NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Once pegged a TV lightweight, "The Biggest Loser" now weighs in as a $120 million business -- a multimedia giant that is piling on hundreds of thousands of dollars every week.
The show, which started as a critics' punching bag, has undergone the metamorphosis that all savvy networks and publishers crave, from one-dimensional media property to multifaceted and very lucrative brand. It also epitomizes the growing use of TV time as a promotional device for Internet and offline properties.
"Loser" was the brainchild of Ben Silverman, executive producer and CEO at Reveille, who claims that the whole thing is working out exactly as he always imagined -- and that there's more in store. "We're really trying to build a community around our television show that then involves itself in the other elements where that brand lives," he said.
In addition to the show, the "Loser" brand now lives in a $20-per-month online diet club that claims 100,000 members, a best-selling paperback and an exercise DVD.
Best of old and new
The program itself occupies the crossroads of TV's past and future, according to Andrew Donchin, director of national broadcast, Carat USA. "The 30-second spot still works, but TV is also now being used as a portal to drive people to other media and other platforms," he said.
Most TV properties die quick deaths, and when "The Biggest Loser" first aired in the fall of 2004, it wasn't easy to see how far it would go. The New York Times described the premise with disdain: "'The Biggest Loser,' NBC's newest obnoxious reality show, pits teams of obese contestants against each other to see which group can drop the most weight the fastest, eliminating a member of the team that loses the least." And the weight-loss techniques contestants would employ -- exercise and good nutrition -- hardly screamed originality. "What a novel idea," a Seattle Times critic groaned.
Suzy Preston, who took third place in the second season, said even she didn't really think much of the show at first. "I caught a couple seconds and was, like, eh?" she said. "But gosh, I never imagined that the show would go to the level that it's gone now."
A few words on that level: The finale of "The Biggest Loser 2" last November attracted nearly 8.8 million viewers aged 18-49, just below that week's "ER" and above "Law & Order: SVU" or "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," according to Nielsen Media Research. January and February special editions this year averaged more than 4 million 18- to 49-year-olds. A third season begins this fall. And the commercial pods during the show so far have generated ad revenue of $78.2 million, according to an estimate by TNS Media Intelligence.
But, just as important, NBC and the show's producer, Mr. Silverman's Reveille, hooked up last summer with Rodale, the publisher of Prevention magazine and steward of an audience focused on fitness.
The two originally started talking about the potential for Rodale magazine brands to be transformed into TV or other media, said Mark Koops, senior VP, Reveille. "But when we looked at different book proposals, Rodale's advantage was their control of Prevention, Men's Health and Women's Health," he said.
"It was all about getting out there and trying to break through the clutter," he added. "NBC didn't have the heat in the ratings and we had to marshal every other resource."
Tracking the cross-promotions that followed could leave your eyes permanently crossed. "In this case we started with the book but came up with content that would work across our formats," said Tami Booth Corwin, president and editor in chief of Rodale's book division.
Since Rodale's $18.95 paperback went on sale last fall, backed by on-air promotion and ads in Rodale magazines, it has sold about 300,000 copies and has won a spot on the best-seller list of advice and how-to books for 14 weeks. About 25,000 of the 100,000 members on the Web's Biggest Loser Club, also run by Rodale, not only pay the site's monthly fee but bought the book there, too. NBC has sold about 14,200 copies, mostly through NBC.com but also through an 800 number and at the NBC Experience store in Rockefeller Center.
And Prevention, which has an average paid circulation of 3.3 million, made the show its December 2005 cover story. NBC returned the favor, bringing Prevention's fitness editor on the show the same week the December issue came out.
Lions' Gate Home Entertainment came out with the workout DVD at the end of December, in time for post-holiday resolutions to spur sales. It has sold about 200,000 copies at about $12 each since then, said Kim Niemi, senior VP of video, music and product development at NBC Universal, which works with Reveille on extensions and sales of the "Loser" franchise.
The growing proof of consumers' appetite for all things "Loser" should encourage advertisers, said Michael D. Drexler, CEO, Optimedia International. "Especially in today's environment, when there are so many places where people can see more of what they're interested in on their terms, that's a real benefit," he said.
If the explosion of "Loser" revenue was unexpected a couple years ago, it won't surprise anyone now to learn that sequels to everything are in the works. Rodale is soliciting consumers' recipes for a cookbook it plans; selected contributions will appear in the book and on the Web site.
My momma told me, you better shop around.