Self-improvement guru Tony Robbins created an empowerment empire with the help of television, via infomercials that promoted his books, assorted lines of tapes and DVDs, and events geared towards ‘Unleashing the Fire Within.’ But in terms of taking his message and methodology to primetime, he had never found the right production partners or premise to work with – until now.
On Tuesday, July 27, NBC will premiere Breakthrough with Tony Robbins, produced by Reveille. Both the network and the prodco have bankable experience in the transformational reality genre, being the team behind the ratings juggernaut The Biggest Loser. According to Reveille managing director Howard T. Owens, that professional experience, coupled with a unique personal factor, convinced Robbins to take the primetime plunge.
‘When I was in law school I listened to Tony’s tapes – when I needed a little fire in my belly,’ says Owens. ‘They were good mental stimulus and good brain-check material. So I’ve been a Tony fan for a while and when I saw he was coming through town a couple of years ago, I met him before he was about to go on and stayed for most of the event. And he and I really jelled.’
From there, Owens and Reveille co-exec producer Noah Oppenheim hammered out a format that Robbins would want to work with. ‘It was a long course of working together to come up with a format that Tony could fall in love with and support,’ Owens says.
Robbins, Owens and Reveille’s Mark Koops exec produced the show, with Oppenheim as co-exec producer and Tom Forman coming on board as show-runner.
Paul Telegdy, executive vice president of alternative programming and production for NBC and Universal Media Studios, says that bringing a media icon such as Robbins to an NBC property was an exciting proposition. ‘It was interesting to explore the Tony Robbins brand and attach it to the transformational/self-improvement brand that NBC is extremely competent in within the reality programming space, through The Biggest Loser,’ says Telegdy. ‘It was [about] compelling talent coupled with a compelling premise.’
Each of the six hour-long episodes of Breakthrough features real people facing real challenges, with Robbins coming into their lives to offer motivation to help them shake behaviors and thought patterns that have held them back from their own personal breakthroughs. For example, the couple featured in the premiere episode, Frank and Kristen, are attempting to recover from a tragic accident that occurred on their wedding day, when Frank, after diving into the host resort’s swimming pool, broke his neck in two places.
‘We looked for people with compelling stories that were willing to change their lives, and who would have the tenacity and willpower to do so,’ says Owens. ‘A lot of people we met wanted Tony to be a sort of panacea, and that’s not the way it is. People need to change themselves; he gives them the guidelines and principles to work with.’
While those expecting to see familiar Robbins techniques such as the ‘firewalk’ (used in his events, in which he asks participants to walk on hot coals) may be disappointed, Telegdy says the empowerment coach’s methodology will be illustrated through the show’s format. Participants are brought, he says, to ‘a kind of ‘point of no return,’ from which they must agree to go along with Tony and his chosen plan for them. They have to either back out now or go the whole way, and what happens when you go the whole way with Tony is a variety of really disruptive – by which I mean challenging – physical activities and societal activities that are extremely successful in shining a light on possible solutions to your own plight.’
In terms of any challenges facing the show, Telegdy admits that Tuesdays at 8pm is a ‘very competitive time period.’ Chief among the competition will be ABC’s Wipeout, performing strongly in its third season. Still, ‘it’s a unique opportunity to get inside the methodology of Tony Robbins which would ordinarily cost you many, many thousands of dollars to attend one of his seminars,’ he says. ‘It’s a way to sample that, and that may well bring an audience to it. It brings some cachet and some scarcity.
‘There will be people that know, love and follow Tony; there will be people who will want to check it out and see if he’s for real,’ he continues. ‘We welcome that curiosity.’