I dos and I don’ts: Five lessons from “Married at First Sight”

Married at First Sight (pictured) format creator Michael von Würden shares key findings from his experiences casting and producing the social experiment series, which has landed second season commissions in Denmark and the U.S.
August 15, 2014

Married at First Sight format creator Michael von Würden shares key findings from his experiences casting and producing the social experiment series, which has landed second season commissions in Denmark and the U.S.

A+E Networks’ month-old cable channel FYI recently greenlit a second season of Married at First Sight, a reality series that asks singles to say “I do” upon meeting a pre-chosen mate for the first time at the altar.

The reality series, along with VH1′s Naked Dating and Fox’s forthcoming Utopia, is part of a trend toward social experiment-type reality TV. It was created by Red Arrow Entertainment-owned Danish producer Snowman Productions and first aired on Denmark’s DR3, another nascent channel looking to make a splash in the ratings – and the press – with a “loud” format.

Kinetic Content produced the U.S. version (pictured above), after FYI snapped up the format rights from distributor Red Arrow International. The cable net will begin airing the 11 x one-hour second season next year.

In the show, six singles are paired off by four experts – a sexologist, spiritualist, psychologist and sociologist – in a matchmaking process involving counseling and personality questionnaires. Cameras follow them for six weeks and at the end of the series’ nine-episode run the legally married newlyweds must decide to stick together or get divorced.

Married at First Sight creator Michael von Würden has spent the past year traveling to the United States and Europe giving workshops to local producers on the tightly-formatted series’ intensive pre-production process, which requires networks to cede some casting control to the show’s panel of experts.

As the format prepares to enter its second season in Denmark, realscreen asked the Danish producer to share key learnings from his experiences presiding over televised matrimony.

1) Leave the casting to the experts, not the TV execs
“When you cast this show of course you always look for the normal television qualities in people. But at some point in this casting process you need to let go from a television perspective and leave it in the hands of the experts. It’s important for the integrity of the format that it’s not television people who decide the couples. It has to be the experts because the experts have to be able to stand up for their matches.

“The production company and the network can only decide up until a certain point and from that point on it’s the experts who decide. If for instance the channel wants four couples and the experts give them six couples then the channel and producers can choose the couples they prefer. But if the experts only give you four couples, that’s what you go with.

“So it’s a little bit unnatural for the broadcasters and we have had some – not trouble – but more like discussions: this is an integrated part of the format that you need to let go of your normal television control. Otherwise it won’t succeed because no one on a television production is a psychologist or matchmaker. It has to be the experts who decide. From the broadcasters’ point of view, that’s the biggest control issue.”

married at first sight creator michael von wrden

Married At First Sight creator Michael von Würden

2) Make an effort to understand the contestants’ interests
“You relate to the cast in a different way than you normally do on a reality show because you really want them to succeed. You don’t become a member of their family but you adopt them. Everything you do is to try to help them find love and stay together as a couple.

“You need to think on a psychological level. If we let them do something, how will it affect the storytelling and how will they evolve as a couple, and as individuals? Will it help them learn more about each other and thereby help them fall in love? If you would like them to go to Disneyland, then you need to think, ‘Will this help them find love?’ Yeah, it might if they both are big Mickey Mouse fans and love going to amusement parks.

“If you have a choice between two things, always pick the one you think will help them in a positive way. If you don’t work from that premise, you are working against the whole idea of the show. You want them to stay together in the end.”

3) People like to talk things through before marrying at first sight
“Now that we’re producing season two in Denmark, already we can see some issues we had from season one that are the same, but we’re getting better at providing the couples with a structure that helps them. When you have six weeks to decide whether you want to stay married to a person, there’s a lot of stress involved. We have improved the way we handle the couples so that we might help with that decision.

“It’s about how we use the experts. We underestimated the cast’s need to talk about the situation they are in. In the first season, we were a little bit afraid of pushing them too much to talk with the psychologist. Afterwards we found out the couples wanted to talk more with the psychologist to understand why they were being put together with this other person. When you meet a new girlfriend or boyfriend, at some point you start asking your friends and family, ‘What do you think about him or her?’ We underestimated that one but I think we’ve done it better this time.”

4) Marriage is no joke
“There’s a thoroughly prescribed process that we follow right down to the point where we tell the cast they are to be married for the first time. You go from not knowing the cast to trying to get them to trust you so when you tell them they are to marry a complete stranger, they believe in what you are doing.

“There are a lot of shows out there in the dating genre that are more easygoing – it’s more of a game or for fun. This is actually not for fun. This could be a way forward for some people. It’s about teaching the production companies this process, persuading the channel to go along with the experts’ decisions and persuading the producers to make every decision they do in the interest of creating love. It’s not a difficult format to produce. It’s a difficult format to make ready to produce.”

5) Producers should genuinely care about the cast
“If you really want to do people some good, that’s when you actually create great television. Married at First Sight came out of an idea to create something really loud and spectacular and it ended up being a show where we wanted people to find a partner for life. When we realized that’s the way we should approach it, it was a success.”

Watch a clip from the U.S. version of Married at First Sight below:

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