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Ireland's Fittest Family returns tonight - here's the story behind the show's success

Now in its third series, the hit TV programme has become a hidden gem for RTÉ.

Ireland's Fittest Families returns to our screens tonight.
Ireland's Fittest Families returns to our screens tonight.
Image: Kyran O'Brien

THE IDEA IS remarkably simple yet, as a television show, it was completely unique. The third series of Ireland’s Fittest Family begins this evening and its originality has been behind its instant success.

When the concept was first conceived by Clare hurling manager Davy Fitzgerald, and his colleague James Sexton, it was little surprise producers in the state broadcaster listened intently.

For this was a product like nothing else on the market. Twelve families, each coached by a current or former sporting icon, going head-to-head in a succession of fitness challenges.

Family versus family, household versus household and coach versus coach – all in front of the cameras with pride, the title and a significant pay cheque of €15,000 on the line.

The original idea, although a little rough around the edges, ticked all the boxes and provided the basis for RTÉ to develop Ireland’s Fittest Family into one of its hidden gems.

As is the case with all shows, there was an element of trial and error for the first series but the producers were able to gauge what worked and what didn’t – and the pieces quickly fell into place.

“RTÉ liked the idea straight away and there was a gap in the schedule so it just fit the bill,” the show’s executive producer, Darren Smith, tells The42. “It was around the time of the London Olympics and the original plan was for it to be a family Olympics.

“But that would have been veering too much towards community games and that wasn’t the road we wanted to head down.

unnamed (1) (1) Coaches Alan Quinlan, Anna Geary, Davy Fitzgerald and Jason Sherlock. Source: Kyran O'Brien

“It didn’t take long to find the right format because Celebrity Bainsteoir had just run its course and we liked the concept of sporting icons coaching amateurs – it was already a proven a formula.”

With Ireland in the middle of a fitness boom, much of the legwork in attracting the audience was already done. The notion of amateurs expending every last sinew of energy and strength on a gruelling course can be engaging but the show strikes a cord with the viewer.

It’s a show which promotes family values – the idea of working together to achieve something whilst having fun and keeping fit and active. Ireland’s Fittest Family endorses the merits of those core and traditional values.

“The feedback we’ve received is that kids are happy to watch this show with their parents,” Smith continued. “This is not a superficial talent or reality show. Kids like seeing people of their age competing against adults and parents like watching it with kids.”

The scene of this series’ first episode is the old ferry terminal in Dún Laoghaire with two families facing the prospect of early elimination. One of the improvements this year is the change of setting each week with the focus on making it visually appealing as well as physically challenging for the contestants.

As much as people falling over in mud in a bog is entertaining, the producers were aware of the need to freshen it up.

“We were wary of the falling in the mud cliché,” Smith explains. “But we decided it was important to keep something that has served us well while looking to spread our wings.

“The simplicity of the courses are important. We could go searching for the perfect location but often the courses are already there for us. This year we found an amazing quarry in Tipperary.

“We’re lucky to be on a good budget, but it’s still a RTÉ budget. We don’t have the resources to build one off sets so it’s very much imagination over resources. But we’ve worked on the locations and this year is the best yet.”

Such has been the success of Ireland’s Fittest Family, the rights have been sold to Freemantle Media, the production company responsible for programmes such as X-Factor and Take Me Out.

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It hasn’t gone into production yet but it’s only a matter of time before the show goes international.

Source: RTÉ - IRELAND’S NATIONAL PUBLIC SERVICE MEDIA/YouTube

Davy Fitzgerald is one of the men behind it all and he returns as one of the four coaches for this season, which runs for seven weeks. The Clare hurling manager is joined by Jason Sherlock and new additions Alan Quinlan and Anna Geary.

“I was very nervous coming into it,” former Cork camogie star Geary told The42. “It was going to be a little bit nerve-wrecking but I had spoken to Derval O’Rourke and she gave me plenty of advice.

“I approached my role in the same way I liked to be treated as a player. I’ve no management experience so I saw myself very much as a mentor to give advice and feedback.

“I wasn’t going to be a dictator and limit their enjoyment.”

As well as the format being tinkered with, the producers have also looked to shuffle the coaching pack each year. It can be a dangerous game to veer from the tried and trusted but one thing has remained constant – and that’s the presence of Fitzgerald.

He may be the show’s creator but he brings a level of competition, passion and bravado to the programme nobody else could match. Quite simply, Davy Fitz is box-office and makes for great entertainment.

But it’s ultimately the contestants who provide the performance and its growing popularity is reflected in this year’s scheduling. Ireland’s Fittest Family was meant to air in September but RTÉ delayed it to avoid a clash with the Rugby World Cup.

Presented by Mairead Farrell, it’s been designated the prime time Sunday evening slot, straight after the Six One news.

“We had huge applications this year,” Smith says. “From sports clubs to families from all over the country, people really want to be involved because most of all it’s fun.”

“We had to make decisions over families re-entering and what defines a family but sport is so unpredictable. The Rice family looked like they were going to blow everyone away in series one and we were genuinely concerned it would become a non-contest.

unnamed (3) (1) Anna Geary is one of two new coaches this year. Source: Kyran O'Brien

“There was a big danger it would happen but it didn’t materialise. Sport is like that. There are no judges or votes – it’s contestants going head-to-head and that’s it.

“TV can’t be predictable because your audience will be bored. You need to surprise them and wow them – this year we’ve done that with the locations and challenges. The finale in Shannon Airport is epic.”

There have been similar programmes down the years but none quite as successful as Ireland’s Fittest Family. There is, of course, a danger a show can overstay its welcome but series three promises to be the best and most dramatic yet.

The beauty of sport is the drama. There is no script and for that reason nobody, not even the producers, know the ending or what will happen next. By the sounds of it, it will be well worth tuning in for.

Series three of Ireland’s Fittest Families starts tonight at 6.30pm on RTÉ One. 12 of the fittest, fastest and strongest families in the country put everything on the line to be the last family standing at the end of a gruelling competition.

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Ryan Bailey

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