Nine contestants are standing quietly in a gym. Crew members are readjusting technical stuff. And a big moth has just parked itself in front of the cameras. Yep, it looks like TV magic might not be on the menu today at The Biggest Loser. Then a hefty woman in a sports bra and spandex shorts steps onto a giant scale in this legendary house of pain — built out of sweat, tears, and, occasionally, workout-induced vomit. Random numbers begin to flash silently on the scale’s monitors (sorry, but that dramatic BEEP-BEEP-BEEP sound effect is added in postproduction). The final number appears, and then…chaos. Everyone — trainers, fellow contestants, crew — explodes in supersize applause, because those three digits on the screen represent a record loss of more than 100 pounds. ”Oh, my God — I can’t even thank everybody enough…,” stammers the teary contestant. ”I just can’t believe how far I’ve come… It’s so sad that there are so many people out there that are living in their prison of a body, that they’re sitting out on the couch when they don’t have to…” A producer in the control room reports into host Alison Sweeney’s earpiece: ”We’re all bawling in here!” Before the contestant steps down to receive her congratulatory hugs, she urges: ”If you’re sitting at home and you’re watching this…you’ve got to get this message that anything is possible!”
Message received, proud and clear. Since its 2004 debut, The Biggest Loser — once a critically derided punchline — has grown into a cultural phenomenon that’s helped participants shed more than 15,000 pounds. Boasting poignant slo-mo empowerment journeys and startling gut checks (ummm, is that a man boob?), Loser is a bona fide winner with 10.5 million voracious viewers (even while battling the 8,000-calorie monster named American Idol). And it’s also doing Big business: The weight-loss competition’s hearty embrace of product placement makes it a favorite among NBC bean counters, as does its ever-expanding brand — books, fitness DVDs, workout gear, protein powders. So how did ”our little show that could” — as NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman calls it — become a reality-TV-based empire? Slap on some sneaks, and we’ll power-walk you through it. And no lollygagging: We know of two trainers who’ll jump right out of this magazine and kick your ass.
NEXT PAGE: They know when they [leave the show], ‘If I didn’t eat a Twinkie when there was 10 grand on the line, I’m certainly not going to have this doughnut.”’