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Cover story: Extreme TV pushes the limits

By Lisa Respers France, CNN
Tiffany Ivanovsky  poses with specially made shelves designed to hold some of her stockpile on "Extreme Couponing."
Tiffany Ivanovsky poses with specially made shelves designed to hold some of her stockpile on "Extreme Couponing."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Extreme television shows give glimpses into the extraordinary lives of ordinary people
  • Behaviors such as hoarding, obsessions and food disorders are featured
  • In TLC's "Extreme Couponing," participants devote hours to clipping and shopping
  • Critics call some such shows exploitive, splashy; defenders say shows can educate

(CNN) -- Americans love extremes.

From super-sized meals to makeover shows that transform houses and humans into almost unrecognizable improvements of the original, we are a nation that loves just about anything cranked higher.

So it stands to reason that audiences would embrace television shows that feature ordinary people exploring the extremes of their everyday lives.

Such is the premise of a new television show launching Wednesday on the TLC network titled "Extreme Couponing," which takes the rather mundane chore of coupon clipping to a whole new level thanks to a group of devotees who have turned it into an art form.

These are shoppers who are able to bag thousands of dollars worth of groceries a year for only a few bucks. (On one of the first episodes, one participant pays less than $50 for a grocery bill of more than a $1,000.) They spend countless hours gathering, clipping and cataloging coupons, and shopping.

In many cases, items are even free -- thanks to the creative use of coupons and rebates -- and the series displays how the participants sometimes draw a crowd at the market, anxious to see how low their grocery bill will go.

But along with such savvy shopping comes the stockpiling. One woman buys dozens of containers of mustard to maximize her savings, while another has to have special shelves built in her home to store her bounty.

"I think part of it is that there's always a fascination with the extreme," said Mary Elizabeth Williams, a writer for Salon.com. "There's always something that draws us to the freakish, and that's why we had sideshows. There is something about people who are freaks or who have freakish behavior that is compelling because we don't live in that world."

We've really tapped into a fascination that America has about obsession or any type of extreme situation.
--Amy Winter, general manager for TLC

There are plenty of shows that feed the need to get a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people who live extraordinarily.

A&E features people grappling with morbid obesity on its reality series "Heavy" and those trapped by their compulsion to be surrounded by things with its hit show "Hoarders." Animal Planet put a spin on the latter concept, to appeal to its niche audience, with its series "Confessions: Animal Hoarding."

But no network has so thoroughly mined the world of the unusual as TLC, which over the years has found ratings success with shows about mega-families (such as "Jon & Kate Plus 8" and "19 Kids and Counting); little people (including "Little People, Big World" and "The Little Couple"); and the tiny tots who vigorously compete in beauty pageants on "Toddlers & Tiaras."

TLC's latest offerings include "Freaky Eaters," about people with bizarre eating disorders and food addiction, and "My Strange Addiction," which features those who battled obsessive behaviors like eating cleanser and sleeping with a blow-dryer.

"We've really tapped into a fascination that America has about obsession or any type of extreme situation," said Amy Winter, general manager for TLC. "I think the reason why is that we have a way of presenting those stories in a very humane way. People connect."

Williams said the popularity of such shows is evidence that run-of-the-mill-reality-show drama is no longer enough for audiences. Viewers now want "something that is going to excite all of the neural passageways," she said.

"I've come to believe that reality television is like a drug, and we have built up a tolerance for the regular run of reality TV," she said. "I am old enough to remember when 'The Real World' started and they were a group of people who sometimes didn't get along, but no one was eating the couch."

"Now, we have to find the most insane, outrageous thing [to watch], because we are numb to everything else."
--Writer Mary Elizabeth Williams

"Sure, [the cast of 'The Real World] fought, but audiences get bored with that, and then it becomes, 'I want someone who is going to throw a drink in someone's face or tip over a table.' But now, even that is passé," Williams said. "Now, we have to find the most insane, outrageous thing [to watch], because we are numb to everything else."

Jennifer L. Pozner, author of "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV," said she views TLC as having the same programming strategy, versus A&E, as Fox has had with ABC in that the former often takes concepts from the latter, but pushes the envelope.

"ABC would do 'Wife Swap,' which would be exploitive enough, but then Fox would do 'Trading Spouses,' which was even more so," Pozner said. "ABC would come out with 'The Bachelor.' and then Fox came out with 'Joe Millionaire.' Fox seems to always bite at the heels of ABC, but to rip off their premises with a wink and a nudge and make it even more bottom feeder."

So after A&E found success with "Hoarders," Pozner said, TLC debuted "Hoarding: Buried Alive." And while Pozner said she believes A&E plays to "voyeurism and the entertainment value of human tragedy," she also thinks the network balances that with mental health information.

"With TLC, they always seem to go much more for the splashy," Pozner said. 'With TLC, you almost expect with the narration, the tone of the narration, the clips and how they frame it that there is this carnival barker feel like, 'Look at these crazy people!' "

TLC executive Winter said she's often found that those who are critical of her network's programming haven't really taken the time to watch. She said TLC works to find people with compelling stories, and she takes exception to the subjects being referred to as freaks.

My husband and I originally decided to do the show because we wanted to help people and teach them.
--Tiffany Ivanovsky, housewife and mother of seven
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"I get disheartened when I hear that," said Winter, who also said TLC works with production companies to find participants and sometimes builds stories around individuals they find. "Once you sample one of our programs, it's very hard to dismiss [those featured] as freaks because they are simply people who are going through some things."

Tiffany Ivanovsky is a Texas housewife and mother of seven (she calls them her "litter") who appears on "Extreme Couponing." She said she always thought her practice of couponing was simply a way to save money in a troubled economy as she estimates that in two years, her family has saved $40,000.

"I love leaving the grocery store having paid just a fraction of what I should have paid," Ivanovsky said. "It was really just fun and a hobby, and I didn't realize there was anything extreme about it."

For all of those who view her couponing and stockpiling as weird, she said the loudest voices are often the same people who are drawn to watch.

"My husband and I originally decided to do the show because we wanted to help people and teach them," Ivanovsky said. "We knew that some element of the negative might come along with that, but we thought the positive would outweigh it."

Jill Cataldo said she was involved in an early version of "Extreme Couponing" before it was sold to TLC and is disappointed with how the series has evolved.

Cataldo teaches workshops and writes a nationally syndicated column about couponing and said some of the show's participants are using unethical means to obtain savings.

She said she also believes the series highlights extremists whose behavior is not the norm.

"On the whole, I think it makes coupon shoppers look a little crazy, and we are not," Cataldo said. "Most of us are just trying to feed our families on a budget."

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