The Biggest Loser

And so another season of The Biggest Loser comes to a close. Hundreds of pounds have been lost. Personal trainer Jillian has screamed at contestants a few thousand times. There’s been tears, sob stories and millions of excuses. And now the drastically diminished contestants will return to their ordinary lives – and resume their weight loss battle for real.

When I first heard about The Biggest Loser, I honestly thought it was going to be a horrible exercise in exploitation and humiliation. But I actually think the show has a positive message at its heart and is generally a really effective force for good on TV.  And from a producing point of view it’s a very well put together show – full of inventive challenges, endless twists and turns and some really clever surprises each season.

For NBC the show is probably their most valuable property currently on air – generating strong ratings (it averages around the 8-9 million mark), good demo numbers, endless product placement opportunities and numerous branded spin off products (the books, the DVD’s, the weight loss products). Plus the show is much cheaper than a scripted drama or comedy series, and takes up a whopping 2 hours of TV time each week, 31 weeks of the year. Big indeed!

But after 9 seasons on the air I’m afraid I fell out of love with The Biggest Loser somewhat this season. After several endlessly over-padded shows (see my Fast Forward piece for more on the Supersize Shows phenomenon) and interminable Weigh Ins, I find myself more inclined to watch Idol and Glee on a Tuesday night instead…

So if Biggest Loser wants me back as a full time viewer here’s a few slim down suggestions I’d like to make. Roll on my SIX PACK OF SOLUTIONS…now drop and give me ten!

Trim The Pack. Seriously – how many contestants were there this last season – 22! I mean how on earth can you keep track of 22 contestants for the first few weeks? I certainly can’t – and it means that the first few people sent packing are meaningless to the audience. Plus it means that even midway through the season you’ve still got about 8-10 people left in the game.  No wonder the Spring Season always feels a bit relentless and never ending.

My advice – keep contestants to a maximum of 16, trim the pack, and then you can always bring a few faces back down the line if you need (as has been done – effectively – in seasons past).  And while you’re at it – I’d suggest cutting the episode order too! 19 shows equals 38 hours! That’s over a whole day of couch potato-dom per series… and we wonder why America has a weight problem!

Less Pounds, More Personality. Speaking of the contestants, The Biggest Loser seems to be on a mission each season to find heavier and heavier contestants – all with the most dramatic backstories. Unfortunately in the process they’re losing sight of that key contestant component – personality. For the last couple of seasons there’s been a whole slew of identikit twenty-something girls and middle aged couples that I just can’t tell apart. The result – by the final 5 there are still one of two contestants in the running that are so unmemorable you don’t even know their names! (Quick, name me this year’s top five contestants!)

This season’s standouts were bitter mother and daughter act Miggy and Migdalia and redneck couple Melissa and Lance.  But now we’re left with a whole heap of dullness.  And why have we never seen any gay couples or contestants on the show to vary up the pack (and don’t even get me started on Bob and Jillian themselves, both of whom send my gaydar into overdrive – and yet never comment on their personal lives!)

Plus by casting 500 pound plus contestants, the show limits just how effective the transformations can be – I mean even after a remarkable 200lb weight loss, a 300lb contestant still looks heavy and is seriously out of shape.

Keep Slimming, Stop Selling. I’m all for a bit of product placement and the odd gratuitous sales pitch – but at times The Biggest Loser just becomes one big long infomercial. There’s the endless Subway shilling, the chewing gum plugs (I mean Wrigley as a diet aid – really?), the blatant Britas sales spiels… week in, week out. If you thought Project Runway, The Apprentice and Top Model were bad – they’re rank amateurs compared to the biggest commercial machine of them all.

But the cumulative result of all this endless selling is that it doesn’t enhance the show – it cheapens it. As audience members we all know these product placements are a way for NBC to make further money from the franchise… but The Biggest Loser is already a successful show. By using valuable screen time to sell more and more products we the viewers just roll our eyes – and reach for our DVR’s.

I understand the need to make extra ad money but I’d pay more attention to the commercial plugs in the Biggest Loser if they actually made sense with that week’s theme – and if it wasn’t the same products week in, week out. So next season, instead of doing blanket deals with the same key firms, why not shake up the commercial spots – feature low fat ice creams one week, a calorie counting aid the next. Anything to spare us from yet more Subway spots. Please!

Check The Ingredients. The Biggest Loser has so many great twists and turns – and most of the time they’re fantastically well produced. But nine seasons in, what used to be surprising and smart – is now becoming deathly predictable. So it’s time to shake up the pack!

We all know the Home Visits are a great way of seeing contestants slipping up on their diets – but repeated year after year these trips are as commonplace as a Jillian freak out (ditto the numerous shots of family members with home made banners waiting for their loved ones). What if one season contestants were sent to each others’ home for a change. Or no-one was waiting for them!

Ditto the makeovers – which are a great device, but why not save them for the final, or make contestants responsible for their own – or each other’s makeovers! Add to the list the endless marathons (fresh for one season, not well past their prime), the consistently dull cooking challenges (this isn’t Top Chef – who cares how these contestants fare in the kitchen) and the always uninteresting pop quizzes (great for a few minutes – but which always drag on and on).

Lose The Last Chance Workouts. Really what is the point of them? They happen every episode. Always involve lots of grunting, sweating, and Jillian screaming. But nothing much ever really happens in this penultimate workout scene (since all the tears and tantrums seem to happen earlier in the week). So what we’re left with is 10 minutes of workouts, lots of motivational pep talk and the sense that that gym must really smell bad at the end of each session. Watching people work out really is pretty dull TV, and I get the sense that it’s the one part of the show the producers don’t really think about – ‘oh we’ll just throw together a workout montage and some grimacing’. Honestly guys, we the audience can tell…

Keep It Light. Just like American Idol, story is now king on The Biggest Loser – as each contestant comes fully packaged with a dramatic sob story – which Jillian is just waiting to unravel (except Jillian is a personal trainer not a psychologist – and therefore the scenes always feel contrived – she isn’t exactly Miss Congeniality)

I’m all for a good story but the key to a good reality show is what happen AFTER the contestants begin their televised journey not BEFORE it. The problem with excessive back story is that many times players are cast on the strength of a good sob story – rather than an amazing personality. The result – many dull, inter-changeable characters and limited actual on screen drama. The Biggest Loser is always eventful because it’s well produced, the extreme weight loss itself is inherently stressful for contestants, and the show’s makers do everything they can to keep things extra interesting.  But sometimes it feels like it’s the producers making the show, rather than the contestants. And it should never be that way around…

So that’s my Six-Pack of Solutions to keep The Biggest Loser on top for many seasons to come. It may hurt guys – but you know what they say – ‘no pain, no gain’….

But what do you think? Are you still a Biggest Loser fan? How would you shake up the show? I’d love to hear your thoughts…