, obesity — defined as a body mass index of 30 or greater — has dramatically increased over the past 20 years. In 2008, only one state, Colorado, reported obesity in less than 20% of its population. In six states, more than 30% had a “prevalence of obesity.”
“It’s obviously a relatable matter, and already a staple of daytime,” says Reveille’s Mark Koops, who is an executive producer on “Loser.” “Traditional print magazines have done well with stories about self-transformation. You look at any kind of recession and self-help books tend to do better as the economy worsens.”
The nets have also discovered that big weight equals big business. “The Biggest Loser” has spawned an entire franchise of books, CDs and weight-loss plans. Marketers have also been quick to sign on: Plus-size retailer Lane Bryant, for example, is a partner on “More to Love.”
With so many TV viewers struggling with their weight, showcasing more realistically-sized people on reality TV would seem to be a no-brainer.
” ‘Biggest Loser’ proved, along with shows like ‘Little People, Big World,’ that there doesn’t have to be that axiom that people need to be ultra thin or ultra good-looking on TV,” says Fox alternative topper Mike Darnell.
Indeed, Darnell says “More to Love” was born after he and Fleiss were at lunch one day and discussed how well both “The Bachelor” and “The Biggest Loser” were performing in the Nielsens.
“We came to the conclusion that women who watch shows like ‘The Bachelor’ don’t look anything like the women in those shows,” Darnell says. “You go to sites like eHarmony or Match.com, you’re not going to see anyone who looks like the women from ‘The Bachelor.’ An average reality contestant is usually a size 2, while the average woman is a size 14. This is much more reflective of real life; it reflects the dating pool better.”
Network execs and producers say they’re not looking to exploit overweight people, arguing that most of their shows are inspirational in nature, such as plus-sized folks looking to lose weight or go on a date.
According to Mullin, it’s important to highlight a transformation of some sort during the course of a series. On Style’s “Ruby,” star Ruby Gettinger is shown as she takes action to reduce her 447 lb. weight. On “The 650-Pound Virgin,” David Smith describes losing 410 pounds over 26 months.
Reality producer Sally Ann Salsano, who’s behind both “Dance Your Ass Off” and “More to Love,” says she’s always on the lookout to make sure the networks aren’t looking to sensationalize the overweight aspect of her shows’ contestants.
“I’m overweight, and I’m not going to do a show that makes fun of fat people, because I know what that feels like,” she says. “I have a connection with my cast on these shows.”
Salsano says her staff is actually relieved to be showcasing average-sized folks while shooting these shows.
“Normally, you know you wouldn’t have a shot in hell on being cast in a reality show,” she says. “(Contestants) are normally in such great shape, and none of us could be on those shows. But in this case, you’re seeing real people and what they really struggle with and how they feel.”
With TV mostly populated by the ultra-thin and actors in top physical shape, there’s also a sense that, with shows that feature plus-size folks, you’re tuning in to something taboo — similar to the draw of shows like “Little People.”
Salsano says she doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The viewers who tune in to stop and stare might wind up with a more humanizing view of people struggling with weight issues.
“These shows make you feel better about your own life, but it also makes you realize that these people are just like everybody else,” she says. “The upside of these shows far outweigh the negative.”
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been some concerns. In a society that often sensationalizes weight gain and plus-size individuals, it’s also easy to imagine that some viewers are tuning in to perhaps gawk at or ridicule the overweight crowd.
Debate over these shows often flares up on message boards populated by users struggling with weight issues. And Koops says a group called the National Assn. to Advance Fat Acceptance sent a letter to NBC when “The Biggest Loser” first launched, expressing dismay with the show.
“They said we were reinforcing stereotypes that fat people are lazy,” Koops says. “Our response was ‘The Biggest Loser’ never looked for people who were overweight and happy. That’s a personal choice. If you want to take the medical risk, that’s fine. But these people are so desperate to change their lives. Our aim was never to make fun of fat people. This is an absolute epidemic and it’s a real issue we’re addressing.”