Kristin Brzoznowski explores what’s new in dating and marriage formats.
Whether tuning in for the cringe-worthy awkwardness of a first date gone awry, the hopefulness of a budding fairy-tale romance or the lighthearted fun of young singles on the prowl to find potential paramours, audiences love a good relationship-based reality show. And so do broadcasters, as these programs have the ability to not only draw loyal viewers but also to become full-fledged franchises that make noise in the schedule and return season after season.
One need look no further than The Bachelor for evidence of the strength and staying power of dating shows in today’s television landscape. The series, which debuted on ABC in the U.S. in 2002 and is fresh off its 22nd season, has spawned several spin-offs and a slew of international iterations. The American original has continued to see ratings gains, even after more than a decade and a half on air, and the format has managed to hit its stride globally.
“In the international market, buyers originally looked at it and said, ‘It’s great but it’s very American—there are beautiful people, it’s slightly over the top and it’s almost saccharin sweet; that won’t work for our market,’” explains Andrew Zein, the senior VP of creative, format development and sales at Warner Bros. International Television Production (WBITVP). “What we are able to say to buyers is, there’s an authenticity to it, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. And that’s what has been reflected in the international versions; they are all incredibly close to the U.S. version in terms of the aspiration, escapism, look and feel. The humor and warmth work very well for audiences around the world.”
Another long-runner in the relationship space is Wife Swap, which came onto the scene in 2003 with its premiere on Channel 4 in the U.K. “Wife Swap is about two key things: what makes one family different from another, and what makes them the same as each other,” says Andrew Sime, VP of formats at Banijay Rights. “At a time of enormous polarization in society, the format is as relevant as ever, perhaps even more so.”
In Wife Swap’s home market of the U.K., producer RDF Television brought the format back last year and updated it for a Brexit special. “It was a really novel approach to tackling a very contentious, topical issue, and we are keen to repeat the experiment with other controversial issues around the world,” says Sime.
The Banijay Rights catalog is also home to Temptation Island and Undressed, which is in the buzzy social-experiment space. “Undressed is one of our strongest recent formats and continues to launch in new territories,” says Sime. “A Danish version premiered this spring and introduced a new twist: for the first time, the show would be set in a real bedroom rather than a studio. It’s a small but significant change and has brought new levels of intimacy to the format, making it even easier for viewers to identify with the contestants. At its heart, and in common with all good social experiments, the show asks viewers how they would respond if they were placed into such an emotionally heightened experience.”
Viewing relationships through the lens of a social experiment has reinvigorated the genre as a whole, and many producers and distributors point to the global success of Married at First Sight, sold by Red Arrow Studios International, as a catalyst that spurred the trend. There are more than 25 international versions of Married, and on the back of its achievements, the company launched Kiss Bang Love and has Code to Love coming up for MIPTV.
“Social experiments like Married at First Sight, Kiss Bang Love and Code to Love bring something new to the genre,” says Harry Gamsu, the VP of non-scripted at Red Arrow Studios International. “The world of dating and relationships is often quite complicated. What these shows do very well is offer a new way into this space. They make it very accessible and engaging for the viewer from the get-go, and then you want to see what the outcome is.”
While an intriguing or salacious title might draw in audiences (and buyers) initially, the show has to have substance in its story to get them to come back. Married delivers on this, says Gamsu, and goes a step further. “There is the noisy topline of the ‘getting married at first sight’ hook, but then after that, the show can feel local and relevant. That’s why we keep seeing recommissions, because it feels like such a local show that people really buy into it.”
Regarding the success of the social-experiment format Seven Year Switch, Hayley Babcock, A+E Networks’ head of formats, international programming and production, says, “The title, that sizzle of the promise of swapping [spouses], is there to bring in people, but the way we keep viewers is with the authentic story. The reason people come back to watch it, and the reason it’s working in other territories, is that you are watching something real and you can feel it—even if it’s packaged in a structure that wouldn’t normally exist in people’s lives.”
Similarly, Dating in the Dark, which has sold into such markets as the U.S. and the U.K., delivers exactly what its title promises, “and that has a lot to do with why the show became so successful,” says Annelies Noest, the director of formats and global network at Talpa Global. “It goes one layer deeper than the regular dating show, where you see two people meet, get to know each other and either like each other or not. Dating in the Dark is more like a social experiment, asking, How much do looks really matter? We all have the notion that it’s what’s inside that counts. How true is that? We put that to the test. That angle got people hooked to the show to see what happens when we eventually turn the light on. It’s a clever gimmick.”
And, in order to stand out amid the deluge of dating shows on the market at present, it’s imperative that a format has some sort of a special hook like this. In Naked Entertainment’s Secret Admirer, which FremantleMedia is launching at MIPTV, for example, there’s a lot on the line for the show’s participants, and audiences get a front-row seat. “It’s a dating show with real jeopardy,” says Simon Andreae, the chief executive at Naked Entertainment. “In nearly all current dating shows, you are being asked to pick someone you have never met. In Secret Admirer, you’re confessing your love to someone you know well: your boss, your best friend, your colleague. It’s incredibly high stakes. If it works out well, you gain a lover. If it goes badly, you often lose a friend.”
The stakes are also high for the former couples in A Night With My Ex, a Twofour Rights format. The show uses fixed-rig cameras to help deliver a deeper level of authenticity, which is part of the draw. “This format is all about creating a truly authentic experience,” says Holly Hodges, the company’s head of sales operations. “The fixed rig gives the couples real privacy and provides a gap between them and the film crew. Reality-savvy audiences are wise to the heavy hand of the producer and can spot when stories are being manipulated for entertainment. A Night With My Ex does the exact opposite, letting the natural drama play out in a completely unfiltered way.
“The same could be said about Weekender, which is also shot on a rig and delves into the relationships formed on holiday,” she adds.
“In such a saturated space, what will float above the crowd is the social-experiment way of exploring relationships,” says Amos Neumann, COO of Armoza Formats. “It is the most intriguing because it breaks the rules. We’ve done that with Sex Tape and Marry Me Now,” which both venture far beyond the boy-meets-girl convention of traditional relationship shows. Sex Tape brings up an in-depth conversation about a relationship or marriage from the prism of a couple’s sex life. Marry Me Now is about female empowerment, Neumann says. “It is about women taking their fate into their own hands, saying, ‘If you’re not going to propose, I will.’”
Global Agency, meanwhile, arrives at MIPTV with the brand-new dating format Power of Love, which sees singletons living together under the same roof but includes a twist in that they leave each night, allowing outside influences to shape their strategy for avoiding the week’s elimination. Members of the public are also invited to vote through SMS or by going online. “This creates great interactivity between the viewers and contestants,” says Izzet Pinto, the founder and CEO of Global Agency. “Each viewer feels like they’re in someone else’s shoes, thinking, This contestant is so much like me, I need to protect them from elimination. This interactivity is the perfect way to create fans.”
The presence of an elimination also raises the drama, as is the case with Inter Medya’s new format The Perfect Couple. Billed as a “dating game show,” the series has contestants competing to win a limited number of room keys at a luxurious beach house in order to avoid sleeping outside. The gameplay also brings up plenty of conflicts and jealousy, two ingredients shown to have an allure all their own with audiences.
As technology has had a profound impact on how people meet their partners in real life—thanks to apps, your soulmate could be just a swipe away!—dating shows have followed suit. While this has pushed the genre forward, it must be integrated with care. “When technology is part of the format for the sake of the content, it works well, rather than just having tech for the sake of tech,” cautions Luci Sanan, head of formats at The Story Lab Global. With Game of Clones, for example, romantic hopefuls use the latest technology to create an avatar of their ideal partner. The tech is “integral to the format points, and it adds value to the story,” she notes. It also taps into what’s on-trend with younger viewers, a demographic that is coveted by broadcasters and advertisers alike.
Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN) has several dating shows that have struck a chord with the younger set, among them Ex on the Beach, Are You the One? and Make or Break? Encouraged by the success it has found in this space, the company is now betting on Swipe Date, which is based on the premise of “bringing your dating apps to life,” says Laura Burrell, VIMN’s head of formats.
“As the ways that people meet change, we’ve got to try to develop shows that change with them and reflect modern dating,” she adds. Driving viewers to channels’ online platforms is part of the package as well. “That’s a key piece of what we try to do. If you go online, there are whole communities based around a show. Sometimes it will be just to watch the episodes, but we have all sorts of additional content that we try to put up and make available for our viewers. It could be some unseen footage, an interview with cast members, competitions—it’s going to depend on the format, but there’s so much you can do in that space now.”
There’s a slew of additional online material surrounding the Bachelor franchise, explains WBITVP’s Zein. “In Australia, we’ve done digital content going behind the scenes, looking at how the shows are put together, how the styling decisions are made, how the dates are arranged. In Sweden, the show sometimes premieres on the TV4 Play on-demand service and then on the free-to-air channel. There is all sorts of lower-cost, shorter-duration spin-off content that gives more insight into what’s been happening on the show. This helps with budgets, and it helps drive the audiences—and we know that Bachelor fans are committed and invested.”
While The Bachelor has been positioned as prime-time event programming in all its territories, there is quite a bit of scheduling flexibility in the dating and relationship genre at large. Global Agency’s Power of Love, for one, is formatted as a stripped show, playing five days a week in access prime time, with an additional prime-time episode that caps off the action. “It becomes like an unscripted telenovela,” says Pinto. “It’s a great opportunity in terms of advertising revenue because you have loyal viewers ready to follow the story. Imagine that you are having great ratings for five days—why not make it six?”
The Australian version of Married at First Sight was the first to strip the series and the scheduling strategy is working well, says Red Arrow’s Gamsu. “There are a number of episodes stripped across the week, so it’s almost like a soap opera. They’ve introduced into the show a brand-new post-marriage stage where all the couples move in together in an apartment complex, which ramps up the reality aspect. That’s an interesting tweak, and it’s a huge change to the format.”
Gamsu also notes how social experiments, the likes of Married, are able to cast a wider net in terms of audience reach than some of the more traditional romance-laden factual fare. “By purposing big questions—Can technology help us find someone? Should we trust our senses rather than first impressions?—both men and women want to follow the show through to the end to find the answer. It doesn’t feel so female-centric then and makes for great co-viewing.”
Regarding the audience, simple adjustments to the casting on dating and marriage shows can make all the difference—it’s an easy but effective tweak. With Dating in the Dark, “some countries want it a bit more young and sexy, whereas in Israel, for example, they did a version with slightly older people,” says Talpa’s Noest. “Anything goes! We even have a celebrity version in development. We’re looking to find the best possible casting for that at the moment.”
In addition to the flexibility in scheduling and casting, many of the series in this space are easily scalable in terms of budgets as well. Producers and distributors have gotten quite savvy at coming up with innovative ways to deliver cost-effective relationship shows. “For A Night With My Ex, we adopted a dual shooting approach, running two rigged apartments through one shared gallery, which allows you to capture two episodes in one 24-hour period,” says Twofour’s Hodges.
In the case of Seven Year Switch, “some territories have chosen to send their switched couples to far-away, exotic locations for their two weeks of experimental living together, while others might send them within their own country to a seaside town or somewhere that’s not quite as far or expensive,” explains A+E Networks’ Babcock. “You’re still getting them out of their regular lives, putting them somewhere really lovely and relaxing, but it could be two hours away as opposed to two plane rides away.”
Babcock believes that in the current environment, buyers and audiences are seeking out feel-good programming that provides some escapism. Love at First Flight, a dating/travel hybrid that A+E Networks is launching at MIPTV, delivers on this, she says. The show is “playful and upbeat. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s fake or fluffy; it still has real stakes and is very genuine, but it is lighter and happier” in its tone.
One of the key new launches for Banijay Rights at MIPTV is Date Night, which gives viewers an up-close look at what it’s like to find love on a dating app. “What’s exciting about is that it’s a really warm dating format, which has been made possible by the technological innovations in the world of dating,” says Sime. “As this process continues, I think many more opportunities will open up for format creators and producers around the world.”
Pictured: Warner Bros.’s The Bachelor in Japan.