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As questions abound regarding the future of reality television at the start of the new year, it’s a good time to turn to the individuals behind some of the genre’s biggest success stories for answers.
Walt Disney Television executive vp of unscripted and alternative Rob Mills, NBCUniversal senior vp of unscripted current production Kathleen French, NBCUniversal senior vp of current production Noah Samton and Kinetic Content (Married at First Sight, Love Is Blind) founder and CEO Chris Coelen sat down with The Hollywood Reporter during separate phone calls to discuss what’s working, off-camera controversies and what it takes to find the next smash hit.
What stands out when you reflect on 2022?
ROB MILLS I would say I’m feeling hopeful and excited for the new year. What’s interesting, when I look back at [the unscripted space] this past year — we haven’t really had a breakout. We’ve seen people still love the stuff that’s tried and true, like The Bachelor, Survivor, American Idol. It was great that we put Dancing With the Stars on Disney+. That was very exciting to try and reinvent that and do that for a streamer. But we didn’t really have a breakout — I think the last one was Masked Singer. The thing you learn about the mainstays is that you reboot them every year with a new cast, so they can go on forever. If you have something new, it’s gotta be something that really stands out. So what’s exciting about 2023 is, we are due for one, and I hope we’re the ones that put it on.
KATHLEEN FRENCH That’s an easy one: The big story was BravoCon. The BravoCon of 2022 was so great for the fans, so great for our Bravo-lebrities and just spoke to how amazing Bravo is because really, what other network could have done that? I was just taken aback by the amount of fandom for the Housewives series. At the panel for Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, the fans were lined up for hours, and it was standing-room only. This is a show that is going into season 13, so it speaks to, first of all, the power and the fan love of the Housewives franchise, but then also specifically Beverly Hills.
NOAH SAMTON Such a great year of resurgence for a lot of our shows. Some big pop culture touchstone moments: Nicki Minaj as the guest host for the Real Housewives of Potomac reunion felt like a really big one to me. Really exciting moment for Housewives and emblematic of the way that we’ve expanded our reach across the zeitgeist.
CHRIS COELEN We’ve been lucky enough to have some really exciting shows out there, from Love Is Blind to After the Altar and The Ultimatum and Married at First Sight and Claim to Fame and Love Without Borders and Love for the Ages. It’s a lot of really fun content that’s resonating with the audience. And the fact that “Cuties” entered the conversation [due to Love Is Blind], it’s just so much fun.
Diversity remains a key topic of discussion in unscripted TV, as we saw with social media debate over Zach Shallcross’ upcoming season of The Bachelor representing the second white star in a row after Matt James was the first-ever Black lead. Why was Zach the right choice?
MILLS I think it is a feeling. We were very lucky with Gabby and Rachel’s Bachelorette season that we met with a lot of great guys. Zach seemed to be the right guy — the guy that was really looking to find his person and settle down and just felt like, at this time, he would be the right guy, which is how we go about it every season. Obviously, we’ve made strides in diversity. We need to keep doing more, and we will. But everyone is gonna see Zach is a fantastic Bachelor, just like any of the other candidates we’ve met with would be as well.
How do the rest of you see your shows faring in terms of inclusivity? Chris, you’ll soon launch Ultimatum: Queer Love, an LGTBQ version of your Netflix dating series that debuted last year.
COELEN For a long time, our shows have been amongst the most diverse on television — across the board, scripted or unscripted — and that’s going back to season one of Married at First Sight. On our various shows, we have showcased tremendous diversity in terms of background, socioeconomic status, sexual identity, ethnicity, geography. Ultimatum: Queer Love is absolutely amazing. I am so proud of what we’re doing in that show. One of the reasons I’m so excited to be doing as many of these types of shows as we do is, there’s so much more that unites us than sets us apart.
FRENCH Our series Southern Hospitality is very representative of what’s happening in the South right now. This is a diverse cast of a close group of friends, and sexuality and diversity is just who they are. I don’t think it necessarily is something that is acknowledged as being different.
Chris, one of your success stories from Love Is Blind is Lauren Speed and Cameron Hamilton, an interracial couple who remain married after meeting on the show. Lauren made headlines late last year for posting that she wishes the show would feature Black women in a more substantial way. What’s your take on that?
COELEN First, I would say I love Lauren. You couldn’t find somebody who is a bigger fan of Lauren and Cameron, and honestly, I’m honored to have played a tiny part in their success story. I will never pretend to be able to speak to everyone’s point of view. On Love Is Blind, we invite a very big pool of people to participate in the show. Not everybody finds love. When we do have more couples than not, the way that I lean into deciding who it makes sense to follow is, who feels authentic? Our track record for picking genuine couples is pretty good — by the way, including Lauren and Cameron. We chose to follow them; they didn’t choose that.
It is really easy for people who don’t have a complete understanding of what goes into this process to have points of view about the process. And I think that’s great. We all should have our own point of view about the process. All I can do is be authentic, tell the truth and, in doing so, create an amazing platform and opportunity for people to effect real change in their lives if they choose to do so — and create an amazing show for the audience.
The past year was notable for headlines involving some of your castmembers’ real lives, including legal drama surrounding Real Housewives stars Jen Shah and Erika Girardi. What goes into navigating it?
SAMTON With Jen Shah right now, that’s the last thing any of us expected and the last thing, frankly, any of us wanted, although it has been compelling television. I don’t think anybody sits back and hopes that somebody commits a crime. But we cast people with very big personalities from all walks of life. You don’t know where their lives are going to go, although you do know generally that crazy, wild things are going to happen. When they do, you have to assess the best way to cover it and move forward, and you have to balance what’s the right kind of story to tell and what represents us as a network with what you’ve already given to an audience. You’ve invested them in somebody’s life. It’s a really challenging question for us always, and it’s something we reevaluate every minute of every day as we go through different experiences with different castmembers.
FRENCH I always think it’s about the trust and the relationship between the production companies, the network and the castmembers. The more that we build a level of trust with them, the more honest and open they are in telling us what’s happening in their lives.
What’s the latest with Shah’s status on The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City?
SAMTON We really have not made decisions, and we’re discussing it all the time and trying to figure out what the best course of action is moving forward. We always reevaluate. There are people we stop filming with and then start filming with again. It’s not math — it’s not a simple equation. We try to take into account as many different aspects of what’s going on as we can.
Rob, over the years the Bachelor franchise has dealt with unflattering information coming out about contestants, including a resurfaced blackface photo of Erich Schwer, winner on the most recent season of The Bachelorette. Should the vetting process continue to evolve?
MILLS It’s always evolving, so we’re obviously trying to get better. Obviously, your goal is to have zero issues. As we go season by season, we try and get better and better because we hate when these issues come up. I do think we are improving, and we’re learning how to perfect this as we keep doing it.
Kathleen, what were the takeaways from this season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills?
FRENCH Lisa Rinna had a tough season. She lost her mother. I think that she was in an emotional crisis. She and I have talked about this. My heart really broke for her. She was incredibly close to her mother. We all grieve differently. I think if you were to talk to her now, she would reflect back on it in a similar way. It was a tough year for her, and it wasn’t her finest year by any stretch.
In what ways can your teams’ programming still grow in the new year?
SAMTON It’s always about growing the brand and exploring different things that we can do. In recent years, you’ve seen a little bit more of a crossover from different franchises, with Ultimate Girls Trip and Winter House. A lot of those crossovers were born out of BravoCon and seeing how our casts have all developed real relationships with each other beyond their shows. I’m always excited for new and different shows. We have a show right now that I’m working on — a Summer House spinoff with an all-Black cast in Martha’s Vineyard — and I think viewers are gonna love it.
MILLS We love Jeopardy! Certainly one of the things you realize with Jeopardy! is that good things last, and it’s one of the great game formats out there. So we’ve been really excited to work with Sony to expand it, not only with Celebrity Jeopardy! [but recently announced Jeopardy! Masters]. It is great that they’ve made it permanent with Ken [Jennings] and Mayim [Bialik] and Michael Davies, who is somebody who was born to be in charge of this show. Also, we’re really excited about ABC’s The Parent Test — [a type] that we haven’t seen in a long time, since when we used to have things like Wife Swap and Supernanny that got people talking about how they operate as family.
FRENCH Married to Medicine: Atlanta is going to have a great season 10. A big shake-up — can’t tell you exactly yet. Southern Charm just started shooting this month, and big changes in cast there as well. For me, the little engine that could is Southern Hospitality. We’ve just had a nice kick-up in the ratings, and I’m hoping we’re going to see big things from that series in the future.
COELEN I would put our storytelling up against anybody’s storytelling. We’re talking about abortion, religion, race — all of these really relevant things in a very real way, and in a very brave way for our participants. We have a new show coming to Netflix called Perfect Match, which I’m so excited about, and it’s a very different approach and tone to the relationship genre. It’s an exciting, fun show that really does progress the genre in its own way. And I will say Love Is Blind season four is, in my opinion, absolutely the most incredible, insane, ridiculous, great season of the show that we’ve ever made. It is unbelievable.
Interviews edited for length and clarity.
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