‘Bachelor’ Shows the High Cost of Botching Anti-Racism Efforts

When the latest “Bachelor,” Matt James, gives out his final rose on Monday, it will likely stir more discussion than a usual episode of the reality-TV melodrama.

The nearly 20-year-old show, a steadfast hit for Walt Disney Co.’s ABC, is at the center of an off-screen racial melee. For the first time in its history, the show stars a Black “Bachelor.” In early February, fans discovered the White front-runner attended a party at a Southern plantation in 2018, dressed as a member of the slave-owning class. In a matter of weeks, the show’s ratings slid, its longtime host was removed and dozens of former contestants took to social media to decry that “The Bachelor” has failed to keep pace with the racial justice movement.

‘Bachelor’ Shows the High Cost of Botching Anti-Racism Efforts

It’s an ironic twist for a program that largely benefited from online chatter. Through the power of its highly engaged “Bachelor Nation” fan base, the show has consistently been No. 1 in its Monday-night time slot, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue for decades.

But the renewed attention to race on the show has resurfaced old complaints it didn’t fairly represent non-White people. Now ABC risks alienating both audience members and advertisers seeking signs it’s keeping up with the times. “We’ve now reached a pay-the-piper phase of this moment,” said Kristen Warner, an associate professor at the University of Alabama who studies racial representation in television.

As they cope with the controversy, ABC and partner Warner Horizon said Friday that they would swap out Chris Harrison in the upcoming season of the series’ sister program, “The Bachelorette.” The companies said they are dedicated to improving representation, including among the show’s executive producer ranks.

The “Bachelor” franchise has always cultivated drama. The heavily edited show includes dates on which contestants strip down to bikinis, and has a “fantasy suite” where it’s heavily implied the show’s lead beds his or her three top contestants. Fan groups across Facebook, tens of thousands strong, regularly lament the strange format, but usually with a laugh. And each week the funniest tweets about the latest episode are featured in a BuzzFeed article.

ABC and its partners WarnerMedia and NZK Productions lean in to the lowbrow reputation. The season ends with a Maury Povich-like live event that incorporates tabloid rumors into its marketing. The show directly acknowledges these rumors on social media and in teasers, creating must-see TV. As a result, the series is an advertising powerhouse. Each season for the past three years has generated between $55 million and $71 million, according to data from Kantar. The show, which doesn’t pay most of its contestants, is consistently one of the most expensive reality programs to advertise on.

‘Bachelor’ Shows the High Cost of Botching Anti-Racism Efforts

Last year, the social media following around the show turned from silly to serious as the protests around the murder of George Floyd became louder. Fans of the show demanded representation from “The Bachelor,” urging it to choose its first Black, male lead. (A YouGov poll showed 75% of people who tune into the show are White.) ABC quickly announced James would anchor the new season, while Tayshia Adams became the second Black female lead.

Adams’s season went smoothly, and the show was praised for incorporating a discussion about Black Lives Matter on screen, but James’s run has been troubled. One of his favored suitors, Rachael Kirkconnell, was widely criticized on social media for “liking” Instagram pictures with Confederate flags, attending an Antebellum-themed party and dressing as a Native American for Halloween.

‘Bachelor’ Shows the High Cost of Botching Anti-Racism Efforts

On Feb. 9, Harrison, who is an executive producer in addition the show’s host, defended Kirkconnell in an interview on Extra with former “Bachelorette” Rachel Lindsay, who is Black. “You’re not going to please everybody,” he said, adding that he was not the “woke police.” After the interview, Harrison apologized and stepped away from the show. He will be replaced by Adams and another former contestant as host for the next season of “The Bachelorette.” Kirkconnell has said there was truth to the allegations and she deserves “to be to held accountable.”

By March 1, “The Bachelor” fell to the No. 3 spot in its time slot, behind “The Voice” and “9-1-1.” It drew 4.7 million viewers, compared with 7.7 million viewers that watched “The Bachelor” the same week last year. Ratings ticked up on March 8, but the whole season has averaged lower numbers than in the past -- possibly in part because Covid restrictions have made the show a less compelling watch.

‘Bachelor’ Shows the High Cost of Botching Anti-Racism Efforts

A further test for the audience’s appetite will come Monday evening with the finale, which is typically the most popular episode of the season. A planned post-finale discussion hosted by Emmanuel Acho, a former NFL linebacker, and a potentially new Black “Bachelorette” may give the franchise a new shot at getting it right, but the stain of racial insensitivity is likely to follow it around, said Warner. Advertisers are particularly worried now about alienating potential buyers, and are loath to tie themselves to brands people see as insufficiently anti-racist.

“If it continues to bring in so much money for them, they’ll tolerate a certain amount of controversy and misbehavior,” said Alice Sylvester, a partner at marketing firm Sequent Partners. But “marketers are paying attention.”

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