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'Big' concerns surround new reality show

By Lisa Respers France, CNN
TLC's "One Big Happy Family" documents the Cole family's struggle to live a healthier lifestyle.
TLC's "One Big Happy Family" documents the Cole family's struggle to live a healthier lifestyle.
  • New TLC show features a morbidly obese African-American family
  • Combined, the Coles of North Carolina weighed over 1300 pounds
  • Critics say the show exploits family for its portrayal of them as "fat and happy"
  • TLC exec says family is dealing with the issue realistically and respectfully

(CNN) -- The Cole family has a message for the detractors of their new TLC reality show: You're just making us more determined.

"I would tell them to keep saying what they are saying because it's not going to affect anything that we are doing," said 14-year-old Shayne Cole. "Basically all they are doing is giving us more publicity, so more power to them."

The Coles are the stars of "One Big Happy Family," which documents their struggle to slim down and live a healthier lifestyle.

The morbidly obese African-American family of four from North Carolina had a total combined weight of 1,377 pounds when the show began. The family's matriarch Tameka weighed in at 380 lbs., her 41-year-old husband Norris tipped the scales at 340 lbs., 16-year-old daughter Amber was 348 lbs. and Shayne was 308 lbs.

Video: America's obesity problem

The series has come under fire from bloggers and critics for being potentially exploitive of the family, whose "fat and happy" attitude has drawn comparisons to the comedic Klump family from the Eddie Murphy film "The Nutty Professor."

"My main issue is that obesity is such a huge problem in the black community," said Jerry Barrow, senior editor of The Urban "It feels like the family is just being put under a spotlight to highlight how big they are."

Unlike the competitive nature of NBC's "The Biggest Loser," where producers engage personal trainers and nutritionists to assist contestants in their weight loss, the Cole family appear to be going it alone on the show.

Nancy Daniels, senior vice president of production and development for TLC, said that was a deliberate decision.

"What appealed to us about the Coles is that they are a very real and relatable family going through a very real and relatable issues that many American families face," said Daniels, who added that the Coles' case is extreme, given the large amount of weight they want to shed. "They were at a crossroads in their lives and deciding they needed to make a change."

Daniels said the network approached the Coles and their story respectfully, while maintaining the realism.

"We wanted to follow them making the change as any other American family would have to make change which means you don't always have access to nutritionists and trainers and all of the different elements," Daniels said. "This is something they are doing on their own and they are motivating themselves and each other."

The first episode aired on December 29 and the show's trailer has been making the rounds on the Internet.

In the clip, the Coles -- who said they were discovered by producers via Norris Cole's Web site -- are shown eating a voracious amount of pancakes, which mother Tameka says the family can work off later that day during a walk around a local water park. Once there, they indulge in a big, sugary piece of funnel cake.

Barrow, who wrote about the show for his site, said he has mixed feelings because he doesn't want to appear to be criticizing the Coles, but he worries that they are being exploited for the purposes of entertainment.

"It's just really uncomfortable to watch and it didn't feel right for the family or feel like good television," Barrow said. "If feels like 'Let's watch this tragedy unfold.' "

Barrow is not alone in his criticism.

Dallas radio personality Papy Saygbay said visitors to his Web site Diggin' in the Crates have left harsh comments about the show. Saygbay said the initial episodes he's seen have been "almost like buffoonery."

"It's television and we've seen that people will do whatever in playing themselves to get on television," he said. "Basically what it boils down to is it's all about the ratings."

Samuel Ross, chief executive officer of Bon Secours Baltimore Health System, said that when done well reality shows about weight loss can be educational for the public.

"They can be a vehicle for raising awareness and providing resources that people can access for education," he said. "Certainly there is obesity in all economic statuses, but the prevalence of it is significantly higher in the African-American community."

Norris Cole said he and his close-knit family want to effect positive change, helping continue the discussion about issues like unhealthy cafeteria food for students and childhood obesity.

Tameka Cole said the family was pleased with how they were portrayed and how TLC handled the production. The show helped steer her family in a healthier direction, she said, and they all have lost significant amounts of weight.

"We hope that we will continue to inspire people," said Tameka, who has lost 72 pounds so far. "This is a lifelong change for us and it is a journey that we will continue on. We want to be healthy so we can live together longer."