LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- From "The Biggest Loser" to "Dance Your Ass Off," weight-loss reality fare has ruled the airwaves for years. So it's somewhat ironic that scripted series seem to be headed in the opposite direction -- several recent and new dramas are focused on plus-size characters who aren't fighting the battle of the bulge.
ABC Family, home to tween-targeted hits such as "The Secret Life of The American Teenager," scored a minor milestone two weeks ago when summer series "Huge" debuted as its highest-rated launch to date among women 18 to 49. Only it wasn't its ratings that were most notable -- it was the subject matter.
The show's lead characters, played by actors including Nikki Blonsky (of "Hairspray" fame) and Hayley Hasselhoff mark one of the first times a scripted series geared toward the youth market has had a full-size cast. But "Huge" is not alone in its unique portrayals -- Lifetime drama "Drop Dead Diva" just entered its second season as a show with a proud, plus-size lead female character, while CBS is readying a fall sitcom, "Mike & Molly," about an overweight couple who meet at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, from "Two and a Half Men" creator Chuck Lorre.
Where "Loser" and its sister series, "Losing It With Jillian Michaels," as well as similar shows such as Oxygen's "Dance Your Ass Off" and A&E's coming "Intervention" spinoff "I'm Heavy" are solely about weight loss, this crop of scripted series presents characters who are, for the most part, comfortable in their own skin. It's this more lighthearted approach to expanded waistlines that seems to be currying favor among a niche of viewers and advertisers, as well as some of the weight-loss genre's biggest critics.
The National Association for Advancement of Fat Acceptance, a nonprofit organization that supports positive portrayals of plus-size individuals, has criticized "The Biggest Loser" and its ilk for presenting overweight people in unnatural situations that promote dangerous dieting habits. "These shows are unrealistic in their approach and ultimately do more harm than good," said Peggy Howell, PR director for NAAFA. "Scientific studies indicate that 95% of people who diet will gain all their weight back plus more within five years. This is commonly called yo-yo dieting and causes more damage than maintaining the higher weight."
NAAFA does support "Drop Dead Diva" for its portrayal of the main character in a positive, realistic light. "Her weight is not an issue. She is not obsessed with dieting. She is living life to its fullest, as are many fat women and men in this country today," said Ms. Howell.
The mainstream approach to its characters also applies to the show's marketing -- and, apparently, its sponsors. A Lifetime spokesman said the network has not sold any dedicated advertising targeting plus-size women, and that Lifetime sees "Drop Dead Diva" as a "mainstream show that happens to have a plus-size character in the lead role."
ABC Family's Laura Nathanson, exec VP-ad sales, said the network has taken a similar approach with "Huge."
"Our strategy really was no different than it's been for all of the network's programming. 'Huge,' like our other dramas including 'Pretty Little Liars' and 'Make It or Break It,' deals with issues that speak to our millennial audience," she said. "Like all of our shows, it deals with topics that are important to young adults, including friendships, parents, rivalries, as well as issues of body-image and self-esteem."
CBS's "Mike & Molly," airing Mondays this fall, has an early fan in sandwich chain Subway, which has already committed to buying ads on the show and is in early conversations to pursue possible brand integrations. A longtime sponsor of "The Biggest Loser," the company has bought time on "Huge" as well, but has thus far not bought any dedicated airtime on "Dance Your Ass Off" or "Drop Dead Diva." Tony Pace, Subway's chief marketing officer, said plus-size-friendly shows are platforms ads with healthy-eating messages.
"The view of America as presented on TV is a very idealized view -- America is more plus-sized than we'd like to admit sometimes. The fact that there's more programming acknowledging that is probably a good thing, for us to keep the issue of healthy eating active."
Controversy Can't Slow 'Biggest Loser'
Scripted TV may be getting more comfortable with plus-size people just being their plus-size selves, but, despite some controversy surrounding the show, "The Biggest Loser" is still the biggest thing in reality TV.
When it debuted six years ago on NBC, "The Biggest Loser" was billed as the first reality show where everyone loses. And after kick-starting a weight-loss-TV trend that has yielded one spinoff, nearly 30 international editions and a lucrative licensing business, the franchise has gained a lot from its contestants' pound-shedding.
Produced by Reveille, 25/7 Productions and 3 Ball Productions, "The Biggest Loser" ranks as the highest-rated reality series on NBC -- and, during most weeks, the network's highest-rated show, period. Product placement and partnerships from the likes of Subway, General Mills, 24 Hour Fitness and Wrigley's Extra sugar-free gum have become some of the most recalled (and ridiculed) integrations of the past five years, with exercise-machine maker Cybex the latest to sign on for its own "Loser" tie-in products.
"It is a very relatable subject matter, and one that is only becoming more and more timely with the continued rise of obesity and the cost of obesity," said Reveille's Mark Koops, the show's co-executive producer. "We are continually challenging ourselves to find great stories and to tell those stories in a relatable emotional way."
It's also made stars out of trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels. Ms. Michaels' "Losing It" has become a modestly successful show for NBC this summer. At the same time, "Biggest Loser" contestants have gained their own following -- notably Shay Sorrells, a Season 9 vet who started out as the heaviest contestant in the show's history, weighing in at 476 pounds, but became a new face of sorts for Subway when the sandwich chain agreed to pay her $1,000 for every pound lost before this past season's finale.
But "Loser" has caught flak from organizations like the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance for portraying extreme diet and weight-loss conditions. Subway's own spokesman, Jared Fogle, recently had his own public bout with weight regain, which Subway responded to by prepping him and Ms. Sorrells to train for the New York City marathon together.
The show has also been publicly criticized by former contestant Kai Hibbard, who has claimed in several recent media interviews that the show's unhealthy practices led her to develop an eating disorder. NBC and the show's producers have repeatedly denied claims of unhealthy practices.
While not discussing Ms. Hibbard specifically, Mr. Koops contends that the show does not practice or preach yo-yo dieting, and instead promotes a long-term change in lifestyle with healthier eating patterns. "We continue to follow our contestants, and they have access to our medical staff as well as the trainers. We will see the incredible ongoing results of so many of our past contestants in this year's special," he said.
Ms. Michaels also came under fire when her endorsement of a diet supplement called Jillian Michaels Maximum Strength Calorie Control prompted lawsuits earlier this year claiming the pills were ineffective and dangerous. Ashley Sandberg, spokeswoman for Empowered Media, Ms. Michaels' joint venture with Giancarlo Chersich, could not comment on pending litigation. But she pointed to the trainer's growing portfolio of endorsements and brand extensions as proof that Ms. Michaels' star has only risen from her involvement with the show. Ms. Michaels' supplements are not "Loser"-branded.
Reveille has helped the "Biggest Loser" franchise bank over $100 million in spending on "Biggest Loser"-licensed products at more than 25,000 retailers. Coming this fall is a "Loser"-branded line of workout clothes in partnership with Jupi, and slated for the holidays is a video game for Microsoft Kinect, "The Biggest Loser: The Ultimate Workout," from THQ.