A HUGE Opportunity: Don’t Blow It ABC Family (Pt 1)

June 24, 2010 “An idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it.”  —Bill Bernbach

Those timeless words of the venerable ad legend capture the power and potential of HUGE a new series that plops over-sized youth into a weight loss camp amidst a global obesity conversation…(premieres Mon., June 28 on ABC Family)

I’m thrilled mainstream media and Actionist(R) buzz are already forcing people to use their critical thinking skills about how this show could land on people, from healthy mobilization activists and body image pros, to those within the eating disorders community.

Given that every angle is already being covered (see link list at the end) I’m going to unleash the need to reframe the machinations of formula thinking in Hollywood to plausibly turn this endeavor into a HUGE hit.

Rather than dissect what ‘might’ go right or wrong, what if we try to shape the conversation by coming up with some ideas of what we’d ideally like to see Hollywood tackle for productive discourse…What would it take to raise the bar on the quality of TV and maximize the use of media toward positive ends? Call it a conceptual experiment in ‘best practices’…

Hey, it worked for researchers lobbing medical data on AIDS facts into Grey’s Anatomy to influence viewers, why can’t it work for viewers to influence media?

Is it even viable to wrap ratings and revenue around a clarion call for responsibility, accountability and sheer entertainment value?

Is it fair to ask (demand?) that ABC Family ‘go there’ with a product built to entertain rather than enlighten? After all, this isn’t pbs…

These are rhetorical, since I’m asking you to abandon reality and enter the land of ‘what ifs’ to just come out and play for awhile…

Fact is, situational dramas and ensemble casts CAN enlighten and inform with earnest scripts, decent character development and solid writing, so let’s create a working wish list of random items that COULD help sway us (aka the potential viewing audience) in a favorable direction.

Right now, most who have seen the promos and trailers tend toward one of three main ‘camps’…

The elated and hopeful, “ooh, I see myself, how cool is that” community, the conflicted, “hmn, dicey subject, wait and see how they handle it” quadrant or the decisive “who in their right mind would ever watch that” incredulous eye-rolling folks)

Par usuale, I’m  right in the middle vacillating between cheers and sneers depending on the content of each video clip, article, or interview pushed out into the media sphere.

I’ll start out by unequivocally stating I wish everything on TV didn’t have to be ‘extreme.’ From casting to attitudes, the subtle notes are missing. Media in general has reached pinnacles of   ‘shock value,’ behavioral snark and ‘lookee here’ voyeurism that bury authentic voices to give rise to anything or anyone that commands our almighty “attention.” So there’s my pre-premiere bias…

Now, let the games begin…In an ideal scenario:

Who needs to be ‘attached’ to this project for it to be ‘greenlighted’ by the masses with universal, positive appeal?

What kind of storylines could surface to really make a difference for the 63.1% of the American population that the latest Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index reports (via WebMD) are either overweight or obese?

How could they best squish some stereotypes, impart some humanity and sway the views of the other 36.9% of the population along the way?

What are the ‘shoulds’ that would make this a win-win proposition for those of us eager to escalate quality offerings that open up huge conversations. (case in point, NBC’s Parenthood has a weekly discussion on Facebook deconstructing the episodes in ‘what resonated with you’ mode)

Okay, ABC Family, not that you asked, but here are some ‘arm chair quarterback’ tips to get this HUGE conversation started:

Go For A Huge Audience Not Niche Appeal

Just as I wrote that the film Fast Food Nation missed the boat on mass media outreach (R-rated for 20+ “F-bombs,” sex-drugs-n-gore when they coud’ve easily dialed down the raunch, received a PG-13 and reached kids and teens worldwide with a powerful, much-needed message and wicked smart counter-marketing tool) ABC Family’s HUGE should speak to the emotional cues and behavioral triggers in ALL of us, not by any one age demographic, size/shape, or gender.

A few mere tweaks of the Fast Food Nation film could’ve served up a healthier worldview, inspired direct action, and cut a MUCH wider swath in audience share…

Likewise, HUGE has the potential to turn angst into actions (prompting thoughtful internal and external ‘hmn’ moments) IF they don’t dumb it down into melodramatic sexcapades and snarky subplots like much of the other (ahem, cough, cough) ABC Family fare.

Create With Integrity, Let Talented Writers/Actors Do Their Job

Blinding honesty here. As a writer/producer myself, my first take with any new pilot or pitch is to see who’s ‘attached’…This is industry parlance for “who’s who” behind the scenes…in front of the camera…financially backing…the talent.

What brains will give rise to the voice in the translation of the script to the screen?

Attachments reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s rapid cognition in “Blink” —it’s an almost visceral reaction and ‘gut check’ to new content based on who is involved, and though there’s wiggle room and some ‘sleeper’ surprises, so far this assessment has served fairly well as a starting point.

So what was my “blink” on HUGE?

It went something like this:

Seasoned scriptwriter Winnie Holzman: thirtysomething, Creator of My So-Called Life and executive producer of Once and Again (all of which I loved) YAY!

ABC Family? Not so much.

Winnie Holzman as executive producer with daughter Savannah Dooley, 24 as producer? YAY!

Alloy Entertainment’s Leslie Morgenstein and Bob Levy (Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries) executive producers too? Not so much.

If the mother/daughter Holzman & Dooley writing team are set free to create pithy prose and edgy dialog that open up important conversations with humor and wit, then this could be quite a development duo.

But if micro-management by mass commercial interests leap in to make a buck off the backsides of larger than life personalities (even if it means humiliating them in the process) then there will be some huge issues. Example of why I’m ‘meh’ and ‘ew’ on their channel for sensationalism? This just released ABC Family clip of Bristol Palin making her cameo/debut in an upcoming episode of Secret Life of an American Teen, point being…um…ahem. Ratings. Buzz. I rest my case.

Industry has a cut a wide swath of ‘profit over public health’ so the opportunity for pitchmeisters and ad pythons to leverage the selling of self-worth and hawking insecurities for profit is formidable…Handle with care. Hollywood and health make shaky bedfellows as it is.

(Above: an interactive social media op to upload/define “living huge” via photo)

Educate and Innovate Embedding Health Cues and Concepts

Why embed health info? Because it works. See Kaiser Family Foundation’s success with Grey’s Anatomy in AIDS education. (36pp case study pdf)

KFF presented  quantifiable evidence that TV shows are education vehicles for health care messages, which influence far beyond plotlines.

KFF conducted a unique experiment placing health content in a Grey’s Anatomy episode which quadrupled awareness and absorption of a key health message from the show, to the tune of over eight million people. Impressive.

HUGE should take the opportunity to embed real life learning and debunk myths and stereotypes if they want to fly the ‘innovation’ flag. ESPECIALLY with a heavy hitting creative team that can seamlessly turn phrases and plot points into cool ways of ‘informal learning’ without even a whiff of reach and teach.

Tiny example? Drawing from Shaping Youth’s own counter-marketing with kids, ‘it’s not about a slim/thin’ message, but about being fit, healthy, and balanced.

Why not have a heavy set, sturdy-framed gal in a fitness context (leading aerobics etc) to visually impart this in a blink?

As one who has had her ‘butt kicked’ by ‘large and in charge’ instructors, I speak from experience that it’s not about what you LOOK like, but how your body performs.

Kids don’t get this message enough, and make false assumptions based on body size and shape alone. That said, I DO believe in health care inside and out, and I’d like to see the ‘youth that we’re shaping’ stick around to live long, healthy lives.  

It Is What It Is: Own The Conversation. Responsibly.

I recognize HUGE is meant to be entertainment and not EDUtainment, but I have to emphasize that by the very nature of the topic of the show and its imaginary setting, they’ve opened up the “content vs context” dialog.

Remember those So Sexy So Soon 7-year old talent show kidlets gyrating to Beyonce with parents and pundits using the argument that it was “never intended” to be anything other than niche entertainment, not meant for masses?

Well, live and learn from that inappropriate ‘context’ and accept the responsibility and accountability in a HUGE way here…These are people’s lives you’re dealing with, and it’s a massive media task to handle a show like this well and ‘do no harm’ as the Hippocratic medical oath imparts.

In other words, ABC Family and the mouse house can’t scrape off the bigger picture conversation like gum on the bottom of a shoe.

Be ready, willing and able to address any eating disorder issues or wildcard triggers well before you hit air time…and fergawdsakes, get yourselves some consultants on payroll that can advise on these complexities.

Mind The Gap: Watch Advertising Messaging & Motivations

Readers already know I feel it’s an absurdity to slap a PSA on a show like Secret Life of the American Teenager after a solid hour of sexploits, bonkability and stereotyped objectification when they could’ve actually embedded pragmatic information if they wanted to uncork the sexuality and sex ed conversation…(Here’s my Say What? post about teens and sex ed)

The StayTeen.org PSA (love their org, btw) after the Secret Life show falls into the “better than nothing but still wreaks of an afterthought” approach pure and simple, ‘tacked on’ in ‘goodwashing light’ form. No different than my take on ABC Family’s Greek if a ‘drink responsibly’ message pops up after a full show of keggers and frat antics…

When I first started clicking around the web reading about HUGE, ads landed me smack dab into diet products and Jimmy Dean Sausage, both of which made me bristle with ‘whoa, not exactly the messaging I’d hoped for’ reaction.

I say ‘fix that’ ABC Family. You have the clout to do so.

As a ‘big media property’ you have the wherewithal to govern what messages surround the show, so note to media buyers, if you want to be perceived as something other than mining insecurities for profit, it would behoove you to watch this with a keen eye and develop some core guidelines and standards, or prepare to be skewered.

Likewise, I hope HUGE follows the “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” ethical premise, because the whole show is a wide open gold mine of a market opportunity.

I’d like to think they’re not giving advertisers carte blanche to mine, engage, and discard the viewership with a haphazard shrug just to ‘test the numbers’ and use the ol’  ‘we tried to show heavier people, it just didn’t sell’ card…

Besides, those of us who have been around the industry can smell a rat, and if the stench of an opportunistic money-grab over quality entertainment wafts through the first few episodes, all that credibility and expense of attaching quality starpower like writer Winnie Holzman or actor Nikky Blonsky of Hairspray will skitter away faster than Ratatouille chased with a cleaver. Perish the thought.

Medical Matters: Align, Engage, Address, Attach!

As I mentioned before, attachments are key, and my first reaction was “where’s NEDA or the CDC in this conversation around physical and emotional health?”

Are they aligned or onboard with the show in any way?

Will national orgs like these be leveraged in PSAs tacked on at the end similar to Secret Life as goodwashing or instead provide authentic and helpful resources, outreach and counseling materials in some kind of social media or online forum?

Given the subject matter and medical implications of a show like this, it would be a great first strike to have highly skilled MDs (eating disorders, depression, suicide prevention, bullying specialists too) aligned using social media as a conduit for a HUGE conversation. (moderating a Facebook hub or hosting a weekly Twitter ‘after-party’ to discuss the show’s issues with experts or the cast themselves?)

Bring in Body Image Pros, Participate Transparently

It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of body image pros like our own Shaping Youth correspondent Dr. Robyn Silverman (who happens to have a body image book coming out in the fall called “Good Girls Don’t Get Fat” with plenty of plus-sized discourse) and confidence queen Jess Weiner (who runs the Actionist Network ® a community of pros committed to creating a nation of confident women and girls, which I am a proud to be a part of!)

I figured Jess Weiner would be a natural to head up a youth and body image conversation, since she’s already ‘embedded’ within the industry nibbling on a small chunk of “change” with Seventeen magazine’s Body Peace Project and big sister style interactions with teens, plus she’s a Dove Campaign for Real Beauty Ambassador and bigwig in this sphere.

When I was told by Jess that she had been tapped to create a media literacy type of study guide to prompt open-ended questions I thought, “now we’re talkin”

When I clicked through to the HUGE site and saw ‘Ask Katherine’ I had one of those “huh?” blinks of a disconnect. “Say what? Who the heck is Katherine?”

Answer? Katherine Schwarzenegger, 20 year old daughter of the governator with a new book coming out “Rock what you’ve got: Secrets to Loving Your Inner and Outer Beauty from Someone Who’s Been There and Back.”

Hmn…Now, I’m sure she’s got lots of anecdotal experience with her celebrity upbringing to share, and I don’t know boo about her background, perhaps she battled big time…but I confess a bit of an ageist blink think, wondering just how far ‘there and back’ you can actually GET before you’re even 21.

That said, I came out of the shoot early and was ‘old before my time’ having been through a lot in a short span, so I tapped into what was REALLY bugging me and it wasn’t age at all, nor the fact that she didn’t appear plus-size, but the concept of celebrity as an ‘attachment.’

Could the body image discussion veer toward ‘celebrity’ versus ‘educators in the trenches’ and real people? How would that alter the conversation?

Again, if I get to play with an ‘ideal scenario’ for a show that skyrockets beyond just a ‘starter’ premise of Ugly Betty for body image then it would be great to see different ages, stages and levels of earnestness in this conversation.

Ultimately it makes sense to weave together a network of all sizes, shapes and personalities to turn it into a more robust social media integration that has universal appeal for all ages.

The “HUGE Conversation Starter” is an opener to springboard all of this, and I could see workshops and adjunct affiliations with qualified pros and leaders in these fields…(The marketer is surfacing in me, I’m starting to think of branded spin-off ‘salons’ where teens could air their issues, share journals, peer support and boldly ‘live huge’ in a fun fest of empowering, positive ways to turn the narrowcast media musts upside down!)

I’ll save some of those thoughts for Part Two, discussing the media literacy ‘starters’ that Jess has posed, and ways of dialing up the sophistication and nuance beyond the Huge Conversation tip of the iceberg, to ‘reach and teach’ in some fun, fresh manners using the power of media for positive change.

Meanwhile, I’m anxious to see where the Winnie Holzman/Savannah Dooley team will take this and hope the mega-media moguls will back off and let the writers write and the actors act sans sensationalism or sponsor-driven sellouts!

HUGE has the potential to educate, differentiate, and amplify the ‘live huge’ boldness far beyond the weight conversation of fit vs fat but if it ends up like every other show that goes ‘over the top’ to scream for attention it risks devolving into buffoonery mocked with sophomoric fat jokes.

Even if the show stays in the shallow end, the questions posed for critical thinking have ‘legs’ to build upon…that is, if HUGE heeds the creative credo:

“Rules are what the artist breaks, the memorable never emerged from a formula.”— Bill Bernbach

HUGE List of Recent Resources

Teenage Stars of Huge TV Series Aren’t Just Acting Overweight (Washington Post)

Nikky Blonsky: It Doesn’t Matter That I’m Plus-Size (CNN)

Nikky Blonsky Talks to TV Fanatic

A Close-Knit Team on a Plus-Size Show (NYT)

Mother/Daughter Team Create New TV Show (Women in Hollywood)

Huge Preview: ABC Family Summer Series (CinemaBlend)

Huge Difference/Drama At Fat Camp, It’s Real People Who Carry the Weight (Sign On SanDiego)

Posts From the Actionist Network (R)

Huge May Look Extreme, But That Could Be A Good Thing (Jess Weiner)

There’s Something Huge Coming Our Way (Elin Waldal)

A Huge Step Forward or Back? ABC Family On Weight Loss Camp (Dr Robyn)

Huge: A New ABC Family Original Series/Action Alert (Chenese Lewis)

Huge is Coming (Andrea Owen/Life Coach)

Voice in Recovery/Huge on ABC Family (Kendra S/Eating Disorder Activist)

16 Y.o. Emily-Anne Rigal aka Schmiddlebopper Interviews Nikky Blonsky



  1. Hi Amy,
    Great posts! I’m with you… hopefully ABC Family won’t blow this one. It’ll be interesting to tune into tonight. I came across one of your posts from last year where you ask “are we making it worse by the constant focus on body image?” and I have to agree. There’s a certain voyeurism involved in watching fat people on TV (or ultra skinny people, for that matter) that isn’t healthy. What can I say, Americans definitely have “food issues.” I’m also skeptical about Disney/ABC Family’s ability to educate and entertain at the same time. So… we’ll see!

  2. I stumbled on this site. It is very good! You have made some points I did not know. Thank you!

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