CALABASAS, Calif. — It’s weigh-in night at “The Biggest Loser.”
Driving up to the stately historic campus of the King Gillette Ranch, tucked into a 500-acre state park, you’d never know this is where NBC’s biggest reality show is made. But it is kind of fitting that the onetime home of a razor magnate would house another powerful global brand.
On this night, the final four contestants from Season 10 have returned for one more round of stepping onto the scales. They actually left the ranch six weeks ago, just in time for a new batch of morbidly, impossibly obese contestants to begin their journeys of prodigious weight loss and personal growth.
“What’s special about this place is we put you in a bubble,” says executive producer J.D. Roth. “Your mind only focuses on weight loss and exercise. That’s it. There’s no pixie dust at home. The pixie dust is at the ranch.”
From its humble origins as low-cost filler on NBC’s prime-time schedule, “The Biggest Loser” has grown into one of the world’s most successful TV formats. Its pixie dust now travels the world. Two dozen local versions air in countries from Southeast Asia to the Caribbean. There’s also a “Biggest Loser” line of food products, as well as supplements and Wii video games. Just down the road in Malibu, the show-themed Fitness Ridge resort invites fans to spend a week slimming down.
“When we first started doing this show,” says Roth, “we thought if we did this right we could become the Weight Watchers of the 21st century.”
But getting it right took a while. The evolution of “The Biggest Loser” from cheap, lighthearted “Survivor” knock-off to inspiring study in human transformation shows how reality TV can be so compelling — and what it needs to keep printing money for years to come.
Reality has been gold for nearly all broadcast and cable networks that produce original programming, perhaps beyond the point of overload.
Ten years ago, there were fewer than 20 reality series. So far this year, more than 560 reality series — almost all of them profitable — have aired on American television.
How did it happen so quickly?
One explanation — some people would say the only explanation — is that TV executives discovered that reality TV was cheap.
Because reality shows don’t employ writers or actors and work with smaller crews, they can drastically cut their costs.
It’s not unusual for an hour of scripted, primetime entertainment on NBC to exceed $3 million per hour. An unscripted show such as “The Biggest Loser” costs NBC less than $1 million per hour.
But those are the big boys. Head over to cable, where 90 percent of all reality TV resides, and the gap is even more striking.
Even with cable’s tighter budgets, a show with writers and actors can easily run $2 million per episode.
“You can still make a good hour of unscripted for $300,000 to $500,000,” says John Ford, who has held top positions with TLC, Discovery and National Geographic Channel. “That’s a huge difference. And you can get really good ratings for it.”
Sometimes even fantastic ratings.
When TLC bought a British format and renamed it “Trading Spaces,” it paid just $90,000 per episode. The show’s ratings doubled three times within 18 months. At its peak of popularity in 2002, “Trading Spaces” aired a celebrity edition that got a higher rating than any show on ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox.
But why do reality shows get such good ratings? It isn’t because they’re cheap.
Although “Trading Spaces” at first appeared to be just a home-decorating show, it really was an exploration of human psychology. By allowing neighbors to perform surprise makeovers of their houses, participants surrendered control of deeply personal decisions about paint and wallpaper. That led to the show’s signature moment: the “reveal,” when each person reacted to what was done to his or her home.
These are the unscripted — and unpredictable — endings that set reality shows apart from scripted dramas and comedies that were getting long in the tooth.
“With the exception of HBO, there wasn’t a lot of interesting television 10 years ago,” says Michael Hirschorn, who produced “Paris Hilton’s My New BFF” and other hits for VH1. “The opportunity I saw was that you could push unscripted in some really funny and outrageous directions.”
Reality also allowed for surprisingly rich character development as viewers found the real people cast on these shows were often more entertaining than the stock characters of prime time.
“The audience got more sophisticated,” says Thom Beers, creator of Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch.” “They became more invested in the characters within the series. They were looking for more than just, ‘How many crabs did you catch?’ Now it was, ‘What’s going on with this guy’s father?’”
“The Biggest Loser” has made the most out of the allure of the human story line.
In its first three seasons, though, it was just like every other reality competition show — and it was hosted by a comedian, Caroline Rhea.
Marty Wolff was a contestant on “The Biggest Loser” back then. He was a North Kansas City teacher at the time, and he recalls his time on camera as mostly playing “a lot of stupid games.” It filled the air time between the weigh-ins.
Behind the scenes, though, a drama more complex and compelling was going on. “Biggest Loser” competitors show up when their lives are in crisis. Unlike contestants on other competition shows, they lack confidence and see themselves, on some level, as failures.
“In many ways I was a big guy full of compromises, afraid to come out and say exactly what I wanted,” says Wolff. “‘The Biggest Loser’ got me in touch with me.”
Slowly, he began to confront his low self-image. Nobody watching at home saw the changes happening inside — just the physical makeover on the outside.
But Kat Elmore noticed. Elmore, who has been on the show’s staff since the beginning, served as the liaison between the contestants and the producers.
During that third season, which aired in 2006, she began lobbying for more resources to help care for the contestants’ emotional and mental needs. She now heads a 20-person department that watches for signs of depression, eating disorders and other problems that spring up while contestants are making over their lives.
“People don’t become morbidly obese because they like Doritos,” says Elmore. “That’s not why people are on a mission to kill themselves with food. There’s a whole slew of individualized psychological and emotional issues behind it.”
Adding counselors would be good for contestants, but would it be good for the show? Would viewers care? It didn’t take long to find the answer.
These should be the best of times for reality shows.
But producers report that their already tight budgets are being squeezed further by the networks. The advertising recession in 2009 only made things worse.
“We as producers have had to be more creative,” says Douglas Ross, whose company produces two of the “Real Housewives” series.
J.D. Roth has shipped some of the editing of “The Biggest Loser” off to New Zealand.
Reality producers have more to worry about these days than money, though. There’s also a sense that reality isn’t cool anymore.
MTV, which pioneered reality TV for young viewers with “The Real World” in the 1990s and cashed in with “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant,” recently announced it is getting back to more scripted TV.
Indeed there are signs that reality is as exhausted now as the sitcom was 10 years ago. That’s borne out by the list of copycat reality shows on TV.
No fewer than eight pawn or auction shows aired on cable in 2010, including “Pawn Stars,” “Hardcore Pawn,” “Auction Kings,” “Auction Hunters,” “Hollywood Treasures” and “Auctioneer$.”
Then there’s “Jersey Shore,” “Jerseylicious,” “Jersey Couture,” “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”
And “Ace of Cakes,” “Cake Boss,” “Ultimate Cake Off 2,” “Amazing Wedding Cakes,” “Cupcake Wars” and “DC Cupcakes.”
“When we go out to pitch new shows, there are no new ideas,” says Ross. “I can guarantee you the network has heard that pitch, not 100 times, but 500 times.”
And there are signs that viewers are getting more finicky. On cable, ratings for repeat showings of reality series are doing 60 percent of the premiere instead of their previous 80 percent. Ford says there are just two scenarios ahead: Either shows have to make a bigger splash or networks will have to start cutting back on reality.
Ken Levine, who wrote for “Cheers,” “M(ASTERISK)A(ASTERISK)S(ASTERISK)H” and “Frasier,” routinely trashes reality TV on his popular blog (kenlevine.blogspot.com).
“The good news is there is now a glut of reality shows,” says Levine. “It seems there is more scripted development these days, and cable networks like USA and FX are enjoying success with original scripted programming.”
Scripted shows also are borrowing from the reality playbook, using hand held cameras and other cost-cutting techniques.
Reality producer Hirschorn, an Atlantic.com columnist, notes that “Mad Men,” the reigning Emmy winner for best drama, is, like much of reality TV, heavily character-driven.
On the comedy side, Ricky Gervais created “The Office” as a spoof of British docu-soaps; it is credited with reinventing TV comedy on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. “Modern Family,” 2010’s Emmy winner for best comedy, is done reality style.
“I think the freshness of unscripted has forced scripted to clean up its act,” says Hirschorn. “And now I think the shoe’s on the other foot.”
And yet, 10 years in, “Survivor” is still on CBS, still one of the most-watched shows among young adults. When “Survivor” signs off for the summer, “Big Brother” will be there, as it has been since 2000, to pick up the slack. “The Bachelor” has enjoyed a mini-revival, and “American Idol” is still a powerhouse, generating more than $8 million in advertising and product placement sales for every 30 minutes it’s on Fox.
But perhaps the most remarkable story from the reality decade — and very likely for some years to come — is that of “The Biggest Loser.”
From a makeshift control room in another building, Roth monitors the weigh-in. After each contestant steps on the scale, the show’s host, Alison Sweeney, barrages them with questions about their commitment to reshaping their bodies and their lives.
If Roth doesn’t like the way Sweeney is asking a question, he grabs a microphone and talks into her earpiece.
“This will go on for about an hour,” he says, “and will be two acts of TV, about 15 minutes.”
Off to the side of the master control area, Roth points to a second set of tables with its own video wall.
“This is our story area,” he says.
Video loggers sit here watching the hundreds of hours recorded by the cameras in the contestants’ dorms. Their notes go to producers, who use them to craft short, emotional pieces that update viewers on how each contestant fared that week at the ranch.
This is where “The Biggest Loser” did an extreme makeover of its own. It started when staffer Kat Elmore began relaying the heartrending stories of participants whose transformations were tougher than they’d imagined.
Roth realized these stories would make for good television — better television, in fact, than the games and challenges that were part of the show’s early formula.
Roth added more story producers and got the network to expand “The Biggest Loser” first to 90 minutes, then to two hours. The tone turned more serious, as embodied in the new host, a soap opera star. And as the show became more character-driven, ratings began to climb. For a while it was even the network’s most-watched series.
“All of a sudden we were able to put some of the great human stories into the show,” says Roth. “You could literally see the change in the ratings and the goodwill of the brand.”
And this is what the future of reality television hinges on — its ability to find real people that other real people will want to watch.
People like Marty Wolff.
After remaking his body and self-image on “The Biggest Loser,” he became a personal trainer with his wife, a fellow contestant from Season 3.
They now live in Omaha and remain faithful fans of the show. They think it’s a lot better now.
“They’ve found gold,” says Wolff. “It’s in the people.”
567: Reality series that aired so far this year
$2.7 million to $4 million: Costs per hour of a network drama
$1.6 million to $2 million: Costs per hour of a cable drama
$300,000 to $1 million: Costs per hour of most reality shows