‘Bachelor Nation’ author Amy Kaufman tells Moneyish about the sustained success of the ABC reality dating show and the two women who made the franchise a hit
America really wants to fall in love.
Since its 2002 debut, “The Bachelor” has been a television staple for millions of American, many of them women. Despite the evolution of dating norms in the past decade and the consumption pattern changes that have buffeted TV industry, the 22-season dating show— which sees about a dozen women compete for the affections of one man— reliably draws well over 5 million viewers per episode.
With “Bachelor Nation,” out today, Amy Kaufman seeks to reveal the secret sauce behind the long running series and its counterpart, “The Bachelorette.” The book has already been the subject of much buzz after the 32-year-old Kaufman, an entertainment reporter at the Los Angeles Times, revealed that many would-be contestants were disqualified after failing an STD test from herpes.
Part of the reason behind the franchise’s success is its focus on fulfilling a very human need for affection. “It seems like such a retrograde concept to have all these women turn up for one person, but the love story is appealing to people on a level deeper than we’d like to admit,” Kaufman tells Moneyish.
This happens although the audience knows that most of the elements are manipulated. Tropes like the female villain contestant or a supermom that seeks to influence the love choice of her child constantly repeat themselves. Couples that seemingly fall into everlasting love break up, often as soon as within a year of a season’s conclusion. “They’ve relied on a tried-and-true formula that people love,” Kaufman says. “We know the couples historically don’t last, but we still root for them. There’s something that people like about the familiarity and routine of ‘The Bachelor.’”
Of course, “The Bachelor” has been the subject of liberal feminist criticism since its inception. A 2002 New York Times review billed it the “least realistic of all reality shows” and compared it to “pseudo porn.” But ironically, the rise of dating apps has made the once mocked concept somewhat quaint and for millennial watchers, almost “aspirational,” Kaufman says. “I’m out here at a bar meeting some guy who may have another date planned after mine. Then I watch ‘The Bachelor’ and while the guy is dating a ton of women, he’s interested in marriage, showering the women with affection and giving them compliments.”
The ABC series is the brainchild of producer Mike Fleiss, a second cousin of the infamous former Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss. But Kaufman also points to two women, psychologist Catherine Selden and producer Lisa Levenson, as key to “The Bachelor’s” early success. (Levenson is now a senior executive at Fox Broadcasting, whose parent company 21st Century Fox shares common ownership with Moneyish publisher News Corp.) She describes the latter as particularly skilled at getting contestants to display just the right emotion for TV, like weep after being discarded.
“They were doing things they ostensibly knew would make women look bad, but also good in some ways,” Kaufman says. “They definitely helped shape the idea of women wanting love.”
A self-professed “Bachelor” fan who began watching the show in college, Kaufman still thinks the show’s producers need to up their game when it comes to racial and sexual diversity. Though there’s been one African American Bachelorette, she thinks a black Bachelor isn’t likely to be cast soon. While bisexual women have been picked as contestants, Kaufman notes that they’re too often depicted as novelties.
“The idea of the show focusing on a same sex couple would be so amazing,” she says. “But I cannot imagine it coming close to that. Early on, Fleiss said that people of color just don’t apply and that he didn’t know why they didn’t. That’s just a lame excuse in my opinion. If you have a show of mostly white people, only white people will think they’re welcome.”
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