‘The Bachelor’ Executive on Matt James’ Ratings and Diversifying the Audience

With constant social media trends and chatter that lights up the pop culture zeitgeist, “The Bachelor” continues to be a phenomenon, despite lower ratings this season.

Though the 25th season of ABC’s dating show has been leading Monday nights, topping other networks in the key 18-49 demo, fewer viewers are tuning in this season than ever before, with an overnight audience of under 5 million for the past two weeks, though those numbers are surely expected to grow in delayed viewing.

“I actually think you’re going to see ratings rise more exponentially than you would during previous seasons because people are going to start talking about it and word-of-mouth is going to kick in,” says ABC executive Rob Mills, noting that star Matt James is a newbie to “The Bachelor” world. (Typically, leads of the show come from previous seasons, whereas James was hand-picked through casting, but had never appeared in any season connected to the franchise.)

“We’re sort of starting on a blank page, which I think is good,” adds Mills, the network’s senior vice president of alternative series, specials and late-night programming, who oversees “The Bachelor” franchise. “It’s definitely great to have the connective tissue over several seasons, but then I think it’s good to start a new chapter.”

James is the first-ever Black Bachelor. In 2017, the franchise had its first Black lead when Rachel Lindsay became “The Bachelorette,” and ever since, the show has pledged to continue to diversify the show, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. In recent years, the casts of contestants have become more inclusive, and the most recent “Bachelorette” was Tayshia Adams, a biracial woman who is Black and Latinx.

This season garnered the most diverse pool of applicants during the casting process, Mills reveals, which he hopes indicates that the franchise is successfully putting out the message that “The Bachelor” is for everyone.

“We’ve been very public about our shortcomings and how we have to really do better, and we’re certainly trying,” Mills says. “Starting with Rachel as our first diverse lead, hopefully now, we are really showing a person of color that, ‘This is a show for me,’ where gosh, I hate to say that even five years ago, that probably wasn’t the sentiment.”

When Lindsay was “The Bachelorette” three years ago, “The Bachelor” creator Mike Fleiss said he was troubled by the ratings taking a dip, indicating the trend in viewership was connected to race. “I found it incredibly disturbing in a Trumpish kind of way,” Fleiss told the New York Times in 2018. “How else are you going to explain the fact that she’s down in the ratings, when — black or white — she was an unbelievable Bachelorette? It revealed something about our fans.”

Though James’ season opened with the lowest ratings for a premiere in “Bachelor” history, Mills believes there are many reasons at play when analyzing the numbers — mainly, James being new to Bachelor Nation — and the executive hopes viewers will continue to fall in love with James as the season progresses, which will reflect in the numbers. In fact, this week’s episode saw significant bump in the demo, up from last week’s episode, getting an increase of 11.11% among adult viewers 18-49 and 1.03% in total overnight viewers.

“I just don’t know, but I think that’s a quick dismissal, if you say that,” Mills says when asked if race could be a factor in viewership.

“Obviously, we could look at everything and we could do studies, but I don’t think anyone is going to say, ‘I’m not watching ‘The Bachelor’ because the lead is diverse’ — and if that is anyone’s reason, then you’re missing out and it’s your loss,” Mills says bluntly. “We have so much more diversity, not just now with the leads, but with the cast holistically. Look, we are up some seasons and down some other.”

The commitment to diversity is unquestionable, Mills confirms, regardless of how ratings perform season-to-season.

“We are widening our audience, and that’s for the better,” he says. “The one thing I will say is where ‘The Bachelor’ is dominant above everything, I would almost argue on all of TV, is in younger demos, certainly among 18-34, and if you look at that generation, they’re much more enlightened. You’re seeing many more younger people’s stories being told that are relevant. So, if we happen to be aging out because people don’t want to see more diversity, well then, they’re missing out and they’re going to out of the demo soon anyway, and it will certainly allow the franchise to have a much longer lifespan.”

For a franchise that has been on for nearly two decades with more than 50 combined seasons of the flagship show, “The Bachelorette” and other spinoffs, the power of “The Bachelor” is undeniable — especially when numbers are down across broadcast television with a never-ending stream of new streaming platforms, not to mention during a political news cycle that drove viewers’ attention to cable news, more than ever.

“We take ‘The Bachelor’ franchise as a 365-day-per-year job and we always want to be a huge pop culture sensation, which it clearly is. I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t know at least something about ‘The Bachelor’ and is aware that it’s on right now,” Mills says. “But when the numbers are down, we look at every single reason, but I certainly think it’s more to the fact that people are just getting to know Matt. It’s the first time in so long we have someone who has no connection to the franchise whatsoever, and when you have a Bachelor who comes through that season, everybody knows who this person is and what their story is and wants to watch them get their turn, after seeing them get their heart broken on TV.”

James was originally introduced to “The Bachelor” executives during casting for Clare Crawley’s season. When production on her season got pushed with the pandemic, the entire franchise was delayed and planning for “The Bachelor” had to be expedited, so James was selected as the show’s next star, despite not appearing on a former season of “The Bachelorette.”

Mills says that coming into the season, viewers only knew the surface of James — they didn’t know his backstory, like other former contestants who stepped into leading roles.

“All that they knew about Matt coming in is a he’s a stunningly beautiful man who has a great career and is charitable and is looking for love,” Mills says. “Now, through the dates, we’re learning a lot more about him. You learn more about his backstory during the dates. You’re not just listening to the women, but also what Matt says, because viewers really don’t know him.”

Mills sings his praises for James, who he believes is one of their strongest Bachelors of all time, in addition to the cast of contestants, which the executive describes as some of the most dynamic women they’ve ever had on the show.

But when it comes to casting the new star of “The Bachelorette,” it’s likely the new leading lady will be a familiar face.

“I would say with 99.9% certainly, ‘The Bachelorette’ is going to be someone who comes from one of our previous seasons,” Mills shares, adding, “Probably Matt’s, but at least someone who is familiar to Bachelor Nation.”

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