This past year, “The Bachelor” endured a heavy dose of controversy, the type of drama that even reality TV producers can’t make up — and certainly don’t want to deal with. And yet, the franchise has done what no other dating series has done, crossing its 20-year mark on the air.

With 26 seasons of the flagship, 19 seasons of “The Bachelorette,” eight seasons of “Bachelor in Paradise” and numerous spinoffs to date, ABC’s dating franchise isn’t going anywhere. With an international fanbase that considers “The Bachelor” to be a way of life more than a TV show, it’s entirely possible that viewers will still be watching in 20 more years.

Copycats have tried to mirror the formula. Most have failed. Turns out, the simple fairytale of limos, roses, extravagant jet-setting, tears and heartbreak isn’t so easy to replicate, as no new network hits have broken through in recent memory. It wasn’t until the pandemic when viewers were bingeing from home that the genre saw a boom in programming with unique formats hitting streaming services like Netflix, which fully leaned into the romance craze with an impressive slate of shows like “Love Is Blind,” “Too Hot to Handle,” “The Ultimatum,” “Indian Matchmaking,” “Jewish Matchmaking” and more. Or, HBO Max with “FBoy Island, which fittingly hails from a veteran producer from “The Bachelor” world.

“The format is here to stay,” says Brooke Karzen, executive VP and head of Warner Horizon Unscripted Television, which produces the franchise. “There are tropes that the audience relies on. There are parts of this journey that are to be expected, like night one arrivals, the rose ceremonies and going for a proposal at the end.”

As the show has evolved, critics have questioned if that proposal at the end is necessary, or if the prospect of finding your spouse after a matter of weeks is setting up television couples for failure in the real world. When “The Bachelor” debuted in 2002, rom-coms were all the rage and Hollywood was selling narratives rooted in finding Prince Charming; now, storytelling has become more raw, complex and realistic. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a pitch in today’s world, centered around one man dating multiple women at the same time.

“In 2001 — and remember this was in the heyday of ‘Temptation Island’ on Fox — I think the idea was one guy dates 25 women and breaks up with 24 of them. If you were pitching it now, the pitch is that this person has tried everything and they just want to find the love of their life,” says Rob Mills, executive vice president of unscripted and alternative entertainment at Walt Disney Television. “At the end of the day, everything about the show and why it works is relatability. Everyone wants to find love and everyone has had their heart broken, like the people on-screen.”

Just like a medical drama, the well on “The Bachelor” never runs dry. Falling in love paired with rejection is an endless cycle for ripe storytelling. And yet, while every network has wanted their version of “The Bachelor” for the past two decades, ABC has continuously led the pack.

“Over the years with so many shows that have come and go, none of them have worked without high stakes,” says Mike Darnell, president of Warner Bros. Unscripted Television. “The high stakes is that you hope at the end of the show, there is an engagement. I think that is extraordinarily important to the DNA of the show — because if not, what are you going for? ‘I just want a boyfriend or girlfriend’ doesn’t really say it. That’s not what they’re in it for, the be honest.”

So, what are they in it for? Since the beginning of time for reality TV dating, skeptics have wondered if you can truly find love on television. But in today’s swiping culture, you could argue that a TV show is just as good as any dating app. Perhaps, the bigger issue is the rise of Instagram fame. With lucrative social media deals looming for any prospective reality star, the question of being “here for the right reasons” has hit an all-time high.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s a challenge for casting,” Karzen admits. “We want people who are interested in the lead, and who are there to really fall in love. They’re not there to be famous. It comes with the territory, but when the show started, there was no Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. It wasn’t even a thought.”

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Trista Rehn becomes engaged to Ryan Sutter on the first season of “The Bachelorette” in 2003. ABC

Funny enough, the show started with what turned out to be the most successful couple in the franchise’s history: Trista Rehn, who left the inaugural season of “The Bachelor” heartbroken, met Ryan Sutter, one of her contestants on the very first season of “The Bachelorette,” in 2003. The duo is still married today, living mostly away from the cameras with two children in Colorado. To showcase just how much network television has changed over the past twenty years, when they tied the knot, their million-dollar televised nuptials drew in more than 20 million viewers — at the time, the network said the special drew the largest U.S. audience for a TV wedding since Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

The past season of “The Bachelor” hit a series low, topping out at 4.7 million for its grand finale. But, it’s all relative. With viewership steadily declining across broadcast, the show still ranked as one of ABC’s top in the 18-49 demo in its 26th season, which starred leading man Clayton Echard.

Echard may not have been a fan-favorite, but the drama did not disappoint. In fact, it was so intense that after he broke up with the same women numerous times (and at the same time), the creative team decided to make two heartbroken women, Gabby Windey and Rachel Recchia, the next stars of “The Bachelorette,” creating a history-making moment, casting two leads for the first time.

“What’s allowed the show to remain a hit is that years ago, we started making leads from previous seasons,” says Mills. “It really feels like a primetime soap opera. We take back-burner characters and put them on the front burner and continue telling the story that viewers want to see.”

“The Bachelor” has created a web of interconnected storytelling, almost like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its audience is similarly invested, too. Bachelor Nation, the community of fans and cast, make the show a top trending social media topic with each episode. “Bachelor Nation is a legion of fans,” says Karzen. “It’s almost like Comic-Con.”

“Bachelor” is one of the last series standing that makes for appointment television with audiences eager to tune-in every Monday night, live-tweeting or calling their friends during commercial breaks. Viewing parties are par for the course among fans, and executives joke that Nielsen should learn to track communal viewing habits. The morning after an episode airs, a series of fan-made podcasts, TikTok videos and memes are birthed with millions upon millions of views and “Bachelor”-devoted accounts that have created social media stars in their own right.

With that said, don’t expect to see “The Bachelor” jumping to a streaming service, like “Dancing With the Stars,” which is heading to Disney Plus, after 30 seasons on ABC. “The brand is so strong, it could probably live anywhere,” says Darnell, “But it’s one of the few things that works well on broadcast.”

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Jimmy Kimmel hosting “The Bachelor” in 2015 on Chris Soules’ season. ©ABC/Courtesy Everett Collection

“There is definitely a fluctuation season to season and you know when it’s working, but really, I pay more attention to the social buzz than the actual ratings,” admits Mills, who noticed that power when Jimmy Kimmel hosted in 2015. “Jimmy told me, ‘I know those ratings are wrong because I got more feedback on that episode that I hosted than anything else I’ve ever done in my career.’”

Aside from a plugged-in audience, the show is very much in the pop culture zeitgeist, still landing magazine covers, just like it did when the Sutters graced the cover of “People” back in 2003. (Remember when Trista was a guest on “Oprah?”)

“You can hardly say the word ‘Bachelor’ or ‘Bachelorette’ without thinking of the show. It means one thing,” says Darnell. “This is one of the few shows in the world, not just in this country, that has resonated for so long, but more importantly, is still relevant. There are shows that have been on for a long time, but they have lost their relevance.”

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Chris Harrison, who hosted “The Bachelor” franchise for 19 years since its launch in 2002, departed in 2021. Courtesy of ABC

It’s no secret that “The Bachelor” has faced severe backlash, as of late. The continuous calls for increased diversity on the franchise hit a boiling point last year when Chris Harrison defended a contestant who was embroiled in a racist scandal in a widely-panned interview where he invoked the term “woke police.” The controversy resulted in Harrison stepping down, after having hosted all the “Bachelor” series for 19 years. Jesse Palmer, an ESPN sports commentator and former football player who starred on “The Bachelor” Season 5 in 2004, took over as host — easily, the biggest creative change the franchise has seen in its twenty years on television.

“Chris had done a wonderful job hosting the show for almost 20 years, but 20 years is a long time. I think probably at a certain point, there would have been some sort of stepping aside. At some point, change happens in every show that is on for this long,” says Mills, commenting on the situation for the first time. “It obviously did not happen when or in the way that we wanted it to. But addressing it and hearing the feelings among the cast, it was important that we listened to them. We have a responsibility to them and hopefully the cast feels that they were heard.”

Beyond the cast, Mills speaks to the responsibility the franchise holds with its fans. “There have been hurdles these last few years,” the executive says. “We’ve had diversity issues that we’ve needed to address that were long overdue that we’ve started, but we still have a lot more work to do. This is not the strongest Bachelor Nation has ever been, but I think we’re on our way to get there. The silent producer of the show, and the biggest producer of the show in some ways, is the audience. We need to listen to them.”

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Warner Bros. produces three official “Bachelor” podcasts, hosted by fan-favorite alums Mike Johnson, Bryan Abasolo, Natasha Parker, Joe Amabile, Tia Booth, Michelle Young and Becca Kufrin. Jeff Lewis/Warner Bros. Television Group

So what’s next? For starters, execs hope the show can last another 20 years. But in the meantime, aside from new spinoffs that are continuously in development — yes, that senior citizens show is still on deck — the franchise has begun to tap into a lucrative merchandising strategy, testing out “Bachelor”-branded wine, Vegas slot machines, official podcasts, plus a touring show, “The Bachelor Live on Stage.”

“It’s like being at a Beatles concert,” jokes Darnell about the live shows. “OK, maybe not, but it’s like ‘Chippendales’ or ‘Magic Mike.’ … There are so many ways to monetize the brand and really explode the business. We have started, but we expect to blow it up more.”

Karzen has a project in mind. “I would love ‘Bachelor: The Musical,’” she says. But before the fans get too excited: “That’s just an idea. It’s not real,” she cautions. “That’s the dream.”