Dating shows have been a television staple since the 1960s, but none have redefined and reinvigorated the genre more than The Bachelor. Created by Mike Fleiss, the show has been a mainstay of the ABC schedule since 2002 and has spawned a number of hit spin-offs, among them The Bachelorette, Bachelor in Paradise and The Bachelor Winter Games. And the concept has not only taken hold in the U.S.; Warner Bros. International Television Production has rolled the format out to a slew of international markets, among them the U.K.—where The Bachelor is returning to Channel 5 after a seven-year hiatus—Australia, Canada, France, Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam and more. Fleiss tells TV Formats about how the show has evolved and weighs in on why it’s become a pop-culture phenomenon.
TV FORMATS: How did you craft the pillars of The Bachelor that ultimately made it such a compelling and adaptable format for broadcasters across the globe?
FLEISS: [In the U.S.] it didn’t sell right away. I took it everywhere, everybody passed. It took a year and a half to get someone to agree to do it and then that network passed. So in round two, I took it back [to ABC]. I wanted to mirror the stages of an actual relationship: first impression, first date, more romance down the road, then some physical connection and then meeting the families and then overnight dates and then the finale. When I sold the show at first, it was only six one-hours. So the beats were: [introductions on] night one, group dates and single dates in episode two, mostly one-on-one dates in episode three, episode four was the hometowns and episode five was the overnight date and then episode six was the finale. So when I was treating it as a six-episode arc, those beats were just natural. The first night is the first date, the finale is the finale, two and three had random dating stuff and the rest was much more structured. Now that we do 22 hours, there’s a lot more of everything.
TV FORMATS: It seems like such a simple, clever idea—why do you think it was so hard to sell at first?
FLEISS: You say people look at this as something that has the natural structure as a format, but people fought me on that initially. They thought, How the hell are you going to get one guy to go through all those dates? Is it speed dating? No one wants to watch that. I said, No, no, no! It’s going to be marathon dating. You’re going to go on one date and then another one. People talk about good formats being simple and repeatable. Even my own studio, Warner Bros., didn’t see this as simple and repeatable. They liked formats like Love Connection in this space. I thought ultimately this would become very repeatable.
TV FORMATS: Has the casting approach changed over the years?
FLEISS: I don’t think it’s changed too much. We still want sexy and sincere. That’s my Aaron Spelling-derived mantra, first sexy, then sincere, or sincere, then sexy. Do we always get that? No, but we’re always looking for it, not just in the lead but in the 25 [love interests] as well. It’s not the casting that has changed; it’s the cast. The advent of social media and its dominance in culture today has changed the way young people—I can say that now, I’ve been doing it for so long!—approach the show. They’re so much more comfortable in front of the camera and exposing their potentially vulnerable side. From a sociological standpoint that’s been the most fascinating thing to watch. In season one it felt impossible. Nobody understood what we were doing. “Why would I do [a show like this]? It’s so humiliating.” It was really, really hard to find the right kind of people to be on the show the first time. Now we have 600 people show up to an open casting in Illinois! So the casting is different in that we’re sifting through a lot more applicants than we did before.
TV FORMATS: Talk about the evolution of the franchise, from The Bachelorette onwards.
FLEISS: The Bachelorette was a back-channel promise to ABC so we could mitigate some of the cries of misogyny in The Bachelor format. It was always part of the plan if the show worked. Then we were thinking, we create all these celebrities on the show and then once they’re off the show we just say goodbye to them, yet the tabloids are still following them. We kept seeing former cast members show up in articles in In Touch Weekly, Us Weekly and People. So there was still an interest in these people who are part of our Bachelor family. We had to figure out some way of keeping them in our universe. So Rob Mills [senior VP of alternative series, specials and late night at ABC] and I wanted to create a show for those supporting cast members who were still interesting to the general public. We knew we wanted to keep it in the love area. So we created Bachelor Pad, which had a game element. Ultimately, I felt like the game element was overwhelming the love element, the relationship element. I had always argued that money corrupted the concept with Bachelor Pad. So I wanted to think of another show, without the prize money, another way to spin it—that’s what became Bachelor in Paradise.
The key to Bachelor in Paradise was the tonal shift. We made it much more comedic. The way that happened was, we had that crazy incident with a cast member who was having an affair with one of the audio guys. We snuck up on him and he jumped out of the window [to avoid being caught] and broke both his ankles. Chris Harrison [the host] and I were at dinner and were getting reports of this crazy stuff as an emergency production issue. We have an injured crew member, a troubled cast member—pre-production headaches. Chris joked, Hey, we should reenact that. I said, That’s exactly what we’re going to do! The director came to me and said, How do you want this to look? I gave him a one-word answer: terrible. That’s what it was! We did the worst, cheesiest reenactment. It was terrible, by design. It had everyone laughing on the set. Most of the time [The Bachelor] is emotional. There are more tears than laughter, even among the crew. But that night everyone was laughing. So we said, This is the tone for the show. Let’s make sure the romance is romantic and deep, but the rest of the show should have a comedic feel to it. That was very liberating to the cast, and certainly to the production [crew], which deals in melodrama and romance nine months of the year. Bachelor in Paradise offered us a chance to break out of the tonal prison and do something different. And the audience loved it. They loved the cheeky approach to the material.
And then we did Winter Games because the network needed something crazy to go up against the Winter Olympics on NBC. We were talking about doing a winter version of Bachelor in Paradise, but I didn’t feel good about that. I didn’t want to overuse the Bachelor in Paradise brand. But I said I would do an Olympics parody with the international cast members from all the territories that do The Bachelor. We didn’t get all of them, for different reasons—visa reasons, Trump reasons—but it was still a fun show to make.
TV FORMATS: What advice do you give the producers who are making The Bachelor globally?
FLEISS: Every year or year and a half we have these international symposiums. It sounds very prestigious, but it’s just a bunch of us Bachelor producers getting together to talk about casting and storylines and format devices. We share our secrets; they share their secrets. It mostly comes down to the differences in each culture. In Germany or Switzerland or Sweden [audiences] couldn’t care less if there’s an engagement at the end. In the U.S., the engagement is key. People will say, It’s bullshit that they didn’t get married! It makes everyone angry. And some of the territories have more risqué standards and practices, so they can get away with more sensuality. That’s been fun to watch. The show does really well in a lot of different countries.
TV FORMATS: Is there an adaptation that you’ve particularly enjoyed or that surprised you in terms of how different it was from the American version?
FLEISS: They all do certain things differently. One of the territories did a worst impression rose. I didn’t really understand that. There was another with a white rose, which meant you had immunity for two episodes. A lot of the territories don’t use a host. We have the great Chris Harrison. And a lot of them do their OTFs [on-the-fly interviews] in more of an on-the-go fashion, while they are walking or leaning against a wall or eating a sandwich. Everybody has their little differences, but it’s mostly the same show. It’s 95 percent exactly the same.
TV FORMATS: My sisters are obsessed with The Bachelor!
FLEISS: I live in Hawaii, the northernmost island, Kauai. There’s a beach that you can only hike to; it’s six miles of hiking in and six miles of hiking out. There are viewing parties on Kauai called Marry Me Mondays, and people get together and watch The Bachelor. Some women will leave their campgrounds [on the beach] and hike out six miles to watch The Bachelor and hike back in the next day. It’s really treacherous! That’s my favorite story [about Bachelor fans].