Saturday 27 December 2014

The weight watchers of Operation Transformation

More viewers than ever have been glued to their TVs for this season of 'Operation Transformation'. The nation has even taken to pounding the streets in support of the likes of Paudie O'Mahoney, a man determined to turn his life around. What has made this midweek show such a phenomenon? Graham Clifford reports

Follow the Leaders: ‘Operation Transformation’ presenter Kathyrn Thomas with the six Leaders (left to right) Siobhan McKillen, Jennifer Bonus, Marc Gibbs, Sarah Campbell, Deirdre O'Donovan and Paudie O'Mahoney
Former Kerry football goalkeeper Paudie O’Mahoney out running with Graham Clifford
Paudie O'Mahoney in action for Kerry in 1975

When RTÉ management decided to commission the health and fitness programme Operation Transformation in 2008, they could never have predicted how popular and inter-active the format would become.

First introduced to Gerry Ryan's 2fm radio show, it's now on its seventh consecutive series and this year is on target to set new record viewership figures. Meanwhile, a US network is interested in purchasing the format which would propel Operation Transformation to dizzy heights across the pond – and earn a considerable sum for the financially challenged state broadcaster.

It's already popular in Belgium and Holland where TV stations there recorded their first series of the show in 2013.

"Operation Transformation has been a brilliant piece of public service broadcasting intertwined with a health initiative since it began in 2008. It's really a simple concept in that we ask viewers to 'follow the leaders' in their bid to get healthy, lose weight and transform their lives.

"The viewership figures show how popular the show is and from my point of view it's so rewarding to work with these amazing people," explains series producer Niamh Bradley.

The programme's website has had 7.6 million hits so far this year and there are 124,000 Facebook followers – all this and there are still three weeks left in the current series.

Last autumn, roughly 600 people applied to take part in the show; that figure was whittled down to 20 and eventually to six.

"It's important that the viewers can relate to the leaders so when we're deciding which applicants will go forward to take part we need to consider occupation, age, location and so on. It's that ability to connect with the leaders which keeps people interested."

As Niamh, who's been series producer since 2011, explains the overall objective of Operation Transformation is not to see participants lose excessive amounts of weight but to change their mentality and improve their fitness and lives.

"We're not looking for dramatic body-weight loss really. The objective usually would be for the leaders to lose about 10pc of their weight – we're trying to achieve a lot more than just help somebody diet."

For 61-year-old Paudie O'Mahoney, the shrinking waistline is very welcome but his participation on the programme this year has given the former Kerry football goalkeeper and All-Ireland winner much more – it's handed him his life back.

Almost exactly a year ago Paudie's engineering company closed in Killarney with bank debts of around €700,000.

For years he'd been a heavy drinker and at his lowest ebb he felt as though he didn't want to go on living.

"I would have gone on four major drinking binges a year – every 13 weeks. I'd ring people and tell them not to contact me in advance, that I wouldn't be available and then I'd shut myself away from the world.

"It was tough on her. I was training teams, including the Kerry Juniors, and there was a good bit of time spent drinking after matches. I would admit that she reared the kids when I was coaching football teams. She did a great job with them.

"When she left she took the kids – they were young teenagers at the time – but she always made sure I got to see them all the time," says Paudie who's the oldest ever leader in the history of Operation Transformation.

When his daughter Roisin gave birth to a son, Daithi, last September, Paudie thought about changing his life but found motivation hard to come by.

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