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TV's tip of the scale

Reality shows can elicit sympathy, but are they enough to spark change?

June 02, 2008|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer
  • BIG WINNER: Millions watched ?The Biggest Loser?s? Ali Vincent take the grand prize last month for shedding 112 pounds.
BIG WINNER: Millions watched ?The Biggest Loser?s? Ali Vincent take the… (Dave Bjerke / NBC Universal…)

Ladies AND gentlemen, please give it up for reality television. Because of it, the fitness landscape will never be the same.

Before "The Biggest Loser" or "Celebrity Fit Club" hit the airwaves, fitness and obesity weren't the most TV-friendly topics. Exercise was relegated to the occasional PBS program, morning show segment or infomercial, and obesity was used for shock value via the occasional 500-pound talk-show guest or story of spectacular weight loss.

But when the reality show juggernaut launched about eight years ago, it must have collectively dawned on some executives that fat people on a mission to lose weight would make for great TV -- and maybe the process of exploiting them would inspire a few viewers to shed some pounds themselves.

That epiphany resulted in a slew of shows in which obesity, weight loss and exercise were treated as either a competitive sport or quasi-circus sideshow and cautionary tale. In the competition category we've had "The Biggest Loser," "Celebrity Fit Club," "Fat March" and "Shaq's Big Challenge." In the circus category we've had "Honey We're Killing the Kids!," "Inside Brookhaven Obesity Clinic" and "Big Medicine," plus specials such as "I Eat 33,000 Calories a Day," featuring the super-morbidly obese.

Perhaps these shows' greatest contribution has been their attention to the everyday plight of the heavy. Participants talk openly about their perpetual battles with food and their hatred of exercise, and whenever they cave and sabotage their diets, we may disparage them for their lack of willpower, but secretly we empathize. Viewers who have never grappled with weight perhaps come away with more understanding. Viewers who have struggled know they aren't struggling alone.

I admit I'm an avid watcher of these shows, hooked from Day 1. But mine is a love-hate relationship. Because I write about fitness and obesity, I skeptically search for the shows' redeeming qualities. I know they're out to entertain viewers, but I wonder if the average person will find inspiration or insight.

I hope they do. Sometimes it's that if-he-can-do-it-I-can-do-it revelation that will start someone down the righteous path of weight loss. But the cynic in me knows that committing to a 13-week TV series is far easier than committing to a new lifestyle.

Below are reflections on some of these shows' motivational merits -- with input from Los Angeles-based personal trainer and author Harley Pasternak ("5-Factor Fitness" and "The 5 Factor Diet").


"The Biggest Loser" (NBC, premiered 2004, series is returning): This prize-driven competition pits men and women against one another in a battle to see who can lose the most weight while sequestered.

Most of the weight loss is dramatic -- not surprising, given the fact that competitors are cut off from family and friends. Viewers are privy to these noticeable results week to week. By the show's end, most people don't even resemble their former selves (most look at least 10 years younger), which could be a huge impetus for viewers to take the plunge. If they do, though, they won't be in an artificial environment with a trainer and only weight loss to focus on.

Pasternak points out that the show has to go for extreme results because regular weight loss simply isn't very interesting. "People aren't going to tune in to see that somebody lost another pound this week," he says. "So it's not this moderate, sustainable, realistic program; it's about losing as much weight as possible by any means necessary, and then letting you go back to your life. It might motivate some people, but it will be a misguided effort."

The show doesn't turn viewers completely loose on their own -- it's spawned a mini-industry of products, including books and DVDs. But without a personal plan, support and maintenance program, most weight-loss attempts are doomed to fail.


"Celebrity Fit Club" (VH1, premiered 2005, current status is unknown): Porky D-list celebs don't have to hide from prying paparazzi -- they can let the world see them try to lose weight.

The once-famous starlet who can't get rid of the baby weight, the rapper who lives to eat, the former child star who finds solace in cheesecake -- guaranteed, one or more of these types will be ready to do what it takes to slim down. In theory, anyway. Under the guidance of a physician, a therapist and an ex-Marine turned trainer, celebs take on wacky fitness challenges and try to follow their prescribed diets in an effort to meet their minimum weight-loss requirement at the weekly weigh-in. Though a few drop a considerable number of pounds, others barely budge the scale and some actually end up gaining.

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