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.

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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.”


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.”


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.


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.

Un­like the Aussie se­ries, cou­ples will get legally mar­ried on screen in the Kiwi ver­sion of Mar­ried at First Sight.

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