ABC Reality Chief on 'Bachelor in Paradise' Controversy, Diversity and Franchise's Future

Robert Mills ABC Reality Chief - Photographed by Christina Gandolfo - H 2017
Photographed by Christina Gandolfo

For two weeks this summer, it looked as if ABC's Bachelor in Paradise would be washing up on the cutting room floor. 

As has been heavily reported, an on-set investigation into a sexual encounter between two contestants, Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson, delayed production on the Bachelor spinoff series and nearly derailed its fourth season. Ultimately, the investigation concluded that no misconduct took place. The cast returned, producers Warner Bros. Television churned out the rest of the cycle in 10 days and the season is set to premiere Monday and Tuesday night.

During that time, however, the franchise and its stars were hit with accusations, think-pieces and reports — some accurate, some not — analyzing what happened behind the scenes. Finally, ABC is ready to pull back the curtain.

"It was important to show that anything that was alleged that happened didn’t happen," Robert Mills, senior vp alternative series at ABC, tells The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the highly anticipated two-night premiere. Monday's episode will air footage leading up to the shutdown, and Tuesday will see Chris Harrison hosting a "thought-provoking" conversation with the cast about the show's new rules and the topic of consent. The footage of the actual incident, as has already been confirmed, won't be airing, and Olympios and Jackson didn't return to the season when it resumed filming. 

The pair will, however, participate in the reunion as well as interviews with Harrison that will air during the show's second week, Mills reveals. Since much of the ongoing story occurred when the cameras weren't rolling, Jackson and Olympios, who initially referred to herself as a "victim," wanted to clarify statements they made during the investigation. "It’s been a real ordeal for both of them, and they’ll talk about all of that," says the exec. "After that second week, I can’t imagine there will be any more questions."

In addition to how Bachelor in Paradise will be handing the controversy, Mills expands the below conversation with THR to the Bachelor franchise as a whole to talk Bachelorette ratings and diversity, plans for the Winter Games spinoff and the vision for the franchise (which might one day include a Bachelor-Con). He also talks about his other reality baby, American Idol, and those empty judging chairs.

When WBTV resumed filming on Bachelor in Paradise, they announced changes would be made and that the tape of the actual incident would not be aired. But you still had all this footage leading up to the shutdown. How did you decide what would make it to air?

Paradise is not a set that was in any way unsafe or causing harm to contestants or producers, or to anyone who was down in Mexico at the time. It was an incredibly thorough investigation, as has been reported. It was an allegation made by people who actually weren’t there, but who had alleged something, so we had to look into it. Once we found that there was in fact no wrongdoing and that nothing had happened, we knew we had to address it in some way. Some of the tape in question, we wouldn’t have shown ordinarily. It doesn’t really further the story. Just because something was taped doesn’t mean we have to show it. We are in no way trying to hide anything. I think you’ll feel that in those two days of the premiere, we have told the entire story of what happened, why production shut down and what happened when everybody came back. I am pretty confident it will answer any questions that anyone has.

It does go somewhat against the Bachelor brand, and Chris Harrison’s “dramatic” teases, to address it head on. Why was it important to not drag it out or sensationalize it?

"Head on" is the perfect way to describe it. You’ll see in the first two nights. There’s not any missing time-lapse where you don’t quite understand or where some of the castmembers are there and then not. You’ll see everyone arrive, including Corinne and DeMario, and you see that first day. You’ll see when everything was shut down and then when everyone is welcomed back and Chris addresses the cast. They will talk about it, and then it’s really back to normal in Paradise. In addition to that, we did do one-on-one sit-downs with Chris Harrison that will air the following week with both Corinne and DeMario where they talk about what happened. The footage you will see in those first two episodes will correspond with what they are saying. You will definitely see first-hand what happened that first day, and then you’ll see Corinne and DeMario’s explanation and thinking of how they felt everything happened and how everything happened during the investigation and afterwards.

Did you feel that Olympios and Jackson weren’t able to address everything in those interviews, and is that why you brought them back for the reunion?

During the investigation, Corinne and DeMario each made statements that happened away from Mexico. We thought it was important for them to go into that in more detail with Chris so they could make sure there was no ambiguity with the statements, and so they could explain more about what they meant. Corinne, especially, talks about how she used the word “victim.” She says, “I used the word 'victim,' but let me explain what that meant.” I think she felt badly about what DeMario went through as well, so you’ll see both of them discussing that.

What went into getting them to come back for the reunion, since they didn't return to the season?

They had these statements that completely got twisted or misconstrued where it was being asked what they meant. I think they wanted to say in a stronger, more expansive forum, "This is what I meant by that. ... This is my version of what happened that night." And just get the story out there so we can put this thing to bed once and for all.

New rules were enforced when the cast returned. Since the investigation turned up nothing, why make changes?

I wouldn’t call it "changes." The show is no different than the Bachelor in Paradise everyone knows and loves. The biggest issue on hand was that it sounded like the whole place was completely unsafe. It was more of a thought of, "God forbid anything like this does ever happen, it would be the worst thing possible." I don’t think if anyone felt that we dodged a bullet and needed to implement changes. It was about making sure that something like this could never happen, that everyone is safe and has a good time. It was not because we’ve always been skirting a line and something was close to happening. As much as we have a good time and it is a lot like a fun vacation for everybody, Paradise is also a show that has resulted in two marriages, two pregnancies, some engagements — and some broken hearts. It was ensuring that the show could go on for a long time and that no contestant is ever put in any unsafe situation.

Will the new tweaks be discussed on the show? How would you classify Paradise in the aftermath of the shutdown?

Chris does discuss with the cast on Tuesday night how there will be some new rules on Paradise. But I actually don’t think there is a difference at all. I went down to Mexico when production resumed and it’s the same show. The show is really about a second chance at love. The biggest thing is the emotions that are involved. All the comedy and romance is there, the broken hearts. I think people were drinking the same amount they were drinking before the shutdown. It’s not a show where they drink to excess.

It was a condensed timeline, with only 10 days to film the season once the cast returned. How many episodes will there be total?

There are nine episodes, airing on Mondays and Tuesdays. The biggest issue we had to deal with was that condensed time. It made it a little harder for relationships to flourish as much as they have in past seasons. It’s been interesting following them since the show wrapped and these relationships have continued in the real world.

Is that why you wanted to have a reunion, which is the first time you’re having one for this series?

Yes. We wanted to play this out, and it’s interesting to see the relationships with the cast that was part of the initial shooting and the shutdown, watching how they bonded. It really was something that brought them closer together and then when the new cast came, dealing with both dynamics. So it’s a very different season of Paradise, in that respect.

Are you doing an After Paradise post-show this season?

We are not, simply because of the condensed schedule. The air schedule made it impossible to do that, but it’s not something that we rule out for future seasons.

The marketing around the season, and that first pulled promo, was criticized, something ABC Entertainment chief Channing Dungey has addressed. What is the line when it comes to staying true to the show, but also taking into consideration the overarching message of what happened?

In the initial marketing, you have to remember that the season hasn’t started airing yet and a lot of people have in their mind what they think happened. That was a really tricky line to balance. We may have misjudged it. I also think that if we had done a promo that embraced more comedy, we maybe would have been called out for sweeping things under the rug. The most important thing, and this was why it was really important to us that production resumed, was to get the show out there so people can see that there was an allegation, they were investigated, the investigation was incredibly thorough and there was no wrongdoing. The worst thing with the promo was that it made it look like we were making light of it, and that wasn’t the case. But we probably misjudged it and we pulled the promo immediately.

Do you feel like you walked that line and achieved that balance with the entire season?

The show is the show. It’s not, “Oh my gosh, we have to completely produce the show differently or do anything different.” The most important thing is just getting the show out there so people can judge for themselves, as opposed to having something in their mind based on reports that have come out.

Lee Garrett on The Bachelorette prompted you to make changes in the show's vetting process after his racist tweets were unearthed. You'll now be checking contestant's social media feeds before they are cast. Did the BIP shutdown make you vet the cast any differently when they returned?

These are contestants who have been on previous cycles. We know them well and they have already been vetted. They go through the same sort of testing that they do to be on Bachelor and Bachelorette. We knew who is going to be part of the case for the season, so we didn’t need to re-vet anything. The Lee thing is a completely different thing than the Bachelor in Paradise issue. Moving forward, we will do that. But as you see with the Lee thing, stuff comes out and we would have known about any red flags by now with previous contestants.

The issue of alcohol on the show came up amid the controversy, since Olympios and Jackson were both drinking. The bartender, Jorge, is a castmember on the show and he is reportedly replaced by Wells Adams this season. Will he still play a big part, and were there concerns about that?

You have to remember where the bartender role came from. It came from Jorge being a sympathetic ear for people to talk to. It wasn’t that we needed a bartender role for someone to supply these people with drinks. And that’s been the role of bartenders on TV shows forever, someone who is a counselor and someone who is there. That’s really what that role was. It was not a role to magnify that we’re getting these people stinking drunk. That’s the same role you will see the bartender play this season. 

Harrison told us you are waiting for Paradise to air before announcing the next Bachelor. Did the success of Nick Viall show the power Paradise has when picking your next lead?

We were completely shocked last season. It started very small, almost a whisper, where we saw people saying, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m starting to like Nick.” Then it started to grow to a roar and then by the end, when we announced it, there’s nothing people like more than a surprise or something they weren’t expecting and that was the character arc of Nick. It definitely taught us to be open to anything. That’s the thing that is wonderful about Paradise. There is a set of people who haven’t watched the show who think it’s an R-rated summer camp, when really we’ve had marriages and babies. In terms of looking at the role, we’re open to everything and that includes Paradise.

Bachelor Nation also seems to be calling for Bachelorette runner-up Peter Kraus to be the next Bachelor. What is your process for weighing the fan-favorite from The Bachelorette compared to the fan-favorite from Paradise? And how much does the memory of the audience go into play?

The audience is really the voice around the show and you have to weigh what they want to see. This show means so much to them. Every show you are making for your audience, but this is one where people are so invested and love these people. They want to see them find love. Then there are X-factors that the audience doesn’t know. With Peter, as much as there has been a call for him to be the star, there is also the thought that if he wasn’t ready to propose, then maybe this isn’t right. People are asking those questions. Even the cliche: Is he doing it for the right reasons? You have to weigh all those factors in, but Bachelor Nation is a massive voice. They’re the ones who really decide who the Bachelor is going to be. That’s what happened with Nick, where you started seeing the audience start to like him. 

Some have suggested the ratings for Rachel Lindsay's Bachelorette season were down because the audience wasn’t as open to a black lead with a diverse cast. Do you agree?

I don’t know about that. All I know is the feedback that I got from everyone who watched, which was that they felt like Rachel was one of the all-time best Bachelorettes. The only negative thing I’ve seen is towards her choice at the end, which is something we’ve seen at the end of every Bachelor and Bachelorette when there’s a horrible breakup like we saw with Peter. That’s the only negativity I ever saw with that audience. Were the ratings down? I also question what the true ratings of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are since there is so much group viewing. All I know that the buzz of the people who were watching was as loud as it’s ever been. To me, that’s the true measurement of success. By all those accounts, we’ve had an incredibly successful season with The Bachelorette. The Bachelor audience skews so incredibly young that I think there is a lot of watching on mobile devices, tablets and group viewing. If you ask 10 people on the street who Rachel picked or who she said goodbye to, at least seven or eight of the 10 would know.

Do you think of Lindsay and her diverse season as blazing a trail for the franchise moving forward? Are you now keeping your eyes open for a diverse Bachelor?

We made a very conscious effort to broaden the pool out, but I don’t think it was ever anything that the show was against. We’ve always been open to it. We had to be more conscious of broadening the pool when we started using people from previous cycles. Would I call Rachel a trailblazer? Yes, it was historic and she was the first lead of color and that was great. But if Rachel came down the line five years ago, she would have been the Bachelorette, and if she came five years from now, she would have also been the Bachelorette. She had those qualities that you look for in the lead of the show. But absolutely, you’re going to see a more diverse pool on the show from now on.

What can you tell us about the Bachelor spinoff Winter Games?

We’re still in the early stages. We have been scouting locations, so it is in the U.S. At the end of the day, it’s going to be about finding love again. It will have some of the Bachelor Pad DNA, in that there is going to be a competition element. And the other thing we're excited about is having contestants form the international formats of The Bachelor. So you have somebody from Bachelor Japan, Bachelor Australia, Bachelor Canada and Bachelor UK. We’re really excited to see if we can have some international romances as well as the competition in U.S. versus the world.

What is your dream for the Bachelor franchise — that it expands and goes on forever?

Yes, absolutely. As long as there are people in the world, there will be people wanting romance. It’s the most universal thing, so I think The Bachelor could live forever and ever. I’m incredibly proud of how we’ve been able to make it an entire universe and a a franchise and something that has these different offshoots. If we can find more things that are organic to The Bachelor, the better. Winter Games sprung from us asking what a winter version of Bachelor in Paradise would like. We felt that we didn’t want to infringe on that too much, and that especially with the Olympics airing there is that competition element. If we can find different things, believe me, I would love to have an all-Bachelor channel someday. We’ve also talked about what a Bachelor-Con would look like. I love this franchise and think there is no end to where it can go.

American Idol auditions start this week — how much pressure is there to lock in the judges before those begin?

These auditions are different. Obviously we need judges by the time their auditions start, and that doesn’t start for a bit, so we have some time. The most important thing is we have one seat filled with Katy Perry, and now it’s making sure we have the right chemistry around that. As we’ve seen with all these shows, whether it’s Idol or any of the music shows, the chemistry of the judges can make or break the show. There’s been some thought that we rushed into Katy Perry, and that wasn’t it. She has a tour to plan, so we needed to make that deal pretty quickly. We’re being selective and very careful when thinking about the judges. Now that we know Katy, we want to make sure the other judges complement her. It’s really something where the whole is bigger than the parts.

What has been the most challenging part of the Idol reboot process?

There is an expectation of: How is the show going to be ABC’s American Idol? And staying true to what made it so great and beloved in the first place. It’s a unique opportunity for not just ABC but for the Walt Disney Company, because you see what we’ve done when we’ve had these brands like Marvel or Star Wars and finding new and different ways while still keeping the DNA of these properties that people love. That’s the same with Idol. When you look at it in the TV landscape, Idol is definitely as big of a brand as any of those.

Are there any changes to the traditional Idol format that viewers should look forward to seeing?

It’s still early days and we’re talking, but if anything, it will be the Idol that everyone has known and loved. There will be some tweaks, but nothing where you think to yourself, “Oh my gosh, this isn’t Idol at all.”

Bachelor in Paradise premieres Monday and Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.