How 'The Bachelor' Is Evolving Its Vetting Process

With a new year comes a new Bachelor and, after the casting controversies that clouded the last Bachelorette, a spotlight is on the franchise to see how the reality dating competition will fare in 2019.

Colton Underwood is the lead of the 23rd season of the veteran ABC show, which launches with a three-hour premiere Jan. 7. Underwood, a 26-year-old former NFL player, is the second star, after Nick Viall, to be getting a third shot on the franchise — and he's the first virgin (former Bachelor Sean Lowe was a born-again virgin), something that has been heavily featured in the marketing of the new cycle.

When Underwood steps up to the Bachelor Mansion (which was damaged in the Malibu wildfires), 30 women will be vying for one of his long-stemmed red roses. One of those women has already had to apologize for past offensive tweets, a trend that has mired many in Hollywood in recent months, from Becca Kufrin's winner on The Bachelorette to director James Gunn and even the search for a 2019 Oscars host.

"We're evolving and changing and doing the best you can, but at the end of the day, there's stuff that's going to come up and there's stuff that's going to happen," Chris Harrison candidly tells The Hollywood Reporter about how the show plans to tackle controversy when it arises during Underwood's season. After one of Kufrin's contestants was cast despite a pending sexual assault case, ABC reality chief Rob Mills said the team discovered a loophole they have since been able to correct in the background process. But navigating the treacherous social media waters as viewers get to know (and search for) Underwood's contestants will be a more complicated task.

Below, in a chat with THR, Harrison discusses how The Bachelor plans to evolve in the social media era and "age of hyper political correctness," how Underwood is leaning into the virginity focus (for now) and why he gives the star "a lot of credit" for how he handled himself during filming. For that and more on what to expect from The Bachelor, read the full chat below.

The franchise weathered social media and vetting controversies last season. As a result, the show made changes to its vetting process to hopefully not repeat what happened with contestant Lincoln Adim, who was convicted of sexual assault. The season was also impacted by winner Garrett Yrigoyen's social media behavior. What did the franchise learn from Becca Kufrin's season and change going into Colton Underwood's The Bachelor?

I do know that measures were taken and people were hired to do some deep dives into peoples' social media and to try to cover our bases as much — as much more — as possible. But at the end of the day, we live in a very different world than when the show started 17 years ago. We're evolving and changing and doing the best you can. But there will be things that come up. You hate to be reactive; you'd love to be proactive. But you can only be so proactive. Stuff is going to happen, so you just do the best you can with the information you have at the time.

The Bachelor isn't the only franchise in Hollywood to be impacted by past social media behavior. Case in point: The Oscars still don't have a host. Beyond putting more of an emphasis on going back through contestants' online behavior, is the approach now that you have to be ready to handle anything?

That's all you can do. Society has become this really funny thing where we can't wait to dig something up and shine a big, bright light on it, and then stand on our moral and politically correct soapboxes and yell that people do better. And demand that everybody should have known everything. It's an impossibility. It's silly to expect everybody to know everything and know what everyone has done their entire lives. All we can do, and all people who are trying to run legitimate businesses can do, is that you do the best you can. You hire the best people, you are as diligent as you can possibly be, and then when things do come up — and God knows they will, because they have — you try to deal with it the best you can. That's all we've done and all I think any business can do in this day and age of hyper political correctness. We're all walking this bizarre, moral minefield right now. Some of it is just and has been a great correction. But there is also a flip side of that where there can be an overkill.

Colton Underwood's season hasn't premiered yet and already one of his contestants, Tracy Shapoff, has had to apologize for past offensive tweets. Is an immediate apology the recommended step for contestants when these things happen?

It's a case-by-case basis. There are varying degrees of what people have done and things that they've said. In these scenarios, you're dealing with the vocal minority on Twitter and social media. The people who are the loudest and make the most noise have the most time, and they want to spend it on this. You have to realize that you can't live for those people. I see the humanity of it all and I know there are real people behind a lot of these jobs and just erasing someone from the face of the Earth and moving on isn't always the right thing to do, either. Someone got caught up in the wrong thing in the wrong time and maybe they made a little mistake, but it's amazing to watch people just get crushed by this. Sometimes it's very just. Sometimes it's not. We have obviously had to deal with this on our show and so far, I think we've done a good job when things have come up. We've dealt with them and the way we deal with it and the way I try to demand to deal with everything is to stand up, face the music and take it head on. I always say in any situation throughout history that it's never exactly the act as much as it is the lie and the cover-up. That's what gets presidents, CEOs and everyone in trouble. You can always pretty much go back to how you parent: It's about owning up to your actions and doing the best that you can.

Colton Underwood had his own experience with social media backlash when his casting was announced: There was a loud reaction and not all of it was great. He also recently deleted all of his Twitter posts. How did he handle that in the beginning of filming?

As soon as we make a decision — and really this goes across the board, if anyone makes a major decision — what are you going to hear on Twitter? Negative. That is the world we live in. There were obviously naysayers, but you have to do the best you can. Colton was easily our choice. He's a great Bachelor. Jason [Tartick] and Blake [Horstmann, from Becca Kufrin's The Bachelorette] were really good guys and they would have been good Bachelors, too. But we can only choose one and we made the television show with Colton, and it's a really good show. You don't try to please those people, you just do your job and you hope they'll come around when they watch. And typically the people who scream the loudest are the ones who are going to tune in.

The question going into every season is whether or not the Bachelor or Bachelorette is ready to find love. Colton experienced two TV breakups, on The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise. At what point during filming did you realize he was ready?

You really never know until you dive into being the Bachelor. Yes, we thought he was ready and he said all the right things and appeared to be doing the right things, but until you really get into the meat of it and you are emotionally pushed and challenged the way we do that, you don't know for sure. If I had to be honest, about halfway through shooting the season was when I truly felt like I got to know the man Colton is and felt that this guy is ready to have a relationship and take that next step. It took him opening up and really being vulnerable and letting himself go. It's not a foolproof system, it's not 100 percent. Even if they say they're ready, they've got to really be ready. That's part of the beauty of the show that I think everyone can relate to.

You said ahead of filming that Colton's virginity would be a storyline because, how could it not be? The marketing of the season has leaned into it. How big of a role will his virginity play?

There are plenty of cliches on night one as all the women arrive. He and I talk about it and then, of course, when the women get there, they make light of it. And the good thing is that he has a great sense of humor about it and it was pretty funny. It's been cute and it's been fun to have it as a bit of a party joke, but I am very much looking forward to getting past that. When I hear things on social media where people say — "It's going to drive me crazy if they beat this to death" — well, we don't. It is a storyline but it's one of many. It doesn't define Colton. It's not, "Hey, Colton virgin." This is Colton the Bachelor who is a good man, who is sincere and looking for the love of his life. And yes, he turns out to be a virgin and that is something that we have to deal with. We have some serious talks on the first night where I ask him if he is as sick and tired of this thing being such a cocktail joke and superficial, and he was just as sick of it as I was. It was liberating to get past that and to start getting into the show.

Will the show handle Fantasy Suites week differently because of Colton's virginity? (Fantasy Suites are the week when the star has the option to have an overnight date, without cameras, with his or her finalists.)

There was nothing different about Fantasy Suites. There are conversations that clearly need to be had once you get to that point and maybe Colton's conversations are a little deeper because of the situation. But these conversations always happen. It's always a moral dilemma once you get to that point in the relationship on the show. And that's one of the reasons I love the Fantasy Suite date card. Because it does push that envelope and that conversation you need to have.

There's always a "most dramatic point" in the season. What can you tease about how Colton's journey compares with other recent seasons?

There are a lot of those moments. Every season takes on the feel and personality of whoever the Bachelor or Bachelorette is, and you kind of cater the season to them. As a producer, it's fluid. You start a season with the same kind of ideas of how you're going to produce and work with somebody, but once you get to know them that changes. You have to adapt to what makes them comfortable. Colton was more of the organic feel where he was really going with the flow, so things would change on a whim. Maybe "unpredictable" is a good way to describe his season, where we had to wake up and go with it. He was unbelievably gracious and kind and the crew and everybody absolutely loved working for him. He made it super easy because I think everyone fed off his vibe. Everyone relaxed a little bit and I think you'll feel that in the show. It was a lot more laid-back and a lot more open.

What can you say about how The Bachelor season ends?

Not much! I know that people are questioning and are worried about Colton. He's a really good man. He's a gentleman; caring, loving and unbelievably generous. He's a little bit like [former Bachelor] Sean Lowe in that he has a self-deprecating sense of humor and is goofy at times. But at the same time, he's vulnerable. When you see such a big, strong guy — and he is a hulking man — break down in tears and really let it go, I had to give it up to him. It's not an easy thing to do. Whether it's negative press or talk about his virginity, the guy has taken a lot. He's 26 years old. I don't know if I would have been prepared to emotionally handle all the crap he's gotten. That's a lot for somebody to take and he's handled it like a gentleman and has not lashed out. That's not an easy thing to do when you're a competitive, proud, strong person in your 20s. So I give the guy a lot of credit.

Do you think that Colton found what he was looking for?

What I will say is that he did a good job. He's happy with how he did as the Bachelor, I can tell you that for sure. I don't think he has any regrets.

You've spoken before about the lasting power of this franchise. Colton's women are on the younger side (only two contestants are over 30) and they are on par with past seasons in the diversity department, with slight improvement. How do you feel about this cast as this franchise heads into 2019?

I think it's a great cast. It's a very dynamic, good group of women. Obviously, they're a huge part of this show along with Colton, so I'm excited for everyone to get to know them. We have a whole new cast of characters that people are going to dive into and fall in love with, and it is a really good group. I'm excited for everyone to start talking about the women as well. Someone else said the women are young, but Colton's 26. He's not exactly ancient. So if someone is 23 or 24, that's a year or two younger than he is and not the biggest difference in age.

In terms of diversity, are there women from different backgrounds this season who seem like possible contenders to lead the next season of The Bachelorette?

Lacey [Pemberton] and her casting department have done a great job. You'll see represented in this season women from all walks of life, from all parts of the country and with different ethnic backgrounds. The effort that we have made in bringing more diversity to the show and having more people represented, I think we've done a very good job of that. Will we continue to do better and try to do better? Of course. But I think a concerted effort was made so far. Obviously, people on social media and reporters can be the ultimate judge, but I'm pretty happy with the strides that have been made. People have to remember that there is also a television show and entertainment product to put out, as well as trying to do the best you can in those areas. The people that scream the loudest, they're not here trying to produce a show. Their livelihoods and the livelihoods of thousands of people don't depend on your decision. You have a job to do but then you always have a standard we'd like to uphold and I think we've done a good job and really made strides.

Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss recently announced that longtime producer Elan Gale had left the franchise. What is it like to lose someone who has been part of the behind-the-scenes family?

Elan was a big part of the show for the last decade. He is a friend of mine and I will definitely miss him on many levels. There's a side to this show that even the contestants don't get to see, and that's the traveling family that we have put together and adopted because we spend so much time together around the world working on this show. Elan was definitely a big part of that family and he's definitely going to be missed. But just like any team, the next player is waiting. There were many, many producers here before Elan and there's going to be many after. He was one of one thousand fingerprints that are on this show and who work really hard. There are some unbelievably talented producers who were working alongside him who will be moving up and they'll put their spin on the show. Change is scary and also in this business, change is good.

There are a handful of engaged couples in the franchise right now. Are there any plans for more TV weddings?

Hopefully we'll have more. This is something that is hard to explain, but we can't just say, "Hey, we love Ashley and Jared or Becca and Garrett, let's televise their wedding." You don't have the power to just throw something on TV. You have to beg ABC for the time and they have to agree, and then that has to work with the actual couple that wants to get married and they have to agree to terms. There's a lot that goes into it. Our love for the couple has very little to do with if their wedding can be shown on TV or not. But hopefully in the future we will have more and even if it's not a stand-alone special, we will have highlights. I even hope that we'll be out there at Arie and Lauren's wedding and that at least we can shoot some stuff and and show you highlights, or have it as a part of a special we do.

You are officiating former Bachelor Arie Luyendyk Jr.'s wedding to Lauren Burnham. Does that mean viewers might see some footage after all?

Maybe! I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be a good time. Televising the Bachelor and Bachelorette weddings is something that's important because, as a fan, when you're on this journey with everyone and you've followed them from the beginning, you want to see it through. You love these two and want to be a part of it and I get that. I get that fans are eager to be a part of it and we want to feed that. We want to do that as much as possible. And we'll include you as much and as often as we can.

The 23rd season of The Bachelor with Colton Underwood launches with a three-hour premiere Monday, Jan. 7, at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.