We just can’t get away from reality shows these days.
Everywhere we turn, there’s yet another program trying
to come up with some “new shocking twist” to the
same old idea. Think The Bachelor, The Bachelorette,
or For Love or Money. But are these shows really
that new? The answer is a little complicated: yes and no.
The answer is “yes” because, until a couple of
years ago, we didn’t see twenty-five women attempting
to “win” the affections of one man. But the answer
is “no” because we’ve seen “reality
dating” on television for a long time. From The
Dating Game to Studs (does anyone even remember
that one?), this is not a new concept. Let’s analyze
the messages about dating from one of the precursors to The
Bachelor-type shows: The Love Connection.
I selected Love Connection because it enjoyed a ten
year run on television and was in syndication well into the
1990s. According to an article in Advertising Age
by M. Magiera, “TV syndicators lookin’ for love,”
relationship programs attract many viewers, thus receiving
high ratings. Therefore, there were ample opportunities for
people to watch the program and be affected by its message.
Even as early as 1992, Doug Seay, Senior VP-Director of broadcast
programming at Hal Riley & Partners, said that relationship
programs, "Are about to explode as an ad buy ."
This was also evident by the fact that new shows jumped on
the bandwagon, such as That's Amore, Love Struck
Live, Meet Your Match, and How's Your Love
Life. In fact, How's Your Love Life was patterned
after the popular Love Connection.
Supposedly, the relationship program genre represents "real-life"
dating. The guests on the show are not actors; they’re
real people going out on real dates with other real people.
Although there has been some research conducted on the perceptions
of dating on television, most studies have analyzed fictional
programming (e.g. dramas, situational comedies, and soap operas).
We need more research done on unscripted programming. This
essay represents a baby step in that direction.
Love Connection was, in essence, video dating on
television. In the opener for every show, the announcer said,
"Welcome to Love Connection! Where old-fashioned romance
meets modern day technology, where you hear all the intimate
details of a first date."
One participant would choose a dating partner after viewing
the videos of three different people. The videos showed the
pictures of the individuals while they explained in fifteen
seconds who they really were. Then, the couple went on the
date and afterward appeared on the show to recount their experiences
in "hair-raising" detail. The audience was shown
brief clips from the original three videos, and then they
voted for whom they thought the guest should have chosen for
the date. The show's host, Chuck Woolery, acted as a nosy
friend who had to probe deeper and deeper to get every last
juicy morsel and uncover all of the "squirmy" things
underneath the façade of dating. As a result, he helped
the viewing audience to hear all of the intimate details of
a first date.
The tone of Love Connection was usually humorous
and mildly racy at times. The guests most often either loved
or hated each other. The bad dates generated the humor for
the show, and the viewers looked forward to that. The audience
always reacted with laughs, "oohs," shrieks, and
howls. Thus the show created an atmosphere similar to the
one we might expect eavesdropping on adolescents talking about
dating and the opposite sex. But how real were the dates?
How much were the couples coached on what to say before they
went on camera? I find myself asking these questions even
today with our new wave of reality dating shows.
Love Connection sent many messages about qualifications
for a "good" date, a dateable partner, and what
dating means. First, let’s start with what makes a “good”
date. It clearly has particular boundaries. It starts with
a partner who gives you compliments. A good date also is expensive,
unique, and fun. A good date ends up with sexual relations
(not necessarily intercourse, but at least some form of physical
contact). Even if all of these criteria are met, if one partner
chooses not to go out again, then it becomes a bad date.
Bad dates are signified by lack of physical attraction, lack
of physical intimacy, and lack of respect. Of course, a primary
signifier of a bad date can be found in the lack of another
date. Bad dates are filled with insults and derogatory comments.
Bad dates, though, are still expensive and unique.
Dateable partners are primarily represented by physical attractiveness.
This preoccupation starts, though, with the nature of the
show. The participants have little information about the person
they select to date, except for a brief video.
The post-date commentaries were all laden with comments about
physical attractiveness. An ideal image began to emerge; an
ideal (especially for women) not unlike the one described
by Naomi Wolf in her book The Beauty Myth: women
are to be thin, have large breasts, nice legs, and perfect
appearance. Men are to be physically fit and athletic.
Both sexes should be interesting, but that is secondary. Other
considerations are evident as well, such as money and education.
This message marginalizes those with physical flaws, personality
quirks, low paying jobs, or little education. People have
to fit a certain ideal before they’re even considered
a dateable partner. We can see that this type of dating program
provides boundaries for people to live within and operates
as a social constraint.
These notions are expressed by the actual participants on
the dates and are reinforced by the audiences' reactions.
For each of the above descriptors, the audience reacts accordingly.
The audience cheers for sexual innuendo, whistles at attractive
people, and makes a selection as to whom they think the person
ought to go out with. The audience thus plays a prominent
role in the creation and then reinforcement of the show’s
Therefore, in order to date, people have to be attractive.
Also, though, people have to be desirable. They have to go
out on several dates a month, which suggests that the person
is wanted or attracted by the other sex. Thus, dating is an
indication of the attractiveness and desirability of a person.
Normal people are attractive, fun, and date often. Abnormal
people do not.
Although we will always question the “reality”
of these shows, the messages they send create the vewer’s
“reality.” They suggest specific patterns of behavior
and how people ought to engage in dating and what ought to
occur on a date.
Even though Love Connection has been off the air
for some time, it’s still part of our television cultural
history. While The Bachelor-type shows of today may be different
in form, I think the messages are still the same. Television
is a very powerful socializer, and it’s important to
examine its content so that we can come closer to understanding
people’s (especially young people's) real-life dating
and sexual decisions.
From Carol Morgan Bennett, Assistant Professor in the Department
of Communication at Wright State University