Tony Robbins awaits real ‘Breakthrough’ on NBC

Spend a few minutes with Tony Robbins — you’ll have to get past his formidable security detail first — and he’ll likely whip a few of his favorite inspirational sayings on you. “Almost all breakthroughs start with a breakthrough in beliefs,” he said over breakfast one recent morning in a Beverly Hills hotel, using the machine-gun rasp he’s honed through years of infomercials and high-end motivational seminars. “A belief is a poor substitute for experience. …. Everybody’s life is a warning or an example.”

As a TV show, NBC’s “Breakthrough With Tony Robbins” would seem to land in the warning column. Last week, the premiere of the reality show, in which Robbins, internationally famous life coach and friend to President Bill Clinton and numerous other celebrities, tries to help ordinary people who can’t afford one of his $4,000 seminars overcome overwhelming problems, delivered one of NBC’s worst debuts ever, with an average of 3.1 million total viewers, according to the Nielsen Co.

Was Robbins sent cascading into a slough of despond by those ratings? No way. “If not work @1st NBC try, try again,” he messaged his 1.7 million-plus followers on Twitter, a place where 1.7 million counts as a huge number. He added mysteriously: “I had problems but it worked with consistent effort! Metaphor here?”

Hey, it’s tough to create a successful reality show that doesn’t depend on voting people off the island or trading on outrageous gender or ethnic stereotypes. Certainly the problem isn’t familiarity: Robbins, 50, is an up-from-the-bootstraps kid from Azusa who became a disciple of motivational pioneer Jim Rohn and then grew to fame as the toothsome, gigantically proportioned (he’s 6-foot-7), fist-pumping infomercial maestro who promised to help millions of viewers beat self-destructive patterns.

Now he’s trying to get past the tackiness associated with paid programming. “It’s an ancient business,” he scoffed of infomercials. “People are skeptical today and there’s so much junk out there, that it has a negative association … I don’t think I’ll be doing many more of them.”

Instead, he’s burnishing his credentials as a globetrotting life advisor and financial guru, a man so busy spreading his gospel of success around the world that he barely has time to repair to the resort he owns in Fiji. He’s whisked from meeting to meeting by a staff that includes a quiet, earpiece-wearing man in a suit who once did security for Gov. Mitt Romney. “It’s not an ego thing,” Robbins explained, adding that he needs security to help him get around because he’s often mobbed by fans. “I’m big enough to protect myself.”

As for his approach, “It’s really about strategy,” he said a few days before his show premiered. “One of my clients — he’s been my client for 18 years — he’s one of the top 10 financial traders in the world. Literally e-mails me every day, pays me a seven-figure income as a piece of what he makes each year. I don’t say that to impress you, but he’s not looking for motivation. He’s looking for strategy. For 18 years, I’ve been able to help him constantly refine that strategy. He’s made money every year that I’ve worked with him. For 18 years. In 2008, when most of the hedge funds were losing 30, 40, 50, 80%, he made more than 23%, to give you an idea.”

Robbins said he’d had many opportunities to do a TV series in the past, but he rejected any idea that involved competition or humiliation because he didn’t feel that squared with his image.

“His fear was that everyone wanted him to do ‘Survivor’ or that kind of show,” said Howard T. Owens, a longtime Robbins fan and managing director of Reveille, the company behind “The Biggest Loser” and other shows.

Reveille developed a series of six “specials” that would introduce people who’d fallen on hard times and then have Robbins work his brand of magic. In Tuesday night’s episode, he meets a middle-class, middle-aged couple who are on the verge of splitting up after the husband gets laid off. Robbins puts them through a series of challenges that forces them to rely on and rediscover each other, including dropping them at a skid row shelter in downtown Los Angeles for an overnight stay.

“The conceit of the show is to take people that life has seemingly crushed,” Robbins said, “and give them a second chance at life, a second chance at turning things around, and give them some really unique experiences, rather than just some conversation, to shake ‘em up.”

But Robbins, so used to controlling his message on infomercials, soon found himself tangling with network bosses over “Breakthrough.” He wanted to do a show focusing on a San Diego family reeling after the suicides of two members. It’s the kind of extreme, can-you-believe-this case that Robbins loves. But NBC, he said, nixed the idea, presumably because it was too depressing.

“I was a little animated about it,” he said. “I’m used to making everything happen. So it was frustrating — it would be a lie to say it wasn’t frustrating some of the time. Some of my favorite parts aren’t in the show. That’s the reality of 44 minutes.”

As Owens admitted, “It was definitely a battle of attrition, the making of this show … Tony’s very opinionated. I wanted to do a fire walk,” a reference to a classic Robbins stunt involving walking on hot coals. “Tony was like, ‘No, that’s the old Tony Robbins, we don’t do that anymore.’”

Maybe he should have reconsidered those hot coals. As for the new Tony Robbins, it’s looking unlikely that he’ll have a hit TV show any time soon. But he’s not going away, either.

Finishing breakfast, Robbins invited one of the servers to come join him at one of his multiday seminars. “Thank you!” the waiter gushed. “I’d love to.”

Robbins realizes that, opinionated as he is, he’s still a very lucky man. He has his enormously successful business. He has the Tuesday time slot usually reserved for “The Biggest Loser.”

“Here I’m criticizing reality TV and I’m on infomercials,” he said with a chuckle. “Beggars can’t be choosers.”