The Biggest Loser: Is weight-loss TV about to be canceled by modern audiences?

The Biggest Loser's Bob Harper, trainers Erica Lugo and Steve Cook, and USA executive Heather Olander at the Television Critics Association’s 2020 winter press tour. Pic credit: USA/ TCA/ Evans Vestal Ward/NBCUniversal
The Biggest Loser’s Bob Harper, trainers Erica Lugo and Steve Cook, and USA executive Heather Olander at the Television Critics Association’s 2020 winter press tour. Pic credit: USA/TCA/Evans Vestal Ward/NBCUniversal

Poor Bob Harper, he never saw it coming.

The affable, energetic cheerleader trainer from the old The Biggest Loser was on panel at the Television Critics’ Association earlier this year to promote the rebooted version of their old show for USA Network — still called The Biggest Loser. Harper served 17 seasons on that original series. His old partner Jillian Michaels is long gone and no longer tied to the series.

Time (and ratings) will tell if the audience cares any more about The Biggest Loser. And this is all happening while the legal woes are adding up for another long running weight-loss series, TLC’s My 600-lb Life. A Texas attorney has now opened two lawsuits against the production company.

What this kind of push back reveals is that there’s a limit to what production companies can successfully sell and present networks in pitch meetings in this day and age. It may come to be that the risk is not worth the reward for networks to be in the weight transformation business with liability issues growing and overall public sentiment changing.

Joining Harper during the press conference were trainers Erica Lugo and Steve Cook; and USA and Syfy’s executive in charge of alternative programming, Heather Olander.

The unease was there, the vibe palpable with this panel that spun the premise as not so much an idea of a show that pits people in tough challenges — or parades them in front of audiences in their skivvies and weighs them on giant scales after a week being yelled at and subjected to pep talks — but one of caring and medical interventions.

However, the feeling in the room facing the panel was that this reboot seemed to fly in the face of a new worldwide wokeness in acceptance.

The bottom line was that no one was buying what the panel and the network were trying to sell that fated day. Or, for those who call the three letter “f-word” unacceptable and obsolete in the modern day, the new body positive worldview seemed to center around the general audience adoration of actors and personalities like Shrill star Aidy Bryant, This Is Us star Chrissy Metz, musical performer Lizzo and reality TV star Whitney Way Thore.

These are all women living large, making big money being their authentic selves and not apologizing for it.

Truth be told, everybody was hoping someone would bring up the Jillian/Lizzo question at this Biggest Loser panel, about her previous remarks about the singer and her health. They did.

Also broached was the empirical evidence suggesting that carrying a certain amount of excess weight isn’t all bad and that the approach to weight loss is better done incrementally and with less aggressive tactics than these competition weight shows promote.

In other words: Slow and steady wins the race in weight loss, and the decision to jump in to lose weight is nobody’s business but your own. Much less plaster “Peak TV” with dated, insulting content that no longer feeds the audience in ways that satisfy.

But it appeared that no one gave that particular note to the network who resurrected this series. People are now far more agreeable to let people just be, and to mind their business about something as personal as what their scale reads. Twitter makes damn sure you keep your opinion about someone’s weight to yourself these days.

But getting back to Bob.

He looked great, so taut, and inked, and had new highlights in his hair. Regardless, the TV critics were ready to pounce on him, taking umbrage at the existence of this new rebooted old chestnut that frankly none of us were sitting on our hands and waiting (or wanting) for to return.

The displeasure in the large dark room was real. It had been at least 20 minutes since we had been served something to eat, and after the panel had wrapped, they threw beer and carbohydrate empty calorie bar snacks at us promoting new noirish, scripted series Briarpatch to keep the tempers at bay.

It did not go unnoticed.

At first, Bob seemed to be back up on his heels a bit, taken aback by the direct line of questioning. Then it hit.

The first question out of the gate was a feel-gooder that lulled the panel into thinking their show was gonna rock the TCA:

“Hi. I always found this show very inspirational, except sending people home, and I don’t know. Did you have to keep that element this time around?

The storm clouds gathered.

“Over here to your left. In conversations about body positivity, a lot of people talk about the idea of reclaiming the word “fat,” and I’m wondering, on the show and for you guys just personally, how do you feel about the word “fat”? Do you feel like it’s a word that should be reclaimed, or is it something you try to avoid using?

Harper said:  “I think I never really use that word.”

Steve Cook concurred: “No.”

Harper said: “Yeah. I’m trying to think. I never really use that word. It’s always about the weight issues, right? It’s one of those things I guess, like, being gay, I can say the “f” word, but if you say it, I’m going to have a problem with you. So it’s, like, I’m not. I don’t have a weight problem. So I don’t think that it’s really my right to be throwing that word around loosely.”

Cook replied: “And because it’s so subjective, you know. It’s a word that I feel like it’s just one that, on the show, I never use, I don’t think I ever heard.”

Heather Olander chimed in: “No, never.”

The questions the critics asked piled on like the pounds I gained during the two-week cloistered press tour where a writer’s sedentary immobility is paired with daily good intentions-meet-passive-aggressive spreads of ice cream, coffee, tapas, candy and snack breaks underscored with calorific parties galore every night.

If you have never experienced a TCA event, it’s food porn with cocktails writ large. The subsequent questions, like the onslaught of meals, booze and goodies at the twice annual press tour, were relentless.

“Yeah, but everybody’s bodies are different, and you fluctuate, and it just always seems so unfair, and always the one I liked the most goes home first. So I was just curious if you guys thought about changing that?”

“You talked about that the show has been updated for 2020, but there has been a considerable amount of criticism of the show over the years, particularly in the health of the contestants afterwards and how it has normalized fat shaming and the idea that anyone can go lose weight if they just try hard enough. What is your responsibility to people who are not out there being able to exercise 20 hours a day? What responsibility do you have to people whose lives have been hurt by the show?”

“But not just the contestants. There are people in real life who have been affected by the perception that the show brings, that anyone can lose weight and that fat people are entertainment. So why do you want to bring this show back in 2020 when we’re starting to make very small steps towards body positivity?”

“I wanted to piggyback on that because there have been critics who have also said that the actual process of the show isn’t healthy, including people who have been on the show, who said that the pressure to win a contest that involves a cash prize and that involves fame pushes them to do unhealthy things during the course of the contest, some things that may not even be shown on the show. So when we hear that the show is coming back, the big concern I had as a critic is that we’re going to see more of this, that we’re going to see contestants pushed to do unhealthy things because they want to stay on the show because the person who loses the least amount of weight is going to get ejected no matter what you say. So what have you done to deal with those criticisms?”

“So someone decides to put on, like, a garbage bag or wear heavy sweatpants and work out for hours and hours and hours the day before weigh-in because they need to lose that weight, which we’ve heard some contestants have done, you’re not going to allow that?”

“Bob, you were talking earlier about the struggle of keeping it off and kind of framing that as about willpower and people doing it, and the first episode very much does that to you about how much people want this. But I’m wondering if you all, and especially Heather, were aware of the NIH study that was done of “Biggest Loser” contestants that followed them over six years and found that, basically, this kind of extreme weight loss doesn’t work because people’s bodies fight back against it, and it actually slows the metabolism. So, essentially, this is not a successful plan, and yet here it is back on television again?”

“Maybe some of the issues today we have grown. Society has been more, is more enlightened since the show first aired is… the title alone. There are some, sort of, negative connotations with the wordplay even though it’s kind of cutesy, “Loser,” in other words. So, in that vein, what do you guys know of any studies, the latest in the mental health portion of dealing with weight loss and getting healthy, trauma, stress, physical addiction, and what sort of programs or methods really work now along with exercise and eating veggies?”

“I don’t want to belabor this. But my question is, what did you specifically require of them to keep them from doing things that would endanger their health so they can lose weight to stay on the show?”

To her credit, Erica Lugo, a panelist with Bob, shared her personal weight loss journey. She said:

“Personally, myself, I have a history of where I lost 160 pounds, and I know at that point in my life I was not healthy. I had high blood pressure. I was prediabetic. Health comes in all different shapes and sizes. I’m a size 8, and I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. My doctor and I understand that all my markers are great. I just beat thyroid cancer. I’m a size 8, and I’m healthy. So for someone to say what size is healthy or not, that’s up to them and their doctor to determine what is healthy and what’s not.”

This gave Harper the platform to mitigate the prickly situation and salvage a panel that went sideways.

He said:

“And, I also think that it’s having realistic goals, working with what you have, making sure that you are in constant communication with your doctor because only you and your doctor know what your real health is like. We can’t judge anyone. It’s none of my business to tell you how you look or how you feel unless you bring me in under the tent to ask me those questions. Otherwise, it’s none of my business.”

Cook then added the cherry on this controversial sundae, leaving the interpretation of all of it still untethered:

“Yeah. If you are 300 pounds and healthy, great.”

At the end of the day, the audience showing up (or not) for this genre of reality TV will determine if it is, indeed “fat and fabulous” and a keeper, or part of the growing cancel culture and ready to bin.

The Biggest Loser airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on USA Network. My Big Fat Fabulous Life airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on TLC. My 600-lb Life airs Wednesdays at 8/7C on TLC

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