It’s been nearly a decade since ABC’s mega hit, The Bachelor, hit TVs across the nation, and as the network prepares to launch its 16th season in January, the romance-based reality trip shows no immediate signs of slowing. Having changed very little since its 2002 entry into pop lexicon, it’s obvious that despite the absurdity of its premise, producers have zeroed in on something key to sustaining viewer interest – but what?
If in agreement with the belief that TV reflects the mood and state of our society, reality programming serves as our easiest escape: Why tune in to grim tales of grandmas struck by stray bullets and growing unemployment rates when you can just as quickly ingest the fallout that ensues when 25 women vie for one eligible man?
But dating competitions are nothing new to TV; the success of old favorites like The Dating Game and Love Connection speak loudly to that effect. In their respective heydays, both were glorified game shows wherein the weekly guests served as the players, and the ultimate prize was winning an all-expenses paid date.
Of course, Love Connection did offer its viewers the vicarious pleasure of hearing all about the date from the participants themselves in the following week’s episode. From this retelling of events, we laughed cruelly when things went horribly wrong, and cooed with loveless longing when they didn’t. Satisfied with their testimony, we believed it when Mr. Bartender said that Ms. Accountant’s outfit took his breath away. We may not have seen it, but we filled in the blanks. And we didn’t mind.
Putting our imaginations to work has become obsolete in this regard, as the modern day equivalent, the romance-based reality show, offers a profoundly different experience: No longer a matter of one man (or woman) choosing the most desirable of 3 candidates to take on a date within a half hour episode, the purpose of these shows involves the sprawling plot and progressive elimination of a dozen (or two) hopefuls in order to identify one’s soul mate.
It’s a premise so ridiculous that we might not believe shows like The Bachelor would ever hit airways — much less persist — had we not witnessed the epic boom of romance-based reality shows ourselves. Realizing the revenue potential of the genre, TV networks scrambled to produce their own ill-conceived reality shows rooted in “romance” as quickly as they could: By summer 2003, there were approximately 62 reality shows on cable and networked television with nearly a third (twenty) involving a romantic plot.
And then VH1 took notice. With its premiere of Flavor of Love in 2006, producers hedged their bets: If viewers had a hard time believing that attractive (albeit trashy) women in their 20’s and 30’s saw the potential for true love with an over-the-hill hip hop icon with a known history of drug use, that was okay. The sheer disbelief was enough to draw morbid viewer interest — and the resultant drama guaranteed they’d be back.
It was a formula that worked for everyone; men tuned in to ogle scantily clad, sexually uninhibited women with bad tempers, while female viewers watched to jeer with superiority at their crass antics.
And when the season finale of Flavor of Love ranked the second highest non-sports cable show in 2006, VH1 carpe diemed it all the way to the bank. With past-his-prime Poison singer, Brett Michaels fronting Rock of Love, and twice eliminated Flavor of Love contestant, Tiffany “New York” Pollard earning her own spin-off, I Love New York, one truth became unsurprisingly evident: Viewers tuned in for the promise of conflict between characters — not the promise of love.
But an interesting thing happened. After following for 3 seasons of both Flavor and Rock, making needless judgments about which of the women seemed the least phony and should therefore “win,” Flava Flav and Bret Michaels revealed that they would be sticking with their baby mama’s after all. Even New York, whose very “fame” was built upon the genre, would return to the reality circuit to further her career make a quick buck by starring in New York Goes to Hollywood and New York Goes to Work, but to search for another soulmate? Nah.
VH1 seemed to be communicating that as far they were concerned, the craze was gone. Further, it was assumed that Ms. Pollard’s trashy star-power would generate enough ratings to merit milking her persona for everything it was worth.
But despite implications that VH1 was about to call it quits on the love front, Tiffany’s solo shows’ failure to ignite the anticipated interest caused the network’s producers to fall back on the familiar: Real Chance of Love appeared within two months of New York Goes to Hollywood, with Frank the Entertainer: A Basement Affair premiering almost a year after New York Goes to Work bombed.
With both shows featuring eliminated I Love New York contestants assuming the role of series’ “star,” VH1 brass reaffirmed their grasp on character-driven reality romance. But while their screen time on New York may have been noteworthy, neither show possessed the whizbang — or the ratings — of the earlier lot. Had we simply seen it all before? Was VH1 being too incestuous in its spin-offs?
Viewer sentiments were mixed. Though they no longer tuned to VH1 in droves to watch Frank, Real or Chance choose a lady, the network had wet their interest by throwing willing participants from its romance shows into their straight-to-the-point series, I Love Money, and the comical reformatory effort, Charm School. Both series spawned three seasons, their success amid romance show flops revealing that audiences hadn’t tired of the players — they’d tired of the game.
A similar trajectory seemed to befall network TV’s romance-based reality offerings: When Joe Millionaire premiered on Fox in 2003, its basic premise was wholesome enough: Due to an inheritance, Joe is rich in money but bankrupt in love. Will you love Joe?
Of course, the network known for taking risks couldn’t stop there — what ‘unique’ element would it bring to an already teeming genre? The real draw of Joe Millionaire, the reason viewers even bothered to glimpse the poor man’s Bachelor, was to witness the outright deception of its competitors — er, female participants. Modelling men’s underwear to supplement his earnings as a construction worker, Evan Marriott wasn’t a millionaire — he wasn’t even a Joe.
Naturally, the anticipation surrounding how the women would react to the producers well-concocted secret was the primary cause of the show’s massive viewership. And when the “big reveal” proved underwhelming on the series’ finale, viewers carried the memory with them.
Despite losing the “shock factor” element needed for a bait-and-switch premise to be worth watching, Fox decided it was worth undermining the intelligence of its audience to make another quick buck. The Next Joe Millionaire premiered later the same year. Unsurprisingly, nobody cared.
In an almost textbook display, Joe Millionaire‘s one-hit-wonder fate signaled a warning to all future producers of romance-based reality TV: When viewers stop buying it, you should probably quit selling it. That’s certainly what VH1 did. And with their talent for casting over-the-top characters with little shame, there was always a transparency to the exchange — it didn’t matter so much that “romance” was a ruse — viewers were entertained by what they were sold.
But even VH1′s well ran dry eventually, the continuation of a show like The Bachelor hinting that there may be another, more covert route to lasting success in the romance sphere of reality television. Though the series shares some outright similarities to VH1′s slew of Love shows by way of basic premise and format, the critical underlying difference is an issue of producer intent: Flavor of Love sold us a comical nightmare; The Bachelor sells us an age-old fantasy.
Just look at its participants. They’re certainly not above being petty, they just do so in a classier fashion,
have better jobs actually have jobs, and are vying for what at least appears to be a more eligible man than a music industry has been. With its archetypal casting of tall, gallant men of impressive backgrounds, and the well-groomed and eager-to-be-wed women who compete for his affections, The Bachelor sells viewers a dream so wholly and completely that rather than flagrantly mock it, they place themselves inside the fantasy.
Given the fact that the series has already hit a milestone in becoming the longest-running romance-based reality show to date, we suppose the real mystery lies in how much longer the public’s need for such fantasy will continue. As long as viewers buy it, ABC will sell it.
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