Lawyers being lawyers, it is not surprising that a New York Times article about the unhealthy physical stresses endured by contestants in the “Biggest Loser” reality show inspired a legal blog to wonder how long it would be before the show was hit with a large law suit. “I’m waiting for the first person to have a heart attack,” THR, ESQ quotes Dr. Charles Burant, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, as saying. The core problem is not liability, however. The problem is that the show is horribly, indefensibly unethical. It shouldn’t be waiting for a lawsuit, or a heart attack. The program is wrong to continue, advertisers are wrong to support it, and we are wrong to watch it.Strip away all the rationalizations (“We’re helping people reclaim their lives;” “We’re inspiring over-weight Americans;” “These people make their own choices,” “Being so fat is a risk too” etc.), and what you have is the 21st Century equivalent of dance marathons, where desperate people risked the consequences of exhaustion, dehydration and stress to win cash during the depression, while their suffering served as entertainment for onlookers. Using money to lure the desperate, the fame-obsessed, or the desperately fame-obsessed into humiliating or unhealthy behavior for TV cameras is standard fare for reality shows. In “My Big, Obnoxious Fiancé,” a woman won cash by subjecting her entire family to a weeks-long practical joke of terrible cruelty, convincing them she was about to marry the most disgusting man on earth. The producers of “The Anna Nicole Show” gave a boozy, dazed, fat and mentally challenged former sex-symbol money to let herself be filmed living a boozy, dazed, mentally challenged existence. “The Swan” induced poor women with low self-esteem to allow themselves to undergo painful and dangerous surgery to transform themselves into Stepford beauty contest competitors. All of these were dangerous to varying degrees and irresponsible by any measure, but as the Times article illustrates, none equal dangling thousands of dollars to make grossly over-weight people engage in a weight loss competition.
Contestants use extreme measures to lose up to fifteen pounds a week,. Doctors advise against losing more than about two pounds a week, because losing more can cause weakening of the heart, irregular heartbeats and potentially fatal reductions in potassium and electrolytes. These contestants are motivated—-dangerously motivated. They don’t want to fail at their big chance to be winners and popular; they want the cash prize; they want to be beautiful, and they want to be loved. The show depends on the same psychology that makes teenage girls anorexic.
It is just luck, and only luck, that none of the 300 and 400 pound competitors have dropped dead from the rigors of the show. On the first episode of the this season, two contestants were hospitalized for heat stroke after collapsing during a race. They signed a release agreeing that “no warranty, representation or guarantee has been made as to the qualifications or credentials of the medical professionals who examine me or perform any procedures on me in connection with my participation in the series, or their ability to diagnose medical conditions that may affect my fitness to participate in the series.” Translation: “You’re on your own.”
It is simple, really. Paying desperate people to humiliate or endanger themselves for the entertainment and enrichment of others is unethical. Let’s call it “the Red Buttons Rule,” for the spunky actor in the role of the sailor whose heart explodes while he’s trying to win the dance marathon in “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” Everyone who supports such “entertainment” is complicit in the inevitable tragedies that result.
If you don’t want to see that heart attack, stop watching the show. If enough people do that, there won’t be any heart attacks.