Dating shows have always been a guilty pleasure. Ever since the ’60s with “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game,” audiences have been hooked. But in the modern viewing era, only one franchise has stuck in viewers’ hearts.
“The Bachelor” debuted in 2002, and nearly two decades later, no other show has managed to break through. But almost 20 years after the ABC franchise premiered, romantic reality shows are again having a moment.
Now, in our shelter-at-home world, audiences have found a trio of Netflix shows: the social experiment series “The Circle”; “Love Is Blind,” viewed in more than 30 million households in its first two months; and the raunchier “Too Hot to Handle,” which challenges horny 20-somethings to refrain from engaging in sexual activity while frolicking around a sun-drenched resort in swimsuits.
“We’ve been able to carve out a realistic and reflective way of how society is,” says Brandon Riegg, who heads unscripted originals at Netflix, attributing the success of his shows to their modern-day take on love that draws parallels to online dating, social media and hyper-connectivity.
“‘Too Hot to Handle’ is squarely about what it means to date on apps, through that swipe culture,” Riegg says. “People want to have a meaningful connection, but sometimes, these apps can encourage the opposite. We had a great cast of really attractive singles who had unintentionally fallen victim to the tropes of dating apps, and they all walked away rethinking how they will approach connecting with someone.”
The breakout star of “Too Hot,” Francesca Farago, quickly amassed more than 4.7 million Instagram followers. Along with “Love Is Blind,” both series became the subjects of viral memes — the stamp of television approval in 2020.
Yet when it comes to broadcast, nothing can beat “Bachelor.”
With 24 seasons of the flagship show, 15 seasons of “The Bachelorette” and six seasons of “Bachelor in Paradise,” the ABC franchise is untouchable. But there’s always room for more love.
“I hate to compare it to the NFL, but ‘The Bachelor’ is like its own sports league,” says Rob Mills, ABC’s top alternative executive. “It’s hard to compete with it because it’s so much more than a show these days. It’s a force. There is always room for good stories, and everybody needs to fall in love, so we welcome more good shows. What really would please me is if they all had the quality control that ‘The Bachelor’ has.”
No show in the genre has approached the level of success of “The Bachelor” since “Joe Millionaire,” which aired on Fox in 2003, drawing approximately 40 million viewers to its finale, under the leadership of reality kingpin Mike Darnell (who now oversees “Bachelor” and all unscripted programming at Warner Bros. TV).
“I’ve seen so many people try to compete” in the dating arena, says Mills. “There was a time where there were competitors to the throne with ‘Joe Millionaire’ — and ‘Average Joe’ on NBC. Those shows burned really bright, but they burned out really quick. The success Netflix has had is really the first time I’ve seen this in quite some time.”
Other shows are lining up. “Love Island,” which debuted last summer on CBS, resonated with a young, female-skewing audience for the broadcaster. Fox is eager to find its own hit in the genre; it’s currently airing encores of the short-lived “Flirty Dancing” on Saturday nights, and recently premiered “Labor of Love,” which focuses on a 41-year-old woman searching for a man who can be a good father to a child. The show struggled to find an audience in its first week but saw a slight uptick in its second outing.
“Dating shows have been around for years. They are a cornerstone of any sort of reality portfolio,” says Rob Wade, president of alternative entertainment and specials at Fox, who also oversees TV’s biggest show, “The Masked Singer.” “As network executives, we all dream to have our big tentpoles covered — a music competition, a physical competition and a dating competition — but no one network really ever has a full house.”
With “Bachelorette” shut down due to the pandemic, ABC is airing a retrospective greatest hits series this summer, to fill the void among passionate fans. And romance is brewing around the world, with international versions of “Temptation Island” heading back into production this summer too.
With the dating space showing no signs of slowing down, Mills has one piece of advice for his future competitors. “There have been shows that try to say ‘The Bachelor’ is yesterday’s news, so you should watch us instead,” he says. “Those are the ones that always fail, because no matter what, Bachelor Nation is always going to be loyal to ‘The Bachelor.’”
Any way you look at it, one thing is clear: On TV, love is all around.