CNBCfix review: Scott Wapner’s
‘One Nation, Overweight’ is
documentary lite

          Posted: Saturday, May 22, 2010

Obesity rarely catches us by surprise. That perhaps is why it is so frustrating, and why Scott Wapner's CNBC original "One Nation, Overweight" is missing the point.

The news business exists purportedly to inform. This is the biggest strike against Wapner's project. Everyone — everyone — already knows whether he or she is gaining weight and whether he or she is overweight or seriously obese. The jeans and the mirror are ahead of the physician here. In the category of "tell me something I don't know," this project has to get an F.

Wapner even unintentionally provides visual evidence, showing a nurse assisting in bariatric surgery — someone who would have to be considered as well-informed on the issues of obesity as anyone — who happens to be obviously obese herself.

Yet it's not just Wapner, but program critics, who seem to think there's an information gap on the subject.

Consider the mildly impressed David Hinckley, of the New York Daily News, who suggests, "if we hear the case laid out this directly enough times, maybe we'll start eating that salad."

All of life's evidence suggests we won't.

Belief that lack of awareness is somehow the problem runs all the way to the top, as Wapner notes that first lady Michelle Obama has made obesity her "signature issue." While undoubtedly a noble effort, one has to question the merits of government believing it needs to tell its people they are fat.

Even the people who are obese know what causes it, and what defeats it, evidenced by absolutely every person Wapner profiles.

So what is Wapner accomplishing here? A marginal, general-overview type of production that runs about a few meters wide and not particularly deep. It's a grab bag of problems/solutions and headline material, plus an NBC program promo, tied to 3 or 4 people who are shown to have some success at losing weight but still have a ways to go.

Wapner makes it clear early he is not interesting in blaming the victim. "The medical community increasingly believes it's a disease," he says, and Wapner himself later refers to patient Henry Butler as struggling with the "disease."

Whether a disease or not, Wapner could've pointed to parallels in compulsive behavior, such as between overeating and overspending. People who are fat and people who have mismanaged their money have a couple things in common. They sometimes (but not always) acknowledge a genetic component: "I'm just big," and "I'm not good with numbers." But they are also perfectly aware of how to fix their problem: "Eat less, exercise more" and "spend less than I make."

The overweight person who buys a Kit Kat is really no different than the person with $10,000 in credit card debt who buys a new sweater at the mall. Either of those activities is fine — within moderation. It wouldn't be in the purview of an hourlong CNBC production to examine compulsive behavior and physiology. But that is what's really going on here.

The obese do have a major advantage over the insolvent that probably often doesn't seem like an advantage: Everyone else is aware of their problem. You can be broke and nobody might ever know, but if you're fat, you'll hear about it, way too often, as if you weren't already made aware by your shrinking jeans and the tally on the scale.

"One Nation" is another test of the substance of Wapner, a CNBC daytime regular and quick study who seems just on the cusp of the big time. What Wapner lacks is an engaging, natural TV warmth that would bring more life to projects such as this. There's no doubt he treats his subjects respectfully. Sometimes, though, being too knowledgeable is a bad thing, precluding a host from sharing the wonderment he's finding from the project with his viewers. Wapner sometimes has the look of a sly kid who's just pulled another fast one.

The crew members joining Wapner in this production include many names from some of the network's successes, such as editors Richard Korn and Lisa Orlando, chief photographer Angel Perez and senior animator Jacqueline Dessel. Two unfamiliar producers, Na Eng and Hakimah Shah, got the nod here. Probably the best CNBC documentary footage recently was in Erin Burnett's investment tour of Africa, where cameras impressively depicted the strengths and weaknesses of the continent. There is nothing in "One Nation" that goes beyond standard interview fare, save for perhaps the screen images Wapner shows of bariatric surgery in progress.

It should be a given that any hourlong program leads with its ace. "One Nation" opens, as do many CNBC documentaries, with text of dollar amounts linked to obesity that really are of no use to any viewer: $137 billion a year on fast food, $60 billion a year on weight loss, $147 billion in health-care costs annually. Wapner then devotes his initial crucial minutes to the bariatric surgery of Henry Butler, 62, who weighed 330 pounds.

"I did this to myself," said Butler. "Nobody did it for me."

Apparently Wapner has chosen to lead with Butler's story because it is the most serious of his subjects: An older, seriously overweight person with a long history of health problems who has reached what might be the final option, having much of his stomach removed.

Butler is shown after surgery, weight below 300, apparently feeling chipper. The story abruptly ends when Wapner notes that Butler actually died of a heart attack 64 days after his procedure. Wapner's inability or unwillingness to draw any conclusions — whether the procedure was unnecessary or perhaps in some way hastened Butler's death — is an immediate sign we're not really going anywhere in this documentary.

Ideally, Wapner will either tell us something we don't know, or he will tell those who suffer from obesity about things that may help them succeed. His opening salvo suggests he doesn't have any more of an idea than you do.

Wapner could've put together a more convincing project taking one of his subjects and exploring it with more authority. He's got a schoolgirl who fears the effects of diabetes, a doctor promoting the Vivus weight-loss drug Qnexa, a spokesman for some grocers' lobbying group who defends selling junk food to kids, a contestant on sister network NBC's "The Biggest Loser."

Wapner doesn't delve into diets or exercise routines. Those are things people might actually want to learn more about.

He's noncommittal on the surgery option, but he seems to take at face value a car dealer's assertion that he somehow saved "$23,000, $7,000, $800, $1,500" per person in medical expenses by urging his mechanics to get fit. "These are real savings," Wapner says.

He also gives a few minutes to an entrepreneur's idea of having normally desk-bound people walk a treadmill at the office, a fine notion on some level, but certainly one that involves risks of employees injuring themselves on the job or simply punching the clock at 5 p.m. utterly exhausted.

If obesity is not a disease, one has to explain why so many experience it. They know what causes it and what reduces or eliminates it. They are ridiculed for it, sometimes sadly embarrassed to look at themselves in a mirror, well aware the world's gold standard for beauty is being fit. It seems illogical that anyone would "choose" the alternative.

Wapner doesn't want to get too philosophical. Questioning why people eat too much and don't exercise enough is beyond the scope of his production.

Wapner won't even get philosophical enough to note the contradictory views in pop culture that on the one hand, people shouldn't be obese; and on the other hand, the media shouldn't always show slender models of "impossibly perfect" shapes. If Victoria's Secret images are so powerful, why is obesity, as Wapner puts it, out of control?

One cause of obesity would seem to be prosperity. As most of the world gradually becomes more productive and prosperous, people can afford to eat like never before, and appreciate the food they eat like never before. Restaurant and packaged food themes are endless. It's some of the simplest and easiest gratification in life, having a tasty meal.

Reviewer Kevin McDonough, in South Coast Today, somehow offers almost the opposite suggestion: "No one mentions the systemic decline in real wages over the past four decades. Who can cook healthy when you have both parents working multiple jobs?"

Unfortunately, even that suggestion is a lot more provocative than what Wapner's serving.

Other reviews of "One Nation, Overweight":

Alessandra Stanley, New York Times: "Isn't a treat, but it’s rich in salutary warnings"

David Hinckley, New York Daily News: "It's doubtful this special will do what all previous declarations have not"

Kevin McDonough, South Coast Today: "Don't expect CNBC — or any advertising-driven network — to dig too deeply into economic conditions or trends that may exacerbate the problem."

"One Nation, Overweight" (2010)
Featuring: Henry Butler, Dr. Philip Schauer, Ken Thorpe, Gene Kotulka, Doreese Licari, Dr. David Ludwig, Scott Faber, Michelle Obama, Patrick Doyle, John Danner, Meg Evans, Dr. Michelle Look, Leland Wilson, Eric Coleman, Chris Dickerson, Dr. Donna Ryan, George Chay, Bill Weldon, Delos "Toby" Cosgrove, Harold Schmidt, Dr. James Levine

Host: Scott Wapner
Senior executive producer: Mitch Weitzner
Senior producer: Wally Griffith
Producers: Na Eng, Hakimah Shah
Editors: Richard Korn, Lisa Orlando, Daniel Shaw
Associate producer: Morgan Downs
Camera: David Dellaria, Joe DeWitt, Alex Herrera, William Irmscher, LeRoy Jackson, Raul Marin, Marco Mastrorilli, Gerard Miller
Additional camera: Mark Falstad, Stephen McCarthy, Todd Parks, Jared Manders, Joe Hoffman
Audio: David Grogan, Steve Guercio, Heidi Hesse, Dennis Jensen, Rob Lewis, Chris McIntire, Hans Vandenbold, Thom Shafer, Tony Stewart
Technical support: Gim Lay, Oscar Molina
Senior animator: Jacqueline Dessel
Designer/animator: Nick O'Connor, Joe Stipo
Deko operators: Gwen McCray, Scott Zoeller
Music archivist: Lauren Ricci
Director of post production: Vito Tattoli
Mgr. & chief photographer: Angel Perez
Global creative director: Victoria Todis
Production assistant: Haley Hernandez
Unit manager: Pamela Gaskins
Intern: Rita Warkov
Vice president, long form programming: Ray Borelli

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