Dating shows no longer ratings lotharios

HOLLYWOOD – Is romance dead in primetime?

A wave of dating shows that began more than three years ago with Fox’s hugely popular “Temptation Island” and crested with the likes of ABC’s “The Bachelor” and Fox’s “Joe Millionaire” appears to have subsided.

The broadcast nets continue to throw rice at such shows — each seemingly a variation in some form on “The Bachelor” — but they are no longer the ratings magnet they were a year or so ago.

NBC’s “For Love or Money,” for example, returned with a thud last month after emerging the biggest new hit of the previous summer, and ABC couldn’t find many who wanted to take its “Ultimate Love Test” — this less than two months after Fox closed shop on “Forever Eden,” a mess of a relationship/hookup skein that, as its title and Fox publicity material implied, could have run indefinitely.

It lasted two weeks.

And now that the genre has been spoofed on the likes of Spike’s “Joe Schmo 2,” you get the feeling that the well has been tapped dry.

Filling a need

Viewers initially gravitated to romance skeins at a time when love was not in bloom anywhere else on the primetime sked.

The proliferation of procedural crime and legal dramas, the fadeout of romantic comedies like “Mad About You” and “Dharma & Greg” and the absence of love stories in primetime soaps or other mellers opened the door for Fox to score big with “Temptation Island” in early 2001.

Show, which introduced couples in various stages of commitment to tempting members of the opposite sex, was a megahit averaging a 9.0 rating in adults 18-49.

ABC then caught fire a year later with “The Bachelor,” at the time a controversial setup in which a single man chose from a field of 25 babes with the intent to marry.

You’ve gotta feel for ABC, though: It quickly became the fourth-place net’s biggest hit, yet it’s the reality show that has been mimicked most. It may not be easy to tweak the formats of unique ideas like “Survivor” or “Fear Factor,” but “The Bachelor” opened up the door to a plethora of romantic variations for the other nets to pursue.

Some of the “Bachelor”-inspired dating shows that followed produced big ratings, like NBC’s “Average Joe” and Fox’s “Joe Millionaire.” And even those that failed, like CBS’ “Cupid” and Fox’s “Paradise Hotel,” seemed to sap something out of “The Bachelor.”

Divorced from auds

In May, the seventh edition of the ABC series averaged a still-strong 6.0 rating in adults 18-49, down from a 7.2 one year earlier and a series-best 11.9 in November 2002.

Similarly, NBC saw the second and third editions of “Average Joe” deliver dwindling — albeit still-solid — returns during the 2003-04 season, while Fox pulled the plug on “Forever Eden” when it failed to crack a 2.0 rating.

To ratchet up viewer interest in the genre, most of the dating skeins to debut in the past couple of years, including NBC’s “Average Joe” and “For Love or Money” and Fox’s “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance” and Bravo’s “Boy Meets Boy,” have incorporated some element of deception.

In some cases, auds were a step or two ahead of the contestants in learning of the “twist.” By doing this, however, it’s tough to repeat the formula — as Fox learned when “Joe Millionaire 2” bombed.

Looking ahead, “The Bachelor” and “Average Joe” promise new twists and turns when they return in the fall, while the WB is prepping a college-age variation of “The Bachelor” called “Big Man on Campus.”

We’ve come a long way since “The Dating Game.”

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