A "Huge" Cancellation and the ABC Family Brand

Curator's Note

From Pretty Little Liars to Bunheads and Girls to Glee, young girls are not only everywhere on television but have entire channels and shows dedicated to them. Amidst ABC Family’s rise to the top of teen TV with shows like Pretty Little Liars and Secret Life of An American Teenager, the network launched the sadly short-lived Huge (2010). Huge followed a diverse cast of characters during a frustrating and fraught summer at Camp Victory, a weight loss camp. Huge garnered a devoted following, which took to the internet when the show was canceled at the end of its first season. In this post, I look back (briefly) on Huge’s cancellation in terms of ABC Family’s brand.

By featuring a protagonist and ensemble cast that refused to align with the traditional image of beauty, Huge did not fit within ABC Family’s growing “real and really relatable, and at the same time escapist” brand. Despite the camp setting, replete with talent nights and campfires, Huge was not escapist as it confronted body shaming and impossible beauty standards. Early in the pilot, Will (Nikki Blonsky) declares, “Everyone wants us to hate our bodies. Well I refuse to. I’m down with my fat.” By contrast, the girls of Pretty Little LiarsSecret Life of an American Teenager, and The Lying Game, among others are not only decked out in the latest trends—versus camp garb—but have the kinds of bodies Amber (Haley Hasselhoff) might cut out of magazines for “thinspiration.”

Unlike other weight loss shows like NBC's Biggest Loser or MTV’s I Used To Be FatHuge was not only critical of extreme weight loss but also of aspiring to thinness and mistaking thinness for health. The show consistently interrogated the assumption that thin is good, better, or best and made visible “thinspiration’s” toll on young men and women. Huge was refreshing in that it was not about massive transformation via weight loss but rather about friendship, self-acceptance, and becoming comfortable and sexy in your own skin.

If self-acceptance is—per Huge—outside consumerism, then what does a network sell its audience? ABC Family coupled Jamie Oliver’s healthy cookbooks and Katherine Schwarzenegger’s body acceptance book with the show’s promotion. However, given Huge’s cancellation, these marketing efforts seemingly didn’t take. Huge didn’t fit on ABC Family because it didn't sell purchasable happiness via beautiful hair, thin female bodies, and high fashion. Amber’s “thinspiration” wall and Huge's self-acceptance message might even be read as a critique of ABC Family’s brand as it showcased the destructive nature of wanting and valuing TV’s brand of beauty.


Hi Phoebe-thanks for a really informative post! I've not seen Huge (as a Brit previously ignorant of ABC Family's very existence), but this notion of narratives of self-acceptance as commercially nonviable or fundamentally incombatible with the nested ideologies of such a brand struck me as pretty revealing. Have the producers/writers/cast of Huge made any comments on its cancellation, in relation to the response of fans that you mentioned?

Phoebe, thanks for the perceptive and highly interesting post. Similar to Joe, I wasn't aware of the show before and it really got me thinking about network standards and strategies. On the one hand, (and you make that wonderfully clear) it is almost too predictable why the show was cancelled. Its relative underperformance in the ratings, its not exactly conventionally attractive cast, and its rather critical take on the issues you point out make it an ideal candidate for early cancellation and that's apparently exactly what happened. On the other hand, and I don't want to sound too pollyannaish here, it is also significant that the project was greenlit in the first place. It stands to reason that most of what you outlined has been part of the project and its specific take on the issues from the start, and yet it was produced. Do you know anything about the genesis of the show apart from the fact that it is based on a young-adult novel? Have the producers and network officials said anything about the reason for giving the series a go? Basically, I am wondering about two things: 1. Is Huge an example for a provocative, maybe even courageous attempt to mix up the teen drama palette that fell through for reasons that have nothing to do with giving it a try in the first place, or was the failure (if producing one season of TV can be considered a failure) logical and necessary given its network home? 2., and now I am getting really speculative, is Huge maybe also an indication that narratives likes this may work in the medium of literature, but still have to fail in an explicitly audio-visual medium like television?

Thanks Florian and Joe for your really insightful comments! @Joe, Nikki Blonsky talked (fairly harshly) about the show's cancellation. In an interview on Jezebel (http://jezebel.com/5658596/nikki-blonsky-talks-about-huges-cancellation) she stipulated that the network got a little scared but also she expresses her frustration about the show's cancellation. @ Florian, the show actually started out as a film screenplay but it was produced by Alloy (same as book to TV series like Pretty Little Liars and Secret Life of an American Teenager). I didn't find anything specific on the network executives commenting on the cancellation (aside from sort of boiler plate stuff on the show's lack of ratings). And I definitely agree that the show's getting on the air was awesome (and Jennifer Lynn Jones has written more on this in a conference paper, "Stretching the Small Screen"). I think right now too it is worth looking back on considering the recent U.S. media's attention to and interest in body diversity on television from Girls to The Mindy Kaling Project to Awkward and Drop Dead Diva (for example, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/14/arts/television/women-on-tv-step-off-t...). My goal in this post was really to consider what a show like Huge's cancellation might indicate about the ABC Family brand more generally. Lastly, I think you bring up a good good question at the end, why a novel might do better than a tv show about the same topic ... Though I can't say I know the answer, I would be curious to hear other folks thoughts.

This is such a thoughtful take on Huge within the ABC Family landscape, Phoebe! I think you're absolutely right re: their privileging of purchasable beauty. This idea is only reinforced by how frequently their stars appear on the covers of related teen magazines: Seventeen, Teen Vogue, etc. And Florian, I wonder if part of the answer to your question/musing about how the show got the green light in the first place is that the show's pilot (and a few other episodes) was written by Winnie Holzman-- who also wrote MTV's successful series, My So-Called Life--and her daughter. I think ABC Family was banking on her previous success and hoping Huge would function as a contemporary MSCL.

Chelsea and Phoebe, thanks. Wow, Winnie Holzman wrote the pilot? But don't we have the answer then, considering that ABC cancelled My So-Called Life after only one season? ;) Seriously, thank you for commenting on my question, and I wholeheartedly agree both with the star factor (maybe we could even throw Hasselhoff's daughter in the mix) and the pivotal role of a show like Girls (even though I'd claim that it appeals to slightly different demographics). And Girls might even help to explain why Huge's producers gave it a shot (the attempt to copy certain ideas first tested at HBO) and then cancelled it after hardly giving it a chance (both the more direct economic pressures and less experimental brand image of ABC family).

Indeed. I think star power played a major role and Winnie Holzman was brought onto the project to work with her daughter (and her husband was even in the show. Definitely a family affair). I think Girls though emerges out of a later moment (Huge was in 2010), where there are a variety of shows (though not a ton), and mostly comedies (perhaps save for Drop Dead Diva), featuring more diverse looking female leads. And I agree re. ABC's not so experimental brand!

Thanks for answering my question, Phoebe, and for the link to the interview with Blonksy- had a follow up question re: its genesis but Florian has anticipated that so thanks to both of you! It's definitely a show that I will check out, hopefully the knowledge of its cancellation won't overshadow my enjoyment of it too much!

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