The 26th season of The Bachelor premiered Monday night, with Missouri native Clayton Echard as its lead. But as some Bachelor Nation fans continue to express disappointment in the selection of the 28-year-old white former NFL player and even question whether to continue to watch the franchise, others suggest that it's time to take a new outlook on the show once created to help contestants find love, and instead find entertainment in the game of it all.
Chad Kultgen and Lizzy Pace are at the forefront of Bachelor fans "gamifying" the series after writing a book titled How to Win the Bachelor and creating a podcast called Game of Roses. The duo aims to shed light on the reality of how the Warner Bros. production is finely crafted and encourages people to view it as a sport rather than a real-life love story.
"I think in the beginning it was closer to a hundred percent of people watching all reality TV believed that it was real," Kultgen tells Yahoo Entertainment. "As time has progressed, that is clearly not the case."
Both he and Pace come from the television world and met while working on a one-season NBC scripted comedy. They quickly connected on their mutual fascination with The Bachelor franchise as "casual fans" at the time. Throughout the years, Kultgen says he's been captivated by the series as he was with other reality competition shows like Survivor. What stood out about The Bachelor, however, was how the competition was initially masked by the seemingly authentic love connections until the show began to amp up some of its "manipulation" tactics.
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"Once you are watching it on a weekly basis, you really start to see these repeating patterns and that's how we started to identify the game mechanics of it," Kultgen says. "Especially in Seasons 4 through 12, what we call the experimental era, producers really started putting mechanics in to actively try and drive people to nervous breakdowns. And once that started to become kind of the norm — that you needed people to cry on camera, you needed the Bachelor or Bachelorette ultimately to have some breakdown toward the end of the season — it became the producer's goal to drive people to nervous breakdowns so what we're watching now is kind of like a more emotional torture porn."
While specific milestones of each season, like the first impression rose, are now integral to the show, Kultgen points out that they haven't always been in play, nor do they accurately assess a lead's feelings for a contestant. "It's a mechanic designed to raise anxiety in the player base. They dropped that first impression rose on a table. And everybody in that room is like, 'Oh, there it is. Oh my God, I hope I get it. I hope I get it.' That didn't even exist in Season 1," he recalls as he talks about the show's evolution. "Everybody got equal time with the Bachelor. It really was geared far more toward helping people find love."
But even as the show has seemingly changed its objective and its prize from beautiful love stories to social media followings and celebrity lifestyles, Pace argues that it doesn't make the show any less desirable to watch.
"I never have gotten into a love of traditional sports, but I feel like my love for The Bachelor and reality TV has given me this greater understanding of why people are so passionate about them," she says. "I think it's whether you believe that it is watching people's love story unfold, or whether you believe it is this psychological game of manipulation, it is a way to connect with others over entertainment."
Kultgen adds, "It's just like pro wrestling. Every fan knows pro wrestling is scripted that doesn't take away from what those wrestlers do in the ring, the athleticism, the planning, everything that they do still is incredibly impressive. And for us, that's why we keep watching. I love watching the players play the game, especially high-level players."
Previous competitors on the show have started to speak out about the inauthenticity of the format, including former Bachelor Colton Underwood who talked about the "business" side of the show during his appearance on the podcast Call Her Daddy. Bennett Jordan, who competed for the hearts of both Clare Crawley and Tayshia Adams on Season 16 of The Bachelorette, also shared his thoughts in a November Instagram post about the forced engagements portrayed as success stories, writing that "the couple doesn't really know each other" by the end of the experience.
One possible reason why? Former Bachelorette turned co-host Kaitlyn Bristowe shed light on the show's rapid-fire timeline for creating emotional connections. In a supportive post ahead of Echard's premiere, Bristowe wrote, "you will learn more about who you are in the next 2 months than you ever thought was possible."
For those who continue to watch the show under the notion that all players are there to find love — or "for the right reasons," in Bachelor franchise parlance — the failed relationships, distracting storylines and even questionable casting decisions have become reasons for upset. "This show is such a waste of time!" one person commented on Bristowe's post.
The network's seeming resistance to diversifying the franchise has pushed some people to stop watching it altogether.
"[Executives] seem to be waiting till the last possible second for progressive change, as opposed to, you know, looking at the tides and seeing what's happening," Pace says, referencing the reckoning the show faced in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. "Maybe we could include more players of color earlier before there [are] protests. Maybe we can include players who are above a size four. Maybe we can include more LGBTQ+ players."
Neither ABC nor Warner Horizon, the production company behind the franchise, responded to Yahoo Entertainment's requests for comment.
While pressure from audiences has begun to push the network in the right direction with the castings of first Black Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay, first Black Bachelor Matt James, Tayshia Adams and Michelle Young as leads, as well as Young's historic all BIPOC final four, Pace suggests that leaning into a new perspective as a viewer is the only way to enjoy the reality series as is. She and Kultgen also agree that the network's fight to keep social media out of the show is a "drastic mistake" for a franchise that creates so much social media engagement not only for its competitors but also for related channels.
The Instagram account @bachelordata is a good example of this, as it provides a quantitative analysis of each of the show's seasons as well as the franchise as a whole. The recent growth of this account, in particular, proves that there's great interest in the way that modern social media usage plays a role in the growth of certain cast members' followings on Instagram and the overall direction of the show, outside of the romantic connections portrayed on screen.
According to Robyn DelMonte, who runs the TikTok account Girlbosstown, which focuses on the public relations and branding of all things pop culture, if the franchise fully leaned into the audience's evolving interests, rather than following the age-old format, it would be able to draw in new viewers while holding onto superfans.
"This is just the digital age that we live in. As much as we want to deny the social media presence and think that everyone is here for the 'right reasons,' we all see it's not that way," DelMonte tells Yahoo Entertainment, after creating a video suggesting a new format that includes dating apps. "This would incorporate more audience participation and also stay relevant with how young people date and find relationships. This has changed exponentially in the past 15 years, but the show hasn't evolved with that culture."
Even better, it might provide viewers with some of the control that they believe they've lost as producer involvement becomes more apparent. "I'd start watching again if it was like this," one person commented on DelMonte's TikTok. "You are brilliant," wrote another.
In the meantime, DelMonte believes that the franchise is losing out on younger viewers by ignoring the ways in which social media and streaming services have inherently changed how people look for love and interact with reality TV.
Still, Kultgen is not sure the franchise is looking to make dramatic changes.
"Will they ever come around to what would actually work? I'm not sure," he says. "They've been doing this exact thing for 20 years and it's worked very well for that long and now media has changed drastically, how we interact with it, the amount of it we consume and they don't understand how to make it profitable still.