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What 'The Weight of the Nation' Tells Us About HBO


HBO's new documentary on the obesity epidemic is a stroke of genius, but not for the reasons you think.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL When USA Today broke the story last week that by 2030 42% of Americans will be obese, the article comment board almost immediately filled up with readers' debates. The comments themselves ranged on an extreme scale, from laments on the detriment of fast food to the gluttony of American capitalism. But one characteristic linked them together, along with all coverage of the American obesity epidemic: Everyone was talking about who to blame.

Tonight at 8 p.m. EDT, HBO (TWX) will air the first two episodes of a four-part documentary series on the cause of obesity. The Weight of the Nation has been heralded as a both a skillfully executed documentary and a strong political statement. This fits perfectly into the HBO identity that exists somewhere between art and activism. But The Weight of the Nation has something much more telling to reveal to us about HBO, particularly when it comes to pointing fingers: Financially, they are television savants.

Thus far, the television narrative has focused on lifestyle choices as the primary cause of obesity. This may or may not be true, but makes for bad television. When Oprah and the ladies at The View lecture on the dangers of stress-eating, it humiliates viewers with weight problems and bores those without. But Oprah had no choice. How could she blame the prevalence of refined flour in the American diet when General Mills (GIS) was one of her main sponsors? How could she discuss the surge of processed foods on the market when she had a Pillsbury Bake-Off to do later in the season? It's the network television conundrum: Blaming your viewers is a big no-no, but they've got to, because blaming your sponsors is a thousand times worse.

Which means when The Weight of the Nation talks food tonight, it is certain to be an exclusive, and in television that translates to a very lucrative prospect.

As I discussed in my feature Why HBO Can Afford to Gamble on Girls, HBO is unique in that its revenue comes from marketing self-owned content and channel subscriptions, not advertisements (a.k.a., individuals, not corporations). Given that the US Census estimates the American population at 311 million, and that according to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine one-third of us are obese, this amounts to approximately 104 million individuals with a life-threatening reason to tune into HBO tonight, to purchase a subscription, or to buy a DVD.

Not only has HBO has found a topic to which they have exclusive access, but this topic is also one of immediate concern to the majority of the population. But wait, there's more.

Take a moment to consider the plight of Mayor Bloomberg; his ad campaign against "sugary drinks" clearly targets the likes of Coca-Cola (K), Pepsi (PEP), Dr. Pepper (DPS), and Sunny D with images of sugar packets dumping liquid fat into their beverages, paired with the ominous question, "Are you pouring on the pounds?" Gross, and not effective. Not only has Bloomberg gotten commuters muttering grimly about the nanny state, but those same corporations have teamed up to fight the Bloomberg campaign with a special advertising and marketing campaign of their own. "We Deliver" targets the calorie-conscious and suggests that the beverage makers have made sugary drinks healthier by reducing portion sizes and adding voluntary calorie labels. Hardly a victory against obesity, is it?

So here is where HBO gets really smart -- they're not going after big businesses; they're focusing in on marketing.

After effectively scaring the bejesus out of viewers in parts one and two, respectively titled "Consequences" and "Choices," the third Weight episode centers in on what concerns a human being most deeply: the well-being of one's child. And once again, the documentary takes the unbeaten path. Vogue recently promoted a severely restricted diet for an overweight seven-year-old, The Biggest Loser advocates militaristic exercise regimes, and it all seems slightly sadistic. What's HBO's message? Think of McDonald's (MCD) Ronald McDonald as the Millennials' Joe Camel and limit your kids' access to him. Here's some copy from the documentary's official website:

Strategies like cutting out TV and sugar-sweetened drinks may help reduce a child's weight or prevent future weight gain, but not always for the reasons we expect. There is a link between TV watching and overweight and obesity among children. While the act of watching TV -- being sedentary and possibly eating snacks while taking in a favorite show -- is part of the problem, experts are now looking at what kids watch as well. There is a growing debate over the effects of food marketing on the childhood obesity epidemic and what should be done about it.

It's a sane approach, it's not abusive, and it's easily implemented -- just stop watching TV with advertising. You know what this limits viewership to? Showtime, PBS, and HBO. Are parents really going to sit their kids down in front of Californication in good conscience? I don't think so. There is, however, HBO Family.

Twitter: @wont_tweet_ever
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