SHEFFIELD —British pubcaster Channel 4 took to the stage Monday (June 12) morning to showcase successes in two very different genres.
In a session titled “How to Make Love on the Television”, panelists discussed the new crop of dating shows and whether it’s actually possible to find love on the small screen. A second panel, “Extreme Factual: No Pain, No Gain?”, took a deep dive into extreme factual and the risks of pushing participants (and crew) to the limits.
While at surface level, these series couldn’t be more different, at their heart is a common theme: a focus on passionate people throwing caution to the wind in favor of finding adventure, whether it be on a blind date in a restaurant, or sailing a ship on the high seas.
What’s love got to do with it?
While dating shows may seem superficial, this panel asked whether a new crop of dating and mating shows are taking Tindr to task and giving Plenty of Fish a run for its money.
Most recently, E4 commissioned the new dating show First Impressions (w/t) produced by Wall to Wall. In the series, a couple at a crossroads in their relationship will be hypnotized to temporarily forget each other. With no memories of their relationship, they will each go on dates with two other people, followed by a date with each other to see if they still find their spark.
According to Madonna Benjamin, a commissioning executive with C4, and Barnaby Coughlin, an executive producer of the BAFTA-winning C4 program First Dates, television execs are primed to produce dating shows because they generally have good instincts about people, so are more likely to predict better matches.
When First Dates first aired, the show had an audience participation component which had viewers choose who the contestant should date. When Coughlin was brought onto the team in the third season, they crafted a dating agency to do the matching. They also put more focus on additional characters, such as the host and bartender at the restaurant. “We wanted to shift the attention to finding pure love,” said Coughlin. “The sincerity of that changed the success of the series.”
The outcome: While in the first season, about 1,500 people applied to be on the show, today the team receives just shy of 300,000 per season
Additional panelists touched upon the various ways their shows put a twist on the dating format. On Married at First Sight, which relies on science and a panel of experts to match individuals, the first time a couple meets is on their wedding day.
“It’s hard because normally when you’re casting, if someone wants to pull out [of the show], you become a wooer — you do anything to keep them on board,” says executive producer Trish Powell. In this show, however, if anyone shows the slightest hesitation, they will be let go.
This flexibility is partially due to the committal nature of UK law. While a couple can have a marriage annulled at any time after the wedding. For a divorce, they must wait a year.
Naked Attraction, which is entering its second season, is a dating game in which a clothed person selects two contestants from six naked people whose bodies, and then faces, are revealed in stages from the neck up.
Series editor Vivienne Molokwu and commissioning editor Lucy Leveugle said the premiere of the show drew an impressive 2.7-million viewers.
Molokwu said the show plays into the dating preferences of the younger generation, who are already choosing mates based on images on apps such as Tindr and Plenty of Fish. “But those images are filtered,” she said. “So we’re asking what people would do if they were choosing exclusively based on physical attraction.”
It’s too early to know the success of that show, but another dating show Leveugle has commissioned, The Undateables, might be an indication that is it in fact possible to find love on television. Leveugle said that the show, which features people who cope with challenging and misunderstood ailments participate in the dating world, has had 54 contributors, 36 of whom are now in long-term relationships.
Go big or go home
Kelly Webb-Lamb, head of factual entertainment at C4 and former managing editor at Shine, said the appeal of extreme factual is that when you strip people of their comfort zones, their true strength of character is shown. She added that while you might expect extreme factual shows to skew male, The Island, which features 13 people abandoned on a remote, uninhabited island for a month, does well with a female audience, too, because it’s really about the essence of humanity and the eccentricities of human nature, as opposed to high-risk stunts.
Colin Barr, creative director of factual and factual drama, thinks that if done well, extreme factual shows generate that same kind of content you might see in a doc.
“You can’t just strip people away from things and poke them with a stick,” he said. “You have to be saying something of value.”
Webb-Lam agreed, noting that for The Island, “it’s an entertainment show fundamentally, but it’s done with a documentary heart.”
While the panel discussed everything from the worst thing they’ve asked a contributor to do, to the insurance and legal liabilities behind extreme factual shows, the most debate stemmed from a discussion over the balance between authenticity and risk.
In Mutiny, nine men set out to test themselves by taking on Captain Bligh’s 4000-mile voyage after the legendary Mutiny on the Bounty. The crew attempts to make the same journey with the same rations, facing the same conditions in a tiny wooden boat to find out if modern men can stand up to those of the past.
CEO of Windfall Films David Dugan pointed to one episode where the film crew had to intervene during the sailing expedition when because it came clear that the contributors were suffering from severe dehydration. In a clip shown from the episode, while the men are told that a doctor had advised them to accept water from the production crew, the contestants were adamant that it would belittle their efforts and take away from the success, should they finish the sail without help.
“I think if we had left them, they would have made it, but would they have made it with intact kidneys? I’m not sure,” said Dugan. He said that that they would have threatened to stop filming had the men not accepted the water.
Dominic Harrison, C4′s in-houses lawyer, noted that these kinds of safety precautions aren’t just about the participants — it’s also about the safety of the production crew, too.
“There’s a lot of talk about [shows] being authentic,” he said. “You’re never going to be authentic — you’re not going back to the 18th century.”
Webb-Lamb agreed, noting that although participants sign up for a reality show, the fact that it’s a show means producers have to work within certain boundaries.
The pressure to push the limits in extreme factual has only increased with platforms like YouTube, where users are creating extreme content in an unregulated space. It’s an issue, said Webb-Lamb, that producers will have to grapple with in the not-too-distant future.