Saturday, January 28, 2023

I’m F-Ing Done: Why I Can’t Click & Condone Reality TV Dating Shows Anymore After FBOY Island

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What happens when a reality show that’s your guilty pleasure starts grossing you out or actually making you feel legit guilty for watching? Sarah Lang has reached that point after the drama with FBoy Island

Right, I’m just going to say it: I’m done with reality-TV dating shows. Is it just me who feels like they’ve gone from a bit fun to a bit ick? Or, in the case of FBOY Island, bordering on sick?

Like many of us, I thought someone was having me on when I heard there was a local version of FBOY Island. You may know the deal already, but this New Zealand version of an American reality series focuses on three women trying to identify 20 men as either “FBOYs” or “nice guys”. I only watched 19 minutes before I threw up in my mouth a bit.

The term ‘FBOY’ – we all know what that’s short for – is used to describe a man who hooks up with a lot of women (and may manipulate them to get laid). Is that something a public broadcaster should be promoting? (Rhetorical question.) Also, TVNZ, your background checks aren’t great if you’ve had to edit out of the show a man who – although he was acquitted of a suffocation charge – was accused of luring an intoxicated teenager to his home hoping to have sex with her, and covered her mouth when she attempted to shout for help.

Can we get FBoy Island off air already? No, TVNZ, we don’t care how much money you’ve sunk into production or marketing costs. Neither do Tania Domett, Erin Jackson and Angela Meyer from Project Gender, an agency working on projects to create social change through research insights and applicable solutions. In July, Project Gender released research results on the state of online dating and sex in Aotearoa, and the results were concerning, particularly regarding sexual consent. So Project Gender has written an open letter called ‘Sort it Out, Simon’, addressed to Simon Power, CEO of TVNZ. It reads, in part, “We demand that TVNZ pull the FBOY Island NZ show immediately. Why? Because it normalises and champions predatory and dangerous sexual behaviour that harms people, particularly young people.” When the story you’re reading is published, there were 6846 signatories. Meanwhile, on Thursday, My Food Bag announced it wouldn’t run advertising during screening of the show.

But, argh, FBOY Island keeps popping up as recommended viewing when I log into TVNZ OnDemand. How do they know I like reality-TV dating shows? Because my biggest (well, most embarrassing) secret is this: I’ve watched The Bachelor and The Bachelorette for 15 years (I know, I know). I’m talking only about the U.S. versions of the franchise. A few years ago I watched one season of Married at Sight, and one of Love Island, but, meh, not for me. The Bachelor franchise remains my one and only.

You likely know the format – the Bachelor or the Bachelorette goes on dates and narrows down the pool of potential partners, then (generally) gets engaged to their pick, who they barely know. The most popular – or the most producer-pliable – reject from a past season becomes the next Bachelorette or Bachelor.

Whatever the magic ingredients – escapism, drama, competition, voyeurism – it got me hooked. I also watch the spinoff Bachelor in Paradise, in which previous cast members are recycled onto a Mexican beach, with new people interjected at junctures, and anyone who doesn’t get a rose going home.

If I just watched on Tuesday nights, I’d likely be blissfully ignorant. But I know too much about what goes on behind the scenes, thanks to content creators such as Steve Carbone, aka Reality Steve (whose spoilers I avoid but whose podcasts I sometimes listen to), and Dave Neal, a fantastic stand-up comic who has a Bachelor Nation News YouTube channel.

I’ve also read the critical book Bachelor Nation by Los Angeles Times journalist and former Bachelor superfan Amy Kaufman. Ex-producer Michael Carroll told Kaufman that “you’d pre-categorise (contestants) and have some shorthand as to who they were. Mom. Southern Belle. The cheerleader. The bitch. We all called them ridiculous names.”

Meanwhile, ex-producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro revealed in the New Yorker that her job was “complicated manipulation through friendship”.

Nothing’s scripted, but the producers manipulate people into doing certain things, egg them on, ask leading questions, give bad advice, film such long days that sleep is limited, and in some cases drive women around in the exit limo until they cry. One ex-producer told Kaufman crew members were offered $100 bonuses for instigating drama. Kaufman also identified “Frankenbiting”: creating a soundbite that’s been edited to have a different meaning.

Not until a sexual-misconduct scandal rocked Bachelor in Paradise in 2017 did the show institute a maximum-two-drinks-in-one-hour role. (Though you might get drinks at 11.45p.m and 11.55p.m, then at 12.05am and 12.15am.)

In the main two shows particularly, the editors give at least one person each season the ‘villain edit’. That person may be annoying, even nasty, but the show magnifies that ten-fold. Disturbingly, some members of ‘Bachelor Nation’ (the most vocal viewers) send Instagram DMs and other social-media messages to contestants calling them names, even making death threats. You could say, ‘oh so it’s social media’s fault not the show’s, right’? Not exactly. Production knows full well what the social-media response will be like.

Contestants must sign a contract with many stipulations. As therichest.com outlines, among other things the contract “allows the producers to film them [participants] all the time, air any details they want whether they are manipulated or not, create drama and portray a contestant in any way the producers feel will be best for the show.”

The show successfully sued contestant Luke Parker (one season’s villain), for US$100,000. The agreement had prohibited Parker (as is routine) from making “any unauthorized use or disclosure of any information or events he witnessed or learned as a contestant… or make any negative or disparaging remarks about the series and/or its principals, employees or affiliates, at any time.” But he did. Parker had also agreed to not “make any media appearances from the date of the Agreement through one year after the date of the initial broadcast of the final episode of the series.” He did. Not a smart move, but still – pinging him $100,000? No one’s enforcing contracts if it’s a popular cast member with a positive take speaking on the show’s mouthpiece podcasts.

Following ‘villain edits’ and subsequent social-media hate, some people have, over the years, spoken about resulting anxiety and depression. The most recent Bachelor, Clayton Echard, was made a villain of his season. He received a disproportionate ton of online hate for his (admittedly sometimes stupid) decisions. He experienced death threats and suicidal thoughts.

In recent seasons, the recklessness with which the show treats people seems to have escalated – it’s thought that’s perhaps because a senior producer has left (he’s actually the creator of FBOY Island), junior producers are gunning for the top spot.

All in all, I’ve been feeling increasingly uneasy about watching the Bachelor shows. And watching Bachelor in Paradise in the last two weeks has made me feel bad, and, actually, kinda mad.

First, production made a mockery of a woman, who missed her first flight to Mexico, by delivering her (fake) suitcase and encouraging other women to rummage around it and ‘find’ a vibrator and hair extensions (which weren’t hers).

This week, the usual formula – bringing in newbies who try to win over existing cast members – was upended. Production made the women already there leave for a week and brought in five new girls, showing them off in a line like they were competing in a pageant. Hello, BIP, this isn’t Temptation Island. And making the women literally interchangeable – what message does that send?

Told to pack their bags without being allowed to speak to their love interests/boyfriends, the women were upset, with some crying, as they talked to each other – and in individual ITMs (‘in the moment’) interviews on camera with a producer out of shot. You can virtually hear the junior producer saying ‘you poor thing, but this is way above my pay grade’.

Uncharacteristically, the show didn’t try to hide or downplay the effect of producers’ machinations. They aired the women saying things like “this is the most messed-up situation to put us in,” “why did they do this to us,” “this was like, my breaking point,” “all of us are in a really bad mental state,” and “my mental health can’t take this”. And there you have it. The show admitting it’s having a negative impact on people’s mental health. I think this was a miscalculation. Might this actually stop some viewers watching?

I don’t want to give up my long-term form of escapism, but I just can’t click and condone anymore. My husband has literally drawn up a contract so that I stick to my promise. So… yeah, I’m done. No going back.

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