Throughout this week, we have explored the ‘catch-all’ entertainment category known as reality television (TV). Reality TV describes an incredibly broad range of programs, all which feature ‘ordinary’ people in often extraordinary circumstances or situations. The Australian public has no shortage of reality television options, with more programs allocated to prime time than ever before. Whilst this move arguably “spreads the audiences thinner”, it still leaves us asking the question: why do once-popular reality programs fail?
Reminiscing on the rollercoaster that is reality television, I came to a shocking realisation- none of the shows I watched as a teenager still exist. I have fond memories of nights on the lounge with my family, singing along to Australian Idol or laughing at the ‘crazies’ in the Big Brother house. These have been replaced instead with a myriad of cooking and renovation challenges, or new format Idol substitutes.
Arguably one of the most popular and far-reaching reality programs of the mid-2000s was the weight-loss competition known as The Biggest Loser. The Biggest Loser originated in the United States in 2004, and soon spread across the globe. At the height of the program’s international success, the format was adopted by more thirty-five nations, with an Australian version airing in 2006. The Australian series has since been cancelled, and whilst a ‘new-look’ version of the program is now showing, ratings seem to indicate this will be short lived.
The main premise of the original program was common across all international adaptations; a group of overweight contestants, male and female, are brought into a house and begin an intense and regimented weight-loss program. Each week there is a ‘weigh-in’, where individuals are pitted against one another to determine ‘the biggest loser’. The show itself was brutal, with trainers often displaying unflinching cruelty; contestants collapsing as they over-extend their previously dormant bodies.
Contestants were pushed to the limits for our entertainment, often experiencing nausea, dizziness, and heart palpitations. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxGIF7FuRCY
Firstly, it is interesting to note that countries with higher obesity rates often had greater success with the program. In Australia for example, where Biggest Loser has aired eleven seasons, 62.8 percent of individuals were deemed either overweight or obese. Contrastingly, Brazil has a national figure of 48 percent, with only two seasons of the program airing before its axing in 2007. Yet, whilst global obesity rates continue to rise, the ratings of Biggest Loser adaptations are plummeting.
How can this be?
It has been argued that the success of the format is derived from the audience’s ability to relate to, and sympathise with, the contestants. But if we’re all getting bigger why is the franchise shrinking? It could be to do with changing societal views of body image, and a growing desire to “love the skin we’re in”. With the influx of body positivity slogans, advertisements, and educational programs, the global community may just be less inclined to pass judgment or “fat shame” the appearance of others.
Running the risk of sounding pessimistic, I don’t believe this is the case. When viewing the Australian reboot, The Biggest Loser: Transformed, I noted some distinct differences in the mise en scene. The focus is no longer on the brutality of the trainers as they attempt to break the contestants, instead, they focus on each person’s emotional well-being, offering positive reinforcements. Now I’m not saying this is a bad thing, the changes are likely a result of concerns surrounding contestant’s mental and physical health in past seasons. Yet it is no doubt vastly different to The Biggest Loser that once captured international audiences. Perhaps it’s not the relatability that audiences look for in reality television, but rather the extraordinary, where ordinary people are placed in circumstances far from the norm.
Regardless of why the format has faced an international ratings avalanche, it is interesting to note that despite vast cultural differences, adaptations throughout the decade have been consumed and received in remarkably similar ways.
Arbex, AK, Rocha, DRTW, Aizenberg, M & Ciruzzi, MS 2014, ‘Obesity Epidemic in Brazil and Argentina: A Public Health Concern,’ Journal of Health, Population, and Nutrition, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 327–334.
Hill, A 2005, Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television, Routledge, London.
Lallo, M 2017, ‘The Biggest Loser: Transformed crashes to new ratings low,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March, accessed 2 August 2017.
Moran, A 2009, TV formats worldwide: localising global programs, Intellect Books, Bristol.
‘Profiles of Health’, in Australian Bureau of Statistics, Overweight and Obesity, ABS catalogue no. 4338.0