The real reality show
Married at First Sight is reality TV that’s actually real, according to the guy who created it, writes Jack van Beynen.
It’s a reality show that has gone from niche Danish concept to world-conquering franchise. In the four years since its debut on Denmark’s state-owned channel DR3, the series has screened in 130 countries, with 25 of those making their own versions.
The secret to its success? According to creator Michael von Wurden, Married works because unlike other “reality” programming, it’s actually real.
“We’re not trying to hide that this is a reality show, because if you cannot define reality as a kind of structured setting that you put married people in, then this is a reality show, because it is an experiment and it is a television experiment,” he says. “But that being said, this is just real life.” Filming is currently under way for New Zealand’s own Married series, which will use von Wurden’s Danish template. His company, Snowman Productions, launched the show in Denmark in 2013.
A production assistant came up with the idea of marrying a young couple who didn’t know each other, and then following them through the aftermath.
The concept could have led to a loud reality series with plenty of shock value – a Love Island or Ex on the Beach. Instead, von Wurden toned it down.
“Since we sold it to the public service broadcaster in Denmark, we kind of had to tone down the whole reality style, and we had to make the very formative pillars less visible, because basically if you look at the show, it’s pretty formatted because you go through these different phases, but you don’t really see it because it’s just everyday life for people.”
Part of von Wurden’s efforts to tone down the idea was engaging a group of relationship experts who would pair up the show’s singles, and help them cope with the month they spend together.
“We really didn’t want to have television pretending to create love,” von Wurden says. “Our experts, they don’t care about great television, they just want to have the couples – not finding love, I think that’s something to happen later in the relationship – but they want the couples to be able to see through what’s in the other person and get an idea or a feel that this could evolve into something bigger in the long run.”
“One of the key points is that the experts are free agents – the broadcaster and production company can’t tell the experts, ‘We want this,’ and, ‘We want that.’ They’re kind of independent.”
THE INSTITUTION OF MARRIAGE
When it came time to film, von Wurden engaged a company that made documentaries. They were used to shooting sensitively in a fly-on-the-wall manner.
It was important that the show dealt with its subjects sensitively, because by taking on what many regard as a sacred institution – marriage – Married at First Sight was leaving itself open to a critical storm.
“The show got hammered in the press,” von Wurden recalls.
“There was a very large opposition to it, the right-wing press and the more religious in mind, because there was this idea that, ‘They are making a mockery out of marriage,’ and so forth.
“I think that’s been quite typical in all of the countries. But then as soon as people see the first episode, then the whole sort of press changes, into more of a like, ‘OK, this is interesting, because this is actually about how do we interact as people; how do we evolve as a couple.’”
The controversy certainly helped raise the first Danish season’s profile, but von Wurden says the show has been such a success because it is relatable.
“No matter where you are in the world or in life, you can identify with this. This is like you and me, wanting the best in life. I think that’s the key to the show.
“It doesn’t matter if you are from New Zealand or the United States or Hungary or Finland or whatever, everybody wants to love somebody and be loved. I think that’s kind of the attraction of the show, basically, not the provocative idea of marrying a complete stranger.”
Although different countries put their own spin on the Married at First Sight formula, von Wurden says most stick pretty close to the original template.
“There are always some cultural differences, because different countries have different focuses on what’s important in a relationship. But I would say in general, people actually follow the show’s original template, because there’s nothing kind of sophisticated about it. It’s just normal life... and that’s why it works in so many countries.”
ADAPTED FOR A KIWI AUDIENCE
So what can viewers expect from our version?
Emma White, the series executive producer, says the Kiwi version will be different from any of its overseas counterparts. “We want to make something that works best for the New Zealand audience. We do have a little bit of licence to play with the format, and we will,” she says.
However, our Married will be closer to von Wurden’s original vision than the recent Australian series, which critics say prioritised television drama over the health of the couples’ relationships. None of the couples from that series are still together.
“I don’t want to criticise the Aussie show, and it was very compelling viewing, very engaging for the viewer,” White says. “But I will say that we, the broadcaster, and the experts believe in our matches, and we very much want success stories.
“It would be amazing if all of our relationships had happy endings, we would love that. Is that realistic? Probably not. But we believe we’re certainly striving for success stories, and I think that’s what the viewer will want.
“Does that make us different to the Australian version? I don’t know, you’d have to be the judge of that. I’m not sure I believed in some of the matches, but I’m not the expert.”
Unlike the Australian version, where contestants couldn’t formally marry for legal reasons, the Kiwis will be formally and officially tying the knot.
Nearly 4000 New Zealanders put their names forward for the show, which is being made by Warner Bros for Three. Married’s panel of experts chose six couples from among them for the show.
Casting was an interesting experience for White. Warner Bros makes most of New Zealand’s big reality shows: The Block, The Bachelor and Survivor, among others. But for those shows, contestants are chosen mostly for how compelling they are on camera.
“We make lots of big-format reality shows... but we’ve never cast a show for love, and that’s the most interesting thing about this for us, because actually, we don’t cast it. Our experts cast it,” White says.
NEED V WANT
In casting the show, White says, the main thing she has learned is that when it comes to love, what people think they need is often very different to what they actually need.
“That is where the job of the experts comes into it, they are there to say, ‘This person suits you for this reason, this reason and this reason, and if you can get over this obstacle, then you two could be great together.’ That’s the point of the show, it’s to get people to have a look at a different approach to how they go about finding that soulmate.”
So far, Married at First Sight’s different approach to finding love has met with a surprising amount of success. The most recent Australian series was an outlier in that none of the couples wound up staying together.
On average, 50 per cent of couples choose to stay together when filming finishes. There are five “Married at First Sight babies” scattered across the globe.
White says those success stories come about because the show’s producers, participants and viewers all want the same thing: happy couples.
“The viewer wants to watch the couples who are working,” she says.