Michael von Würden

Michael-von-WurdenThe social-experiment format Married at First Sight has more than just a noisy premise as its unique selling point; it has the ratings and global track record to back it up. Created by Snowman Productions and distributed by Red Arrow International, the series originated in Denmark and traveled quickly across the world. The format has been licensed into more than 25 territories, including the U.S., Australia, the U.K., Russia and Germany, while finished versions of the show have aired in 100-plus countries. Creator Michael von Würden, the managing director of Snowman Productions, talks with TV Formats about some of the keys to Married at First Sight’s success.

TV FORMATS: What was the genesis of Married at First Sight?
VON WÜRDEN: A production assistant working for Snowman came up with the original idea of following a young couple who had just gotten married without knowing each other before. We recognized that this idea had huge potential because it could be extremely loud. So we started developing the format around that idea and added the science layer to it. Originally, it was a much more formatted idea than what the show ended up being. But since the original Danish series was airing on the public-service broadcaster DR3, then DR1, and the general TV trend in Denmark was moving toward more doc-style programming, we made the format pillars less visible. The show is pretty formatted if you break it down, but those elements are relatively invisible if you aren’t looking for them. There is a solid structure to it, though, something which all of the international versions follow.

TV FORMATS: Did you have any initial reservations that a show with a somewhat risky premise like this might not work or that you wouldn’t get the outcome you hoped for?
VON WÜRDEN: Of course, it was a worry that this kind of risky premise could backfire. But we had great faith in our experts and in the sincerity of the participants’ purpose for joining the experiment—they were looking for another way to find love. And we hoped that we could help them to achieve that. Having this kind of noisy premise is also a treat for broadcasters!

TV FORMATS: How is the format structured in terms of stories?
VON WÜRDEN: When you look at the show from the outside, it doesn’t look structured, but it is. Through the story lines you have the marriage and the build up to it, and afterward you have the phase where they essentially start dating each other. You then go through all the normal stories that you would cover in following a couple who is building a relationship. The difficult part is to get the balance between the couples right and to be true to the stories while still protecting the integrity of the show. It’s also important to be true to the timeline of the show, so that you don’t swap around different scenes, and keep it as chronological as possible when telling the story and the way it developed.

Of the international versions I’ve seen, most of them have been very successful in managing the balance between being true to the experiment and also being true to the couples. They must portray their stories and also the individuals as human beings with ups and downs, happiness and sadness.

TV FORMATS: What do you see as the keys to its international success as a format?
VON WÜRDEN: It’s actually pretty simple! It’s all about searching and hoping to find love—something that’s so universal, everybody can identify with it. All of the stories are real life. It’s about people like you and me just wanting the best in life. That’s the key. If you break down the idea of finding love, there are no differences whether you’re from the U.S., Hungary or Australia; it’s what everybody wants and covets in some way.

TV FORMATS: Why did you decide to use relationship experts to form the couples within the show?
VON WÜRDEN: We put a lot of emphasis on not having “television” pretend to create love. We went looking for people who know something about how people interact and how relationships between people evolve and can be sustained. We went looking for some of the very best professionals in Denmark in these areas. These people are solely focused on creating the best possible matches and helping the couples to navigate through the experiment. They’re not concerned with making great television. That’s one of the most important parts of the process and the show, that we have these two different purposes in the production. We have the experts aiming to help the participants, and we have the producers trying to make a great show. As a producer, you must confront yourself all the time with the question: Will this help the couples find love? If it doesn’t, then you shouldn’t do it. We really stress to them not to manipulate situations, not to create settings that won’t benefit the couples. Stories and conflicts that you need to create a great narrative will happen naturally. They happen all the time in relationships. In Married at First Sight, a conflict doesn’t necessarily have to be big. It can be something as small as who will do the dishes tonight. That is relatable to everybody, and I think this is also the reason for the show’s worldwide success.

TV FORMATS: What do you look for when casting the series?
VON WÜRDEN: We look for people who wouldn’t normally go on television. They’re not in this to become famous or to see themselves on the big screen; they’re in it to find love. We are looking for people who are brave. Personally, I’m not sure that I would take part in this experiment! We try to emphasize all the time to the casting department that the participants need to be brave and, of course, open-minded. They need to be ready to be in this experiment, both in terms of the emotional situation they are in and also if they can handle the media and the pressure around it.

TV FORMATS: What sort of know-how do you share with the various local producers about how to make the format work in their markets?
VON WÜRDEN: The biggest lesson for our producers is that you shouldn’t do anything in the show without having the goal of helping the participants to find love. If producers understand that, then it’s pretty hard not to do it right. Once the casting is done and you have genuine matches, it’s a straightforward show to produce. Then it’s all about trying to tell these peoples’ stories as honestly as possible.

TV FORMATS: What other lessons learned have helped to shape the format?
VON WÜRDEN: One of the most difficult things about doing the show is handling the expectations of the participants. When we tell people that they have a match, they get pretty excited. If it doesn’t work out in the end, they are extremely disappointed.

Finding a way to do aftercare with the participants is one of the key learnings that we have developed along the way during the different seasons. Also, when the series goes on air and the press attention increases, there are so many layers to the aftercare that you wouldn’t normally have in a show.

TV FORMATS: What are the greatest challenges in producing a show like this one, where so much of the outcome is unknown?
VON WÜRDEN: One of the best choices we made in the first Danish season was that we hired documentarians to do a tele­vision show instead of traditional television storytellers. We had an extremely experienced showrunner on it who has a lot of television experience but is also a documentary producer. She set the tone and voice of the show, which has carried through to the international versions. It’s about how to tell big stories out of small, everyday events. One of the classic scenes follows a trip to Ikea. We use it as an example of how people define themselves as a couple—who makes the decisions, who is dominant. A trip to Ikea pretty much shows you that! [Laughs] Documentarians can tell that story. They can find small, everyday settings that can chart the evolution of the couples. This also makes it very relatable for the viewer. When you sit on the couch next to your partner, you can turn to them and say, That’s just like me, or, That’s you! The choice of having documentarians producing it instead of traditional reality-TV producers makes a big difference.

TV FORMATS: What new projects do you have in the works?
VON WÜRDEN: Our most interesting project is the new show that FYI in the U.S. picked up, Kiss Bang Love. It has already been on air in Denmark, Australia and Germany. In Kiss Bang Love, we explore whether blind physical chemistry can predetermine romantic success. It’s kind of a spin-off project from the Married universe. In Married we use science to pick your match. In Kiss Bang Love we use chemistry.