Fleiss Understands the Real Thing

So much of [reality television],” says Mike Fleiss, “is vile.”

Fleiss can be considered an expert on the subject: He is the reality impresario who created The Bachelor franchise, which is among the genre’s most durable conceits. He has also produced dozens of other reality concepts: Shocking Behavior Caught on Tape, World’s Scariest Police Shootouts, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, The Cougar and Hitched or Ditched among them. It’s an impressive oeuvre in a genre that continues to be the whipping boy for an industry that nevertheless relies heavily on it. But Fleiss believes at least some of the abuse is well earned.

“When I sold The Bachelor to ABC, it took me an hour to explain it,” he says. “Now people walk in and they say, hey, it’s The Bachelor with Flavor Flav, or hey, it’s The Bachelor with this bisexual girl. When reality TV becomes that derivative or that devoid of any creative accomplishment, I feel like it’s fair game.”

This summer, Fleiss has two series premiering. CBS’ Welcome to the Neighborhood (debuting Aug. 9) sequesters eight families inside a walled compound without creature comforts like electricity or cellphones, and pits them against one another in tests of ingenuity. Fox’s More to Love, a dating show with plus-sized contestants, premieres July 28.

“It’s all about sincerity,” Fleiss says of More to Love. “It’s about accepting who you are and being able to find love no matter what size you are.”

That viewpoint is part of the reason Fleiss is one of a handful of top names in the genre. “He’s very bold in his thinking,” says Fox reality chief Mike Darnell. “He’s not afraid to do anything.”

It has paid off. Fleiss’ Bachelor became a resurgent reality phenomenon last season when Jason Mesnick picked Melissa Rycroft and then ditched her for Molly Malaney—in front of the cameras, of course.

“It was the talk of the country,” Fleiss enthuses. “It’s really rare for a show to come back like that. It was a top 10 show toward the end, which is amazing for a show that had dropped out of the top 60.”

Fleiss, who grew up in Fullerton, Calif., played football in high school and studied philosophy in college, and he still keeps in touch with one of his philosophy professors at the University of California, Berkeley. Philosophy, he says, “helped me to step outside of things, be a free thinker and think strange thoughts.”

He was also sports editor at the Berkeley Daily Californian. After he graduated, he went to work as a sportswriter for the Sacramento Union. A diehard San Diego Chargers fan, Fleiss hasn’t missed a game in 35 years, either on television or in person. He often travels with the team, standing on the sidelines festooned head-to-toe in Chargers blue and yellow.

After several years as a sportswriter, Fleiss decided to try writing spec scripts. In 1990, he landed his first TV job as a writer on Fox’s Totally Hidden Video. He was there for a year. “And then I sort of knocked around and did some cable series that were terrible,” he says. His breakthrough came in 1993, when he sold a concept to ABC called Before They Were Stars.

The genre has certainly evolved since then, but esteem remains in short supply. “It still gets no respect,” Fleiss says.

Some may also claim that shows such as The Bachelor and The Bachelorette contribute to a cynical view of marriage. Fleiss takes umbrage at the implication.

“It’s hard to find people who are compatible enough to stay together. Look at the divorce rate in this country,” he says, adding that the shows have “about a 25% success rate” with four couples currently together, including Molly and waffling Bachelor Jason. When it’s suggested that Molly and Jason’s relationship status could be categorized as “for now,” Fleiss counters, “It’s always for now. Everyone’s relationship is for now; me and my wife are for now.”

The truth is that Fleiss has been married to the same woman for 23 years. He met Alex, a former management consultant turned stay-at-home mom, in high school. If Fleiss has any say, the reality genre will be just as solid.