Lifestyle report: Wedding Watching

Here, realscreen finds out what makes the big day grab big numbers, and how producers and networks are keeping the genre fresh.
March 1, 2011

Weddings could very well be the perfect subject to tackle on TV, with tears, drama, and happiness contained within, and of course, a big reveal. Many international networks have caught on to the wedding genre’s appeal, through programs ranging from a bride searching for the perfect dress, to couples losing weight together for the big day. While some of the shows have stuck to simple, tried-and-true formats that still pay off, others are venturing out with a mash-up of genres that keep the action at the altar interesting.

Wedding Central, the sister channel to Rainbow Media’s WE tv, is all weddings all the time, as they are “a stunning backdrop for human drama,” says John Miller, senior vice president of original productions and development for both cable nets.

“The importance of the day to the bride is an endless fount of conflict, fun and drama and it always pays off in one way or another. If the wedding is destroyed or is fantastic, you’re excited to see the end result,” he adds.

Wedding Central is currently airing such nuptial-focused programming as My Fair Wedding; Rich Bride, Poor Bride; and Bridezillas. Miller says he’s seeing a lot of pitches about wedding planner shows, talent-based series, wedding-related business docusoaps and competition-style shows.

“I want the channel to really be a headquarters for all things wedding,” he says, “[with] people getting married on air, proposing, all in an environment that feels like MTV 30 years ago, where it’s so fun and fast moving.”

Half Yard Productions’ Say Yes to the Dress has become a tentpole series for TLC, focusing on the rite of passage of searching for the perfect wedding dress to wear on the big day. Half Yard’s co-owner Abby Greensfelder says that the show has even gained a big fan in a psychotherapist, who told her that she records every episode of the series because she’s obsessed with the human relationships that are exhibited within.

“In every episode it’s about a mother-daughter relationship, a father-daughter, or two sisters, [and] choosing your dress becomes a decision point. All of those relationship stresses and dynamics come out at that moment,” she says.

The series has kept to a simple format for six seasons, but according to Greensfelder, although the premise is simple, it’s an extremely difficult show to produce.

With the action centered in New York’s massive bridal shop Kleinfeld Bridal, Say Yes follows the simple format of meeting a bride, hearing her story and seeing whether she chooses dress number one, two, three or none of the above.

While that seems simple enough, the challenge comes from weaving together a patchwork of stories. “Women come in and they may look for dresses, six- to 19 months before they get married,” says Greensfelder. “[We] follow women through trying on a dress, getting an alteration and eventually getting married in each show. We track one of those stories from beginning to end and we weave in different stories at different phases of the process.”

Greensfelder says that they shoot upwards of 60 to 70 brides per 18-episode season, and it’s up to someone they call a “bride tracker” to follow every single bride that they shoot over the season.

“We flash back to when they tried on their dress or had it altered. That’s one of the things that mechanically makes it harder because you’re always weaving these stories,” she says.

The series was such a big success for TLC that the network extended the franchise to Atlanta (produced by NorthSouth Productions) and a plus-sized bride version, Big Bliss, also produced by Half Yard. “We’ve seen people just so enthralled with that show and the personalities they see,” says Amy Winter, TLC’s general manager and vice president. The Discovery Communications cable net pairs Say Yes with its other big wedding show, Four Weddings, to make TLC a wedding destination on Friday nights.

Winter says that TLC is always on the lookout for entertaining and emotional programming to add to the wedding block. “At the end of the day, there are so many competitors out there that it has to have something distinctive about it if we’re going to add it to our collection,” she says.

Winter says the key distinctive element about Say Yes is that it focuses on the biggest moment a bride-to-be has in the preparation for the wedding – finding that dress – which sets the tone for everything else. She believes that Four Weddings’ appeal lies in the presentation of four different styles of weddings, set against one other in a competition for the dream honeymoon.

Over in the UK, UKTV’s female-skewing channel Really boasts a slate of acquired wedding shows, from Bridezillas to Don’t Tell the Bride. Clare Laycock, channel head of Really and sister channel Home, finds that audiences in the UK connect to stories about both the bride and the dress that may also incorporate some element of jeopardy. She cites Don’t Tell The Bride’s end result, in which the bride may or may not like the wedding her groom-to-be has organized entirely on his own, as an example.

Laycock says that she’ll be looking for programming in the wedding space at MIPTV, “sorting out the good ones from all the rest.” She’s looking for programs that appeal to Really’s audience demo, which is 16-34 years old and 70% female. Often, she’s looking for UK formats so that the homegrown audience sees someone it can relate to. An added bonus for fans of Really’s wedding programming is its multi-platform element, with games, quizzes or videos put into the mix.

What she’s not looking for are gimmicks. “We have rejected quite a few titles,” she says. “Maybe it’s mothers-in-law organizing things or there’s a really hideous twist, where it takes it too far away from the bride and the dress.

“It’s just as good to have more series of successful formats than to keep reinventing the wheel,” she adds.

Some networks and producers, however, are looking to do just that, by combining the wedding lifestyle genre with another. The CW Network launched Shedding for the Wedding in February, a combination wedding series and weight-loss show from one of the executive producers of The Biggest Loser.

“Weight loss is such an obvious universally relatable theme and so are weddings. Putting the two together in the right way was a home run for us,” says Dave Broome, founder of 25/7 Productions.

He knew there was something to the idea of a weight-loss/wedding show when he noticed that many of the female contestants on The Biggest Loser would say that when they got married they wanted to look good and feel healthy.

Each episode of Shedding for the Wedding features challenges and one elimination of a couple. In the end, seven couples are eliminated and sent home, where they keep working to lose weight. They return at the end of the eight-episode series to win their fantasy honeymoon, while the two remaining finalists compete to win their ultimate themed wedding. The finale episode has a double reveal, says Broome, with audiences seeing the eliminated contestants’ weight loss upon their return, and the winning themed wedding.

“The ‘white wedding’ is yesterday, it’s your grandfather’s wedding,” says Broome of the trend for themed weddings.

“Weddings are an interesting look at relationships, a microcosm of life and everything that the [couple] will have to go through and how they deal with things,” he adds. “You have a natural hook built into that but now you have to elevate it if you really want to have success on television.”

Another prodco attempting such elevation is 495 Productions, which is making Wedding Wars for VH1, set to air in March. The series takes engaged couples and brings them to a resort in Hawaii to get them comfortable, before exiling them for 30 days to compete for their dream wedding. Each episode features two challenges – one for a wedding-themed item and the other testing their relationship and giving them security for the next week if they make it through.

“A lot of people underestimate what people will do to get their dream wedding,” says 495 Productions founder SallyAnn Salsano.

While it might seem to some that Salsano, the force behind MTV’s big and brash docusoap Jersey Shore, is an unlikely executive producer for a wedding series, her stints as EP on Ryan and Trista’s Wedding and Extreme Makeover: Wedding Edition provided plenty of experience.

“A producer and a wedding planner are very similar,” she muses. “Everything has to be ready at a certain time and it has to be, ‘Go, go, go.’

“[But] more people get to see my stuff than that of a wedding planner.”

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