Love Rules

Kiss-Bang-LoveKristin Brzoznowski explores the latest trends in formats focused on dating, love and marriage.

Thanks to the sweeping popularity of matchmaking websites and dating apps, à la eHarmony and Tinder, the start of a meaningful long-term relationship (or brief romantic rendezvous) is now just a click or swipe away. The widespread acceptance of this so-called digital dating has stirred up a renewed interest in TV programming focused on all aspects of courtship, from first meetings to marriages to fanning old flames.

The new series in this genre that are generating the most buzz globally differ greatly from the Love Connections and Dating Games of years past. Rather than featuring quizzes or competitions, many of the dating-focused formats selling well in the marketplace are observational in nature. They provide a fly-on-the-wall view or even veer into the social-experiment space, rooted firmly in reality.

“Capturing the authenticity of dating is the trend nowadays,” says Mike Beale, the executive VP of global development and formats at ITV Studios. “It’s not about three people sitting on a stool answering questions. It’s about trying to capture real life.”

Beale points to Love Island, which spotlights singles sequestered in an exotic locale, as a good example of where the genre has headed. “It’s in a manufactured environment, but you create a microcosm for young people and force dating on them to see what happens and capture what goes on.”

Beale says that more and more channels in a diverse range of territories want “authenticity and a softer hand of the producer” in the formats they’re commissioning, hence why social experiments have been in high demand. “We want to create the environment but then we want to let the guinea pigs out to see what happens in it, rather than be steering it and constantly throwing in bombs during production.”

The success of the social-experiment format Married at First Sight is testament to the power of authenticity in relationship-focused shows. Red Arrow International has licensed the series for 24 local versions since launching it just two years ago. The format has been recommissioned everywhere it’s gone on air.

Married at First Sight was definitely a trendsetter and a game changer,” says Harry Gamsu, the VP of format acquisitions and sales at Red Arrow International. “What’s interesting about it is that it stars real, relatable people, who don’t have any ulterior motives for going on the show. They genuinely want to find a partner to have an everlasting relationship with.”

He adds, “The pairing process is also extremely credible. There are experts who have algorithms. The process is almost scientific, and there is a genuine goal to match two strangers in order to find love. People really buy into how credible and authentic it is.”

Red Arrow International is also touting the dating/social-experiment format Kiss Bang Love, which takes a similar scientific approach to matching up mates. The show “throws the process of dating into fifth gear,” says Gamsu. “It’s about testing to see if our bodies are the best judge of who we should be dating rather than algorithms or apps or the advice of others. It gets down to the basic instinct that brings two strangers together.”

In today’s TV landscape of increasingly crowded EPGs and shrinking attention spans, it’s important for a show to have a title and clear messaging that’s going to grab a viewer’s attention straightaway. “That’s what’s great about both Married at First Sight and Kiss Bang Love,” says Gamsu. “You might hear about it and go, What is this? It sounds crazy! Then when you watch it, you get invested in the characters and story lines and realize that yes, it has a very noisy title and premise as a topline, but once you delve in you realize that there’s much more there.”

Electus International is home to the salaciously named Dating Naked format, which delivers exactly what its title promises: singletons meeting for the first time in the buff. The format has been optioned in several markets. “We haven’t yet gotten it over the line to an original series, but I think that should change pretty soon,” says John Pollak, the president of global distribution and Electus Studios at Electus International. “Broadcasters are looking for loud, noisy and different types of programming in the dating space. With a show like Dating Naked, we have that and it has grabbed people’s attention. It’s going into its third season on VH1 in the U.S. and is now a proven success.”

Another title sure to make some noise—and raise some eyebrows—is Zodiak Rights’s social-experiment format Undressed. Inspired by a series of scientific tests, including one that measures whether you can make someone become intimately close to you or perhaps fall in love with you in less than one hour, the series was produced by Magnolia in Italy for NOVE. The network has the show scheduled in a later slot, just after 11 p.m., and runs two episodes back-to-back five days a week.

“We’re pitching it as a stripped, high-volume show that people can watch day after day,” says Andrew Sime, the VP of formats at Zodiak Rights, a Banijay Group company. “We’re in discussions with major broadcasters in key territories around the world. They’ve got their eye on the fact that this is proven in Italy and if they can get it right in their countries, then for a relatively affordable budget they can make lots of episodes and take over a piece of the schedule for weeks on end.”

Global Agency has also been successful in selling relationship- and wedding-themed formats as daily strips. Among its hits positioned for daily access prime time are Perfect Bride, a long-running format that continues to secure new options; Love Is Calling, which has been broadcast in Turkey for ten years, with close to 3,000 episodes aired; and I Wanna Marry You, which has been tripling its time slot’s average audience share on Kanal D.

Izzet Pinto, the company’s founder and CEO, believes these types of series are perfect to fill weekday schedules. “Broadcasters are always eager to find a successful daily show, then they don’t need to try to find different programs to fill their slots,” he says. “Once it’s successful, they have a show that can run five days a week.”

Perfect Bride and I Wanna Marry You also have special elimination-night episodes, which air in prime time.

Avi Armoza, the founder and CEO of Armoza Formats, says that he most commonly gets requests for “big, glossy, prime-time shows” in the dating space. He adds that these types of buzz-generating series are well suited to be the leading show in a channel’s summer or spring schedule.

“The idea is for viewers to watch these shows in prime time as appointment TV and talk about them the next day,” says Ellen Lovejoy, the VP of international content sales at A+E Networks, which has in its catalogue such marriage-based formats as Arranged and Seven Year Switch. “It’s hard to get people to have appointment television nowadays. These shows are also pulling in a younger demographic, because a lot of people in that age group are in an early relationship or are looking to be in a relationship.”

The ability to lure in that often-elusive younger audience is also cited by Carolyn Gilbey, a production consul­tant at all3media international, as one of the key selling points for dating formats. “Shows like Young, Free & Single: Live prove that it is possible to get a good audience in this age range by engaging the viewer and enabling them to become part of the dating process,” she says.

The way this show, and many others in the dating/marriage space, accomplishes that is by tapping into new technologies. “Digital add-ons have definitely become more important for this genre,” says Gilbey. “The technical wizardry used in Young, Free & Single: Live is what allowed our audience to have an immediate connection with our cast. As the dates were being broadcast, the viewers were able to vote on whether singletons should ‘ditch’ or ‘date’ their partner again, the votes were instantaneously analyzed and appeared on the screen as a graphic. Meanwhile, using iPads, the cast could monitor, while they were on air, what people were saying about them on social media.”

Televisa Internacional is also embracing the opportunities digital extensions bring to the dating space with its format Date My Avatar. “From its conception, we thought that it was important [for the format] to reach a second screen and to have an app associated with it,” explains Ricardo Ehrsam, the company’s general director of entertainment formats. “We are creating our own digital dating platform, which is completely different from what we have seen until now. The aim of the platform is not only to date but also to have fun with dating. For the first time, we can behave like a Cyrano de Bergerac who mediates between two [potential] lovers. You can choose to be a candidate or an avatar, you can customize your avatar, you can design a communicative strategy to find or help others find love. Digitalization opens up infinite possibilities.”

ITV Studios’s Love Island also has a “digital backbone,” which drives the content as well as the conversation about the show off-air. Beale cites the gossip-inducing, watercooler effect of these dating-centric formats as one of the key reasons for their popularity with broadcasters. Another is that they’re generally quite cost-effective or are at least scalable.

“You are able to easily control the budget and still come away with very strong storytelling,” agrees Armoza. He highlights Marry Me Now as a show that’s very cost-effective to produce. “Within the structure of the format, everything needs to happen in three days. Whatever you get in three days is what you have. You don’t need to add more shooting and you are not making a commitment for three months of production. It’s controllable.”

A+E’s Lovejoy echoes the sentiment that dating formats are “incredibly cost-effective productions, given the watercooler potential that they have.” She notes that the company shares a wealth of know-how with producers that can help to save time and money as well.

“We have useful production intel about what kind of couples [to choose], what characteristics they should have, what’s the balance of the issues that the couples are facing, what are their friends and families like, what type of psychologist [to bring in], what works and what doesn’t work,” says Lovejoy. “We have great consultancy and are always working to refine these shows so that they come back for second seasons. A lot of that comes from gaining experience in the casting process. That is information that we work very closely with our international partners to provide to them so that they can save time and money in preproduction.”

A great deal of effort goes into the casting when it comes to dating and marriage shows, in order to find compelling stories and characters that viewers will want to invest in. Red Arrow’s Gamsu says that the process becomes much easier after the initial season has aired and viewers see how scenarios played out for others. “When you put the casting call out for the second season you get so many more people vying [to be on the show] because they really bought into the idea and there’s a lot of people looking for a real connection,” he says.

For Zodiak Rights, the lessons learned about casting from the original Italian version of Undressed are proving valuable for international producers. “There have been 80 different couples in the first season in Italy, so the Italian producers got a lot of experience very quickly about who’s right, what works, what doesn’t work, and we are looking to share that experience,” Sime says. “If the conversation or relationship heads off into an unexpected direction during an episode, since the Italian producers have that experience and know where to go with it, they’re sharing tips and tricks that can help to bring the best out of everyone involved.”

In terms of sales targets, Sime says that a dating show like Undressed is suitable for all types of broadcasters. “What’s great about this format is that it is affordable, so you can dial the budget up or down as much as you’d like and it makes a lot of noise,” he adds. “It’s the kind of property that if a broadcaster gets their hands on this, it will do their marketing for them. It will be a sign that they can hold up and say, look at us! That puts us in a strong position of being able to talk to any broadcaster about this, from big networks to cable channels to some of the smaller broadcasters.”

The ability for dating and marriage formats to make a lot of noise for a network at a relatively affordable cost is certainly a benefit for broadcasters. Add to that their ability to attract a young audience and it’s easy to see why the genre is back in vogue in a big way.

“It’s true that every year one genre picks up, and in the last six months, it has definitely been dating and marriage,” says Global Agency’s Pinto. “It’s a very important genre for us because Global Agency was founded with only a single format: Perfect Bride. One single wedding format has really helped us grow as a company and gain a lot of attention.”

“We’ve seen an explosion of interest in dating shows,” says Electus’s Pollak. “Every time we ask [a buyer] what they’re looking for, they’re looking for a prime-time dating show. They want their next The Bachelor. It’s very hard to crack that formula, at least on the prime-time level. Authenticity is really what matters most right now and you can dress it up however you want. At the end of the day, these shows are about people looking for love. It’s really hard to replicate that and do it differently so that it’s its own show and could become a major hit in the U.S. I know that everyone is trying and it is bound to happen sooner or later.”

Pictured: Red Arrow International’s Kiss Bang Love.