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The Evolution of Reality-dating Shows: Why We Love to Hate Them
When millionaires meet the folks
by Jenn Lackey


Has television devolved to its lowest form with the recent rash of reality-dating shows? Not really. These programs are just the latest craze in the reality TV genre, and the Nielsen research ratings are proving viewers want to watch. While we may love to hate them, we watch them, and in enormous numbers. FOX’s Joe Millionaire and ABC’s The Bachelorette scored record ratings, while NBC’s Meet My Folks hit the top ten.

But long before Joe Millionaire there was Chuck Barris’ The Dating Game, which set the standard for reality-dating shows in 1965. The original formula was simple. A pretty girl cross-examines three eligible bachelors she can’t see and then chooses one based solely on his answers. The prize was a date paid for by the network. As the show evolved, these dates became exotic weekend getaways with a chaperone.

The Dating Game was a great success, airing from 1965 to 1986, and it gave Barris the opportunity to create other reality game shows including The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show.

According to the recent film Confessions of Dangerous Mind, based on Barris’ autobiographical book of the same name, it was "sex, romance and the bullshit of dating" that inspired him to create The Dating Game.

Barris looked to create shows that unveiled people’s preconceived notions about dating or marriage. When developing The Newlywed Game, Barris felt that just about any husband or wife would sell out their spouse to win a refrigerator or lawn mower. According to Barris in a NPR Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross in 1986, the game evolved into a microcosm of marriage in society. Contestants on The Newlywed Game had a 40 percent divorce rate, which mirrored the overall U.S. divorce rate during the show’s heyday. It was everyday people that inspired him and everyday people that set the premise for his shows. "I looked to the household for my ideas because my shows were people. I wanted highly identifiable shows where the audience could identify with what was going on," he said.

Obviously TV producers didn’t realize the potential for reality TV back in the 1960s. Until Survivor in 1999, there were few reality-based programs on prime time. After Survivor, which was a ratings juggernaut, everyone wanted in on spawning the current craze for new variations on reality programming.

Shows such as Temptation Island and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire were created to compete with Survivor’s rating victories. Like Barris’ Dating Game, these contemporary dating shows focus on the unpredictable nature of people’s personal relationships. However, they differ in that today’s shows have become less about dating and more about winning. As one Joe Millionaire contestant stated, "This isn’t the typical dating scenario, there are feelings of pride, rejection and competition." Clearly, contestants are chosen with an eye toward making a combustible mix of personalities that clash and cause drama. It seems each show has a do or die competitor, a scandalous slut, a shy and quiet one and of course the down-home good girl or boy everyone loves.

Other shows, such as, NBC’s recent, "Meet My Folks," are more about digging for dirt and creating sensational drama out of everyday people mistakes. Eight girls are competing for an all expense paid trip to Europe with Daniel, a 23-year-old college student. The show’s twist is that it’s not Daniel the girls need to please, but Daniel’s parents who ultimately choose the winner.

In a nutshell the show places young people on dating trial and embarrasses them on national TV. Hidden cameras reveal the contestants’ private conversations and make-out sessions with the sought-after date. Personal friends are interviewed to reveal the contestants’ sexual histories and dirty secrets, such as shop lifting, cheating or lying. A few are even subjected to lie detector tests and viewers are left wondering how any romance could come out of such a humiliating experience.

Whether or not we like to admit it, these reality datingreality-dating shows can be addictive. While many are formulaic, their participants are unscripted ,unscripted, making the shows difficult to predict. Still, it’s easy to formulate opinions about the participants because they’re everyday people, and this, it must be confessed, is part of the fun. Who will get the axe, how will he react and who will win are the questions that keep people watching through the commercials and tuning in for the next episode.

While these shows all have a formula and an individual style of execution, they end up becoming Petri dishes, sociology experiments on display for all to watch. It has become a sure-fire ratings producer: Pit a few conflicting personalities together, throw in the element of money and romance, add a twist and see what happens.

In the end, reality-dating shows are profiting off the awkwardness of courtship. And let’s face it, unscripted outcomes make for enticing television no matter how trashy or sleazy it may seem. Dating games may have devolved to the lowest common denominator, but as long as viewers continue to push ratings through the roof, reality-dating shows are here to stay, for better or worse.

Jenn Lackey writes for pleasure and makes a buck selling wireless technology b2b.