Dating shows: the new rules of the game

Dating shows: the new rules of the game

By Sanya Burgess,
Wednesday, 11th February 2015
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From Blind Date to Ex on the Beach, Sanya Burgess tracks the evolution of a guilty pleasure

Ex on the BeachEx on the Beach

Thanks to TV, observing people's love lives and dating habits has come a long way from reading the protracted courting rituals of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

From the titan of TV matchmaking, Blind Date, to the more niche Take Me Out, the British public has fallen in love with a genre that mixes the suspense of "Will they, won't they?" with nervous singles blurting out naff chat-up lines.

It's been 50 years since the first hit dating show was broadcast by ABC in the US. The Dating Game wrote the rule book for dating shows: corny questions, cheesy answers and a host who acts as a tongue-in-cheek Cupid. The programme revolved around three hopeful singles sitting behind a screen answering the coy questions of another lonely heart.

It was the predecessor to Britain's iconic Blind Date (1985), hosted by national treasure Cilla Black on a bright, fuchsia set.

At its height, in the 1980s, more than 18 million viewers tuned in to a show that was one of TV's heaviest hitters. But by the time Black called a halt to Blind Date in 2003, audiences had sunk to under 3 million.

Blind Date was based on Australia's Perfect Match, which was itself derived from The Dating Game.

The ITV show remained mostly unchanged from the formats that inspired it – apart from the introduction of "ditch or date", which involved the picker being able to dump their date after seeing what they looked like.

When Blind Date left our screens in 2003, televised dating hooked up with the incumbent bad boy of television, reality TV.

A world of novelty dating shows exploded into British living rooms. Farmer Wants a Wife, the show in which women from the city vied for the attention of a farmer, did not do well here, but it became one of FremantleMedia's biggest sellers in international markets.

Other dating shows included Playing it Straight (2005), where a woman tried to find love from a mixed group of straight and gay men, and Dating in the Dark (2009), where contestants dated in a pitch-black room.

Nowadays, shows such as The Only Way Is Essex have crossed into dating-­show territory through their in-show relationship storylines.

Shows such as The Only Way Is Essex have crossed into dating-­show territory

Meanwhile, dating shows have split into three factions: traditional studio shows, such as Take Me Out and The Love Machine; voyeuristic guilty pleasures, including Ex on the Beach and The Bachelor; and gentler formats, such as Dinner Date and First Dates.

Filling the void left by Blind Date, FreemantleMedia's Take Me Out is the UK's number-one dating show. It delivers audiences hovering around the 3 million mark for ITV; Take Me Out has been remade in some 15 other countries, including South Korea, Denmark and Spain.

"I think Take Me Out has been such a success because it had been a long time coming," opines Suzy Lamb, Head of Entertainment at Thames and one of the show's executive producers.

Essentially speed dating en masse, the show's format involves a male contestant choosing his date from 30 women. They stand on stage beneath 30 white lights, with a button in front of them. Each woman has the option of turning her light off to declare her disinterest in the man.

Lamb believes the programme reflects the modern dating scene and is a necessary update to the studio dating show. She says: "Nowadays, dating is all done more quickly and the turnaround of making decisions on Take Me Out is so much faster than the way it was done on Blind Date."

Blind Date was criticised for not showing audiences enough of the dates. Take Me Out's sister show, Take Me Out – the Gossip, has risen to the challenge.

Read more television magazine"The Gossip is something that I'm very proud of. People would say, 'What really happened when the cameras stop rolling?' and I thought, 'Hang on a minute, there is so something in this,'" reflects Lamb.

Initially trialled online, the show reveals more of the dates and what the couple got up to afterwards. It was brought to ITV2 to help pair the slightly more adult content (a bit of drunken kissing) with a younger audience.

On the other end of the spectrum is MTV's Ex on the Beach. With barely an episode passing without contestants humping or having an argument, viewers are treated to the ultimate guilty pleasure of today's dating shows.

A group of beautiful singles are gatecrashed by their exs, ensuring that, as well as new passion, contestants may also rediscover love or relive their heartbreak.

Clocking in as the most-viewed launch programme on MTV in the UK, with an average audience of 328,000 at 10:00pm on launch night, it beat the launch figures of the hugely successful Geordie Shore by 34%.

Across the Atlantic and in continental Europe, local MTV channels have aired the UK version; and talks are under way to sell the format so that it can be remade overseas.

Lisa Chapman, MD of Whizz Kid Entertainment and Executive Producer of Ex on the Beach, says: "When Blind Date first started, it had to be so different. Our show reflects what's happening now."

The sexually charged show could be seen as too hedonistic, but Chapman points out that "this is what people are doing. We send them out on dates, but what they do on them is up to them."

The way these wild young things are identified is another reflection on how dating shows have adapted to the world of Facebook and Twitter.

"We have a fantastic casting team and a lot of it is done through social media," explains Chapman. "Often, you'll find there is a whole section of a club scene where people are all talking on Twitter and Instagram, and they've all been out with each other."

What doesn’t work is to ignore the rules set out 50 years ago by The Dating Game
Hat Trick's Dinner Date (originally shown on ITV1) is certainly the gentlest of the lot. The show sees a singleton choose three out of five menus and proceed to have dinner at the mystery chefs' houses, before taking one lucky romantic out for a meal they don't have to cook.

When Claire Collinson-Jones pitched the format in 2009, dating shows were scarce on the ground. "The spectre of Blind Date loomed so large that people felt dating didn't work any more," she recalls. "I originally got away with it because it was seen as cooking with dating."

Four series in and regularly pulling in 1.5 million viewers, Collinson-Jones says the show has "totally different rules of engagement", compared with a studio show. "People watch Dinner Date for all sorts of reasons: the cooking, or because you get to see behind people's front doors and have a nosey, and, obviously, we can play along, guessing who will be picked," she explains.

Recently moved from ITV1 to ITVBe, the show has a young demographic, but the starting point of the programme was to appeal to everyone. "I wanted it to be like a dating agency," remembers Collinson-Jones, who is proud of the show's history of diversity, featuring contestants over 70, gay couples and ethnic minorities.

The dating show has evolved into a many-headed beast, but one thing that has remained the same, according to Lamb, Chapman and Collinson-Jones, is that, to be successful, audiences must be able to laugh along with contestants.

It seems that what doesn't work is to ignore the rules set out 50 years ago by The Dating Game. The disastrous Dapper Laughs: on the Pull was scrapped after it offended many viewers by laughing at others, using abusive language and having a host who rejected any attempt at finding love.

To fans, successful dating shows are more than just guilty pleasures. They become invested in the real-life stories – be that discovering that couples on both Take Me Out and Dinner Date have got married or watching hearts break on Ex on the Beach.