There’s no doubt about it: producers hit gold with reality television. It’s cheap, easy to put together, and we love it. Even though reality television may be past its prime, there’s still no shortage of shows featuring ordinary people doing supposedly ordinary things—traveling with a loved one, losing weight, working for a tyrant in a black suit.
But what really get us are the shows about love. From “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” to “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” and “Newlyweds,” never has television spent so many hours examining the lives of couples—how they meet, fight, and, more often than not, break up.
And in the wake of Nick and Jessica, Carmen and Dave, Travis and Shanna, and the media frenzy that surrounded these breakups, can we trust reality television to have any positive role in creating or documenting committed couples? Unfortunately, reality dating shows seem bent on creating hilarious drama at the expense of happy relationships.
Dating Shows: Helping People Fall All Over Themselves for All the Wrong Reasons
The most common format of reality dating shows is to feature a group of people competing for one member of the opposite sex. Not only do they get the “prized” guy or girl, winners are usually promised an additional reward—the security of marrying a multi-millionaire, the celebrity of a dating rock star, something to make their efforts even more worthwhile.
Whatever the payoff, reality-show contestants seem to be motivated by everything but the quest for true love. They seem to be vying for notoriety, money, a shot at being on TV and creating drama for a willing public. And, hey, sometimes it works. A few contestants go on to get their own show later (à la runner-up Tiffany “New York” Pollard of “Flavor of Love” fame).
So these contestants battle it out to keep themselves on the show for one more episode, creating lots of humor and drama for viewers. But by the end, the goal—being in a normal, committed relationship—is lost amid the fighting, name-calling, and chaos.
And the numbers play this out. In 11 seasons of “The Bachelor,” for example, 10 out of 11 romantic conclusions resulted in hasty breakups, reneged engagement plans, or simply no engagement at all. Some of the losing contestants even went back to their “exes” once the episode was over, because hey, it was all just a game! The show’s creators like it that way, because they bet we’ll prefer the chase to what happens after the catch.
Not only the contestants, but usually the “catches” too are hard-wired for a bad time and an early divorce! When we look at the behavior of Brett Michaels, Flavor Flav, Tiffany Pollard, or Scott Baio, the last thing we think is that he or she is a healthy choice for long-term relationship success. It’s this very instability that drives us to keep coming back for more, not any glimmer of hope that these relationships will be successful.
Reality Relationships + Breakups = Ratings
The first reality show was PBS’s 1973 mini-series “An American Family,” which chronicled the separation and divorce of Bill and Pat Loud of Santa Barbara. The show garnered 10 million viewers. And ever since, reality television has seen dollar signs in divorce, picking couples not for their stamina, but rather their stress fractures. Whether it’s Nick and Jessica or Travis and Shanna, the relationships we see on reality television are either doomed from the start or likely to have some major blowouts along the way.
If anything in recent years epitomized reality TV’s hatred for happy couples, it was “Temptation Island.” The premise was this: four couples are put on an island with a bevy of hot men and women paid to tempt them away from their steady beaus. Every show—especially the concluding episode, in which the couples were made to watch their loved ones make out with strangers on video—was geared toward breaking people up. Perhaps the fact that the majority of couples stayed together was what condemned the show to cancellation.
Reality TV’s Surprising Fishbowl Romances
It may seem that romance is doomed on reality television—and it is, when the focus of the show is romance. But in the “fishbowl” shows, with a dozen people crammed together in a scenario where they’re forced to live in a loft or on a desert island, romance can thrive when the cameras are looking elsewhere.
Take “Survivor: All-Stars” from 2004. When contestants Amber Brkich and Rob Mariano seemed to be getting sweet on each other, Amber told us that she was on the show to win, not on “The Dating Game.” But out of the limelight, love bloomed, and Mariano ended up proposing on the show’s finale! The two were married in the Bahamas in 2005 and are still going strong.
And MTV’s “The Real World” has unwittingly created several long-term romances. Viewers of the San Francisco edition may remember Pedro and Puck fighting over peanut butter, but behind the scenes, Pam Ling and Judd Winick formed a relationship that eventually blossomed into marriage and, later, children. Their co-star Rachel Campos went on to marry Sean Duffy from the Boston cast, and on a reunion show, Danny Jamieson from the Austin cast proposed to Melinda Stolp, who accepted. The couples are all going strong and their relationships seem based largely on compatibility, a trait that reality TV would never have matched them by had they met on one of the many dating shows.
So it seems that when reality TV puts people together, it only succeeds in tearing them (and even the institution of marriage) apart. Yet when people of similar temperament are stuck together and forced to bond over a shared task, they see each other’s strengths and weaknesses, cameras or not. And gradually, sometimes even after the shows are over, love emerges. Perhaps there is a lesson here for our own real relationships: private moments with compatible people—rather than public outbursts or economic motivation—are the seeds from which real love can bloom.