Why I'm not featured on TLC's "Extreme Couponing" special...
Tomorrow night, TLC's airing a new one-hour special called "Extreme Couponing." For a few weeks now, I've been receiving emails from readers asking if I was going to be a part of it, or what I thought of it.
I really wrestled with addressing this topic publicly on the blog, but I've decided to share it with my readers, in part to give you an idea of just how many things go on "behind the scenes" that I don't blog about, and also to share how much time and preparation goes into a show like this one.
On April 26th of this year, I received an email from a production company, Sharp Entertainment, who was working on a new television show about couponing:
I'm writing to you because we've taken notice of your incredible "Super Couponing" work--both in the Wall Street Journal and on Nightline. I know one of your purposes behind your classes, website and DVDs is to reach other people and help them apply your tips to their lifestyle so that they, too, can get the most out of their shopping trips and coupons. That being said, we're working on a few TV show ideas on this very topic--hoping to bring these budget-boosting ways to an even greater audience. The foundation of the show is getting these tricks of the trade out there so that people can use these tips to their benefit--and save serious money! It's universally difficult times for everyone right now--and everyone is looking for a way to save a buck. We think this TV show would help a lot of people and I'd love to talk further with you about it and hear your ideas.
Would you be available for a phone call at any point in the next day or so to discuss? Would love to hear your thoughts, especially with all your experience.
I was intrigued by this. I was actually working on a different coupon-related television special at the time, so I called back and said that as long as it didn't conflict with the other show I was working on, I'd love to be a part of it. The show they were pitching focused on "Couponers in America," and indeed, it seemed to embrace everything I stand for -- teaching people how to save money ethically through coupons. We continued talking via phone and email, and things reached the point where I needed to make a decision about which show I was going to focus on.
Email from the production company on June 29th:
We're pitching shows that are potentially either host-based (which would require a more specific signing process with us) or shows that profile various people at the same time (which would only require that you sign on with us for that show - but wouldn't lock you into anything long term). Both of these shows are being pitched with the networks and are great possibilities with great potential for you.
I decided that this show did sound like it was going to be a larger production than the other one I was working on, so I focused on moving forward with this special. Everything sounded on the level, and it seemed to me that couponing was going to be presented not as a "crazy coupon shopper" show but as something that could genuinely help people. I was asked to send over press photos, photographs of my stockpile, and so on.
Email from July 3rd:
Hi Jill! Thanks for being so patient with me and hanging in there - I finally have an update! So we've moved one step forward and we are doing a one hour special with TLC. And we want to feature you! I realize it's a holiday weekend and I'm traveling as well at the moment, but I wanted to make sure you were still available - per any other deals that are coming along.
Let's jump on the phone Tuesday if you can do discuss further details, but I wanted to update you right away.
When we spoke on the phone, I was told that "you were the person that the network reacted most positively to" for this show, and what I was doing as a couponer, instructor and writer was instrumental in getting the show sold to TLC. I was glad to hear that the show had moved beyond the pitch stage into production.
On July 26th, a different member of the production staff emailed:
We're really excited about the project and are really interested in involving you. We are looking to involve a couple more high-profile super-couponers in the project and I thought, no one knows the couponing world better than you! Are there any people, in a similar vein to you, that you have encountered in the couponing world that you think would be comfortable in front of a camera etc? I'd really love to hear your thoughts.
I had no problem helping the company with this, though it seemed a little odd to me that they'd "sold" a show about couponing, featuring multiple couponers... without having any others in mind. I emailed back asking if we were going to discuss a contract for the show before I helped them with casting, but I was told that we couldn't proceed further until I provided them with a list of other possible couponers to feature.
Email from July 27:
...we'd love to include you but we're also looking to really cover the gamut of super couponing and its proponents so I'd be really grateful for any suggestions you could make of other super couponers we might involve in the program. We want to promote the awesome value and benefits of super couponing and we need a range of America's Coupon Masters to do put the best foot forward. In terms of filming dates, unfortunately we can't lock those in until the casting phase is complete which we hope to have locked in in the next 2 weeks.
Have you ever had a "red flag" moment? This was mine. I briefly thought "What if they're just picking my brain for this show, and I'm not actually going to be involved?" My attorney advised me not to proceed further without a contract, but I complied with their request, providing them with a list of other couponers from around the country that I felt were noteworthy. (Joanie Demer of Krazy Koupon Lady was one. Joe Daugirdas of Joe the Coupon Guy was another, as were Jenny Martin of Southern Savers and Collin Morgan of Hip 2 Save.)
After that, we exchanged more emails over the next few weeks -- in total, over 30 emails since I was initially approached about the show.
Email from August 16:
Since we last spoke, the network has been looking over all the casting profiles. I believe they're still doing this. The Series Producer for this program is starting this Wednesday so I'm sure he'll be in touch by the end of this week. Sorry I can't give you any more info!
A week went by. Another week went by. Two more weeks went by, and in the middle of September a colleague of mine spoke with a producer friend in the industry about a "coupon show for TLC" that recently shot "a guy buying over a thousand boxes of Total Cereal." And that's when I learned that "America's Coupon Masters" had already been filmed, and along the way it had turned into "Extreme Couponing."
I got back in touch with my production contact on September 16th, who replied:
I was only involved in the initial development for the couponing show. I handed it on to production and am no longer involved. My understanding is that production took the casting clips to TLC who made the final decision on who was to be profiled in this special. Sorry I don't have more information for you but yes, according to your source, I believe they're already shooting.
Am I bitter? Honestly, no. I work on so many media pieces, some of which see the light of day, some of which do not. But situations like this are also the reason I rarely share with my readers exactly what I'm working on, because sometimes they never come to fruition. After I found out I was no longer involved in this show, I had a few days where I felt like they'd just picked my brain to see what kinds of topics would be relevant for a show about couponing. And, as I said initially, I've really wrestled with whether or not I should even share this with my audience, as I truly don't want to be seen as having a "sour grapes" or jealous attitude about it. That's not the case at all. I do feel it could have been handled better and more professionally though.
Now, from what I've seen from the press releases and promos for the show, I've had concerns over whether or not a show like "Extreme Couponing" is beneficial to the couponing community.
Some of you know that in addition to everything else I do that's coupon-related (my syndicated column, my video series, my workshops, my blog) I also work as a consultant to stores, companies and manufacturers on issues, campaigns, and promotions related to shopping with coupons. About a month ago, one of the companies I work with called out of the blue and asked "You're not involved with this TLC coupon show that's coming up, are you?" I replied that I had been involved at one point, but was not going to be a part of the finished show. The representative replied "Good. It's not something you're going to want your name attached to," adding that my reputation and credibility as a consultant would likely be destroyed by appearing on a show like this. Would companies like Procter & Gamble and Coupons.com want to work with me again if I'd appeared on this show? Probably not.
The whole concept of "Extreme Couponing" is kind of a media buzzword at the moment -- I've done three interviews over the last month for national magazines that ultimately didn't make it into print because after the interviews were completed, they didn't consider me to be "extreme enough." Now I've learned to turn down media pieces that specifically ask for "crazy couponers." Earlier this year, a national midday television talk show called and asked me if I was the kind of "crazy coupon shopper" who would "leave my kids in the car to chase a great deal!" (No... I'm not. I explained that I teach people how to easily cut their grocery bills by half or better with coupons if they were interested in profiling that. They weren't -- "it's not sensational enough.")
It's not worth it to me to compromise my ethics just to appear on television again, especially if it's going to portray me, and couponing in general, in a negative light. I've heard that since the taping, one of the women featured in the TLC Extreme Couponers show was uncomfortable with some of things the show's production team asked her to do on camera to appear "more extreme."
Having done quite a few television pieces over the past three years, I also know what kind of criticism anyone appearing in a coupon-shopping television segment receives too. I've gotten "hate mail" from viewers from a segment in which I had my groceries bagged in (gasp!) plastic bags in the checkout lane. ("Don't you care about the environment, Jill?" Sure, I do - I just happened to forget my reusable bags that day!) Buying a box of sugared children's cereal generates dozens of emails asking me if I care about the health of my family, or triumphantly exclaiming "you can only buy junk food with coupons, you just proved it!" Buy 5 boxes of the same product on TV, and "you're a shelf-clearer!"
I can only imagine the criticism TLC's "Extreme Couponers" participants will receive for climbing in dumpsters to retrieve coupons or admitting that they ignore their families to chase a deal. When I did ABC's Nightline earlier this year, the network pitted me against Nathan Engels, who's also featured in the new TLC piece. I have nothing against Nathan personally, but knowing that his Nightline trip featured a lot of Corn Pops and Yakisoba ramen noodles, I aimed to buy a more balanced cart of groceries. You rarely see "extreme" coupon shoppers purchasing any meats or produce, so for my Nightline trip, I bought over 14 pounds of fresh produce, some of which was organic; a 3lb. roast, eight bacon-wrapped filet mignon steaks and other meats; organic milk, a case of diapers, healthy cereals, pet food, paper products; with no "junk" food whatsover, showing that you can still drop a $118.84 bill to $30.61 with coupons.
But saving big while shopping "normally" isn't as sensational.
In the TLC preview clip linked below, Nathan buys 2000 items at the store, 300 of which are toothbrushes, along with 1100 boxes of Total cereal. While this is impressive (and undoubtedly required large special-orders of these quantities to the store in the first place!) it's also the kind of thing that leads viewers to assume all coupon shoppers are shelf-clearers or hoarders. Rarely addressed in these shows is how one acquires that many coupons for the same item -- if they came from a clipping service, at .10 per coupon, that's $140 spent on the coupons alone to buy toothbrushes and cereal with. If they came from a dumpster, free is certainly the best price... but if the show's intent is to teach the average person how to save with coupons, few will be willing to climb into the trash to do it.
While at the time of this writing, the show has not aired yet, the blogosphere is already buzzing with comments:
The Prudent Patron: I thought it sounded like something I would love to see, until I saw the clip on GMA of a woman dumpster diving for coupons and another woman saying she cancels plans and neglects her husband to go couponing...What bothers me the most is the bad rap it gives couponers...The couponing community works hard to show couponers the right way to coupon. Not to clear shelves, not to buy more than you can use, not to abuse store policies so that stores stop excepting coupons. I am sure this special will have great ratings because people love to look at crazy behavior, but TLC did we really need to wrap all of us couponers up in this crazy wrapper? All the couponers I’ve met have been hard working, generous and are trying to help their family. There is no reason to demean people who are trying to save money and live responsibly.
Sue Stock, News Observer: I can definitely see why this topic would appeal to TV producers, but I'm worried the show is going to make us all look crazy. From what I've seen already, I think this is going to give couponers a bad name.
Faye Prosser, WRAL I can only imagine what it will make couponers look like! I hope they keep the crazy factor down to a minimum. I realize that in order to get viewers to watch the show, they have to find the most extreme, overboard couponers. I just hope they also profile some balanced couponers who also save thousands a year without spending hours a day couponing. Highly unlikely, but a girl can hope, can't she?
Rachel Singer Gordon, Mashup Mom You know you’re going to be on national TV. You’re in a dumpster WEARING GLOVES while your young child is right next to you NOT wearing gloves. Think before you act: How does this play out on TV and how does it make couponers look?"
Mary Kenyon: As an author working on a a book about extreme couponers, I was excited to be interviewed for possible inclusion in this special program. Now I’m glad I wasn’t chosen. I should have realized that they would take the most extreme cases.
And, really, this is likely how a show about Couponers in America turned into "Extreme Couponing." Extreme sells.
Again, remember that this was the show that was intended to reach people, help apply shopping tips to their lifestyles, to bring budget-boosting ways to a greater audience and get the tricks of the trade out there to help a lot of people during difficult times.
If that show ever does get made, I'd still like to be a part of it.
Here are a couple of clips from tomorrow's TLC "Extreme Couponing" show:
Top image from TLC's "Extreme Couponing" used under Creative Commons license.
If you've arrived here while searching for information on "Extreme Couponing," welcome! If you're seeking information on how to learn to save 50-70% on your grocery bill each week without spending more than an hour a week, or filling your house with a crazy amount of groceries, my Super-Couponing Workshop is for you! It's available on DVD, or attend a FREE live workshop.