ABC Reality Chief on 'The Bachelor' Evolution and "Dark Horse" 'Bachelorette'

Rob Mills is quite satisfied with how Colton Underwood's season of The Bachelor turned out. The 23rd cycle of the veteran ABC reality dating show pulled in 8.1 million viewers to win the night on Tuesday, even topping NBC's This Is Us. But the network's reality chief feels vindicated in other ways, too.

"There was so much sort of vitriol and hatred towards Colton when he was announced and so many people were swearing they weren’t going to watch. And then he turned out to be one of the best Bachelors," Mills, senior vp alternative series, tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Indeed, Underwood's casting as the Bachelor initially sparked outrage among Bachelor Nation, the collective audience of the ABC franchise. Questions were raised about whether the former NFL player was in it for the "right reasons," coming off two back-to-back cycles on The Bachelorette and then Bachelor in Paradise. But Underwood ended up proving critics wrong when he fell so in love that he hopped a fence, disappeared in Portugal and nearly quit the show in the dramatic penultimate week of the season.

Then, in a shocking twist, he broke the so-called unwritten rules and convinced Cassie Randolph, 23, to change her mind. Though the couple isn't quite celebrating an engagement, they vowed to THR that they found everything they were romantically looking for in each other amid the whirlwind, must-see TV journey. For the second year in a row, The Bachelor ending was unexpected because the lead bucked the format and worked the show to his advantage. (Last year's Bachelor, Arie Luyendyk Jr., is newly married.) 

In a wide-ranging franchise chat, Mills takes THR behind the scenes of Underwood's season to talk about the virgin Bachelor ("Was it too much? Absolutely. But is The Bachelor the poster child for overkill? Absolutely," he says of all the virginity talk), and whether this cycle marks a shift away from the fairy-tale proposal. Mills also explains why Hannah Brown ("Hannah B.") was cast as the next Bachelorette, reveals which contestants she beat out for the gig and anticipates when viewers will see a diverse Bachelor. Read the full chat below.

Colton’s season veered from The Bachelor's typical format. He ran away from the show and, in the end, didn’t propose. Even his runner-ups broke the fourth wall to tell the cameras to stop filming — and production listened. What does this mean for future seasons of the show? Are you bringing that wall down a little more?

Yeah, I think we always are. Certainly, you don’t force people to film. I don’t think they would have said, "No, no, Tayshia, you have to do this." You see how genuine that moment was. At that point, it was near the end of the show and these relationships were so fully formed. The show is making a contract with the audience that you will get the full story of how these relationships happened, and you want to convey that. What viewers saw with both of those women was exactly how they were feeling and what happened. You weren’t cheated by not having something on camera.

Colton's finale had a similar feeling to Arie Luyendyk Jr.’s two-parter and Rachel Lindsay’s breakup with Peter Kraus. All of those endings had finalists getting honest about their struggles with the process. Is the franchise leaning further away from the fairy tale and towards more realistic relationship goals?

The Bachelor can’t exist in a vacuum, and it always has to evolve. Maybe on this new Warner Media streaming service they’ll put all the seasons of The Bachelor on there and you can see how The Bachelor in 2002, 2007, 2012 and then in 2019 all look very different. You absolutely see the evolution. I don’t think we want to abandon the fairy-tale aspect, just because we love it and it is the belief in true love. And sometimes you get the fairy tale. But, like everything in life, it doesn’t happen all the time. You don’t want to say the show is going to be taking a sobering look at romance in 2019. It’s always going to have that sort of big, over-the-top feeling. But I think as these people get closer and as these things become real — like talking about their future and meeting families — it’s going to be more intimate, both emotionally and physically. That's when then the show sort of shifts into a more realistic telling. You’re not going to see anybody have to do anything.

Since Colton paved his own path on The Bachelor, did he raise the bar in terms of what you are looking for next? 

Well, everyone can pave their own way. I think it feels that way with Colton because he was very authentic and maybe it feels like we haven’t seen that in a while. But there’s been others. Certainly, Brad Womack was, by virtue of not choosing anybody when he wasn’t ready. There was Jason Mesnick, who really followed his heart in making that finale switch. And I think Ben Higgins was as real and authentic as they come, and was a guy who was honest about falling in love with two women. I don’t think Colton is an anomaly.

As ABC's head of reality programming, what was going through your mind when you heard that Colton left the show and might not be coming back?

The first thing you hear is that everyone is concerned. I wasn’t worried that he was going to disappear or that we were going to have a missing persons case, but obviously you want to know that he’s safe and OK. Once that happened, it was like, "Holy cow, this is going to be great TV." When hearing about how he jumped this fence and disappeared, I’m picturing it in my mind, and usually your imagination is much better than anything you can see onscreen. But they you see it and it was even better than I imagined. It was crazy how he cleared that fence. At the end of the day, I was thinking that we really have some dynamite here.

Chris Harrison said Colton felt betrayed by the show at the time. But in the end, it all worked out. How do you find that balance between making good TV and sometimes having to mislead the star?

The producers always have the lead's best interest in heart, they really do. We all want the same thing, which is a happy ending. You like the roller coaster ride, but you want there to be a happy ending. You don’t want someone to walk away from the franchise saying, “I left in worse shape than when I got there.” Whenever we talk to anyone who is a potential lead, we say, "You have to trust us and trust the process." Because I know they’re going to feel that we're in this to make good TV. I think what Colton was feeling was more personal, like, "This is what always happens to me. I’m having the rug pulled out from me again." It wasn't like he felt like the show pulled this horrible prank on him and that he was the butt of the joke.

How do you really feel about there not being a proposal in the end — both professionally and as a fan watching the show?

We thought it was great! Because it was real. We don't go, "Oh my gosh, there has to be a proposal in the end." I think that somehow got misconstrued. It’s always been that you have to really be thinking about this seriously in terms of: I’m ready to settle down if I find the right person. I am looking for a partner and everything else. And that’s the only caveat. It has nothing to do with thinking this season was a failure because we didn’t get a proposal at the end.

ABC heavily marketed Colton’s virginity and he played along all season. But Chris Harrison didn't exactly get the answer he was hoping for on the live finale, though he certainly tried.

He did indeed. And I think it was inferred, and Chris said, “Well, I’ll just take it as a yes.”

Do you think it was too much virginity talk or just the right amount?

Was it too much? Absolutely. But is The Bachelor the poster child for overkill? Absolutely. And I think that’s why we love it. It’s over-the-top and fun. Look, we have to own it. We know it’s true. You saw a lot of people saying a week ago after the fence jump, “Wow, they said this was the most dramatic thing and for once they were right.” We know there are times where it’s obviously not the "most dramatic” and we hype things up and sometimes over-hype them, but that’s kind of the fun of the show. It's such a social show for people to think: Where does this rank? Was it the most dramatic, the second most dramatic, the least dramatic? And I think that’s where everything with all the virginity talk came from, too.

Colton and Cassie didn't get engaged, but they got their Neil Lane ring after all from fellow ABC host Jimmy Kimmel. Do they have a certain amount of time to hold onto that and are you hoping they put it (or another style) to use?

That’s entirely up to them. We’ve had a lot of broken engagements. We’ve never had a Bachelor divorce. So you never want to push anything before it’s too far. I think everyone is just thrilled that they are madly in love and this is sort of phase two. This is that second part that can make or break couples, so we’ll see what happens. There certainly seems to be a lot of good will towards them, so that’s good to see.

Hannah Brown ("Hannah B.") from Colton's season is the next star of The Bachelorette. She comes outside the usual Top 4 ranking of all the other Bachelorettes. Who else did you have talks with and did anyone else come close?

That’s true — I never thought about until you said it. But they all were close. This is similar to when Colton was named the Bachelor and I was asked, why Colton and not Blake or Jason? I said then that it was basically a three-way tie and really a tough decision. And this was the same thing. This case was basically a five-way tie. We met with Hannah B., Hannah Godwin "Hannah G.", Tayshia Adams, Caelynn Miller-Keyes and Demi Burnett [all from Colton's season]. And they were all great, but there was something about Hannah B. Part of it was that she thought she was the dark horse, so she came in and had nothing to lose, saying, "I don’t know, I’m just going to be myself." There was just something different that we hadn’t seen in a Bachelorette before. Very kind of charming and goofy. When she had her intro video for The Bachelor and she said, “I’m Hannah — all aboard the hot mess express!”, you think that’s probably just shtick. And then we figured out, no that’s actually true. I think that came through on the live show, too, when she met the first five guys.

What did you think of Hannah watching her on the live show?

Looking at the response, it feels like it was all over the map. I think some people thought, “Oh my gosh, how is this person going to be the Bachelorette when they seem to really not know what to say or where to stand or what to do?” And then there are people who said, "We’ve never seen this before and it seems endearing and charming." And I was in that camp. I think it’s very easy to teach somebody how to pick up a rose or say a name, but you can’t fake the natural sort of charm and nervousness and everything that she had, and I thought that was really, really great.

Were you guys trying to recapture a similar audience you had with Colton by casting Hannah?

Colton is very well thought-out and he takes his time and he chooses things carefully. He’s emotional and he wears his emotions on his sleeve, but no, I don’t think this was Colton 2.0. It was more about how Hannah is just very different and fun, and I think people are going to really like spending a lot of time with her. When it’s going good, she’s going to let you know, and when it’s going bad, she’s going to let you know. And that’s going to be great to see.

Her season’s schedule has a quicker turnaround than usual. The show is airing earlier (on May 13) and she begins filming this weekend. How do you think she’ll do on her first night? Can she find her footing as lead?

I do. I think so. I think, absolutely. And remember, it’s a long night and we have to put in 84 minutes. I’m sure we’ll get 84 minutes worth of great material.

If Hannah has a meltdown and goes AWOL like Colton did, do you feel the show is better prepared now? 

Yes, we’re inserting chips now so we can track them! (Laughs.)

Coming off some some pretty major casting problems with Becca Kufrin’s season of The Bachelorette, this season aired without controversy. Do you think the changes made in the casting and vetting process worked? Are you happy about that?

I love the cast. I thought it was great, in terms of personality and who the girls were and how they were all different. I don’t know that I'd say we’re really proud that we found people who didn’t have social media and bad things in their background, I think it was just more about being happy that we had a great cast with great people. Obviously, it’s great not to have any of those things happen and we were incredibly embarrassed by what had happened the last few seasons, so we’re glad that it worked out better this time.

The show handled Caelynn Miller-Keyes speaking out about being a survivor of sexual assault well. Why do you think that was an important moment for the franchise?

That’s obviously a part of her background. And it’s something that she’s going to tell somebody that she’s serious about. The fact that she was comfortable enough to share it, first of all, made us feel really great. There was a little bit of surprise of, “Wow, they handled this well.” We would never try and exploit somebody’s trauma. But I was also glad we were able to play it. Because if it can lead to even one person being comfortable about sharing or telling their story or reporting something, that would be amazing. We really needed to figure out how to promote it and that was simply because we wanted people to hear the conversation. We did think it was important for people to hear because it’s something that, unfortunately, is much more common than people realize. And as Colton says, he’s dealt with that, too, with other women he’s dated. That was what was important, but it didn’t feel exploitative. And that’s the thing that I think we were happy about.

What can you say about Bachelor in Paradise? Will some of Colton's women who were runner-ups for the Bachelorette gig be heading to the beach? 

Oh, absolutely. I will say that, just looking at the preliminary potential cast, we are excited. It feels like it’s going to be one of the best casts ever. We would probably be going crazy if it was just Bachelorette ahead and we had to leave all these other wonderful contestants without seeing a second chapter in their romantic story. I think you’re going to see a lot of that. You never know what the chemistry is going to be like but we feel like we could really have another super couple come out of this — like a Carly and Evan or Jade and Tanner or Ashley I. and Jared. The exciting thing is how these couples have become so iconic in Bachelor Nation. Now, we're seeing people on Twitter talking about how they could totally see Hannah G. with Blake Horstmann. Wouldn’t that be amazing? It’s fun to imagine who might couple up and, obviously, there are a bunch of men we’re going to meet very soon who will also be in Paradise. We’re really, really excited about this season.

It doesn’t sound like Bachelor: Winter Games will be returning. Are you considering spinning the series off in any other directions?

Absolutely. We talk about it all the time. The word "bachelor" used to mean in the dictionary: single man. And then it was about that show of one guy dating 25 women. And now it’s this umbrella where it’s this franchise and brand statement, and you can kind of attach it to anything as long as it’s good storytelling and rooted in love and romance. So we are really excited about some different ideas we have. I definitely think you’ll see some new iteration in the Bachelor universe at some point in the next few years.

This will be the 15th season of The Bachelorette. What can you say about the May 6 reunion show, which is actually titled: Bachelorette Reunion: The Biggest Bachelorette Reunion in Bachelor History Ever!?

It’s amazing now that we’ve had 15 Bachelorettes. The show is going to be a look back at the 15 seasons and will be the biggest reunion of The Bachelorette ever. Almost all of the Bachelorettes will be there. You’re going to see Chris Harrison going over famous sites where things have happened in Bachelorette history, going to the mansion and reliving those things, and then hearing from the girls and what they’ve been up to. It’s going to be fun to preview Hannah’s season, too. It always feels good when you do these things coming off a really successful season because people are excited and it feels renewed. 

The mansion was damaged in the wildfires. Is it up and running for The Bachelorette

The mansion is up and running. We’re filming on Saturday, not to worry.

One last question: When will this franchise have a diverse Bachelor? 

We talk about this. I do think you’re going to see a diverse Bachelor certainly sooner than later. You never want to make some promise and say the next one is going to be the first, because you just don’t know. If you ask me that question in May, maybe I will be able to make that promise. It does depend on the season but I think the bigger thing is is how the diversity quotient in the makeup of the contestants has changed. And that’s really where that’s going to come from. You’ve seen it now with all our recent Bachelors and Bachelorettes being open to dating all different types of people from different backgrounds, and having diverse contestants really going farther in the show. It’s wonderful that we’ve had a diverse Bachelorette, but do I think a diverse Bachelor is overdue? Absolutely. Will we see one? Absolutely. I wish I could tell you when, but sooner rather than later is really all I can say.