Married to the Tube

It’s been said that with love, all things are possible. Networks hope that one of those things is higher ratings.

A&E’s reality series Surviving Marriage — which puts a couple on a deserted island, supplied with little more than the clothes on their back — is one offering in a shower of new programs that examine the institution of marriage beyond the “I Do’s” and traditional wedding nuptials.

Reality-relationship shows are a risk, with provocative titles such as Sex Box and Naked Dating giving way to programs that examine more-traditional marriages in varying stages of success of failure, with a little of the sexual tension typical of the reality genre.

More viewers are imagining what happens with brides and grooms behind closed doors after the bouquet is thrown, network executives said. Cue shows such as FYI’s Married at First Sight, which marries two strangers who meet for the first time at the altar; WE tv’s Marriage Boot Camp, which focuses on marriages on the rocks; Bravo’s Newlyweds: The First Year, which follows just-married couples through their freshman year; and TLC’s Married by My Mom and Dad, an exploration of arranged marriages.

“We’re all trying to flip the relationship show — there’s so much content in the relationship space that’s out there, so with marriage, it’s really how do you up the game,” Shelley Tatro, senior vice president of development and programming for A&E, said. “Marriage is much more relatable [and] that resonates with everyone … even if you’re not married, your friends are married, your siblings are married or your parents were probably married. It’s something that everyone can relate to.”

Unscripted content focusing on the trials and tribulations of marriage has been prevalent on television for decades. PBS’s groundbreaking 1970s series An American Family, considered TV’s first reality series, documented for the first time on camera the initial bliss and eventual breakdown of a marriage and its effect on the family.

But as reality programming has flourished over the last 20 years, society has placed less value on marriage as the ultimate goal of a budding relationship. Rather, people have embraced the concept of men and women having relationships without having to “put a ring on it,” or have played up the negative aspects of traditional marriages, such as infidelity.

“It’s really all over the media — all these negative messages about marriage and how it’s cool to have an affair and it’s OK to do this and that outside of the marriage — we’re getting bombarded with these messages in the media,” said Elizabeth Carroll, marriage counselor and co-star of WE tv’s Marriage Boot Camp franchise.

Shows that do revolve around marriage, such as WE tv’s Bridezillas or Lifetime’s Prison Wives Club, tend to examine it from a mostly one-sided female perspective. Celebrity-themed shows like Kendra on Top and USA’s Chrisley Knows Best view the institution through the lens of the family environment, touching only peripherally on relationship issues.

That has left a void for marriage-themed programming that looks within the relationship, executives said, from the church ceremony to the often difficult adjustments that couples make in the first few years of their marriage.

“Marriage is an authentic relationship that is pretty high-stakes — once you are in it you know that the goal is for the long haul,” Lauren Gellert, WE tv executive vice president of development and original programming, said. “You’re apt to have a richer storyline when you have that high-stakes emotion attached to it.”

The increase in marriage-themed series also comes as the institution of marriage has been a topic of interest in the news, given the recent legal and cultural battles over same-sex marriages. It also comes as fewer people are getting married than ever before and with half of marriages ending up in divorce.

Still, executives say marriage still holds a fairy-tale status, particularly with women, who make up the lion’s share of viewership for these shows.

“I think our viewers love to peer behind the public wall of other people’s relationships to see what’s going on,” Gena McCarthy, senior vice president of programming for FYI, said.

The network’s Marriage at First Sight, which follows would-be brides and grooms who meet each other for the first time as they exchange vows in the months after the nuptials, has become the network’s most-popular series ever, averaging 1.3 million viewers (on a live-plus-seven- day basis) in its first year on air.

The second season of the series has averaged 800,000 viewers in live-plus-seven-day ratings, according to Nielsen.

The show was so popular that FYI moved it to A&E to expose it to a much-larger audience. A spinoff, Marriage at First Sight: The First Year, which follows two couples from the original series as they approach their first anniversary, also drew big numbers, averaging 359,000 viewers — well above the nearly 200,000 primetime viewers the network averaged during first-quarter 2015.

Other shows, such as WE tv’s Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars — which tracks the relationships of former reality-show stars as they work on their marriages under the watch of marriage counselors Elizabeth Carroll and her husband, Jim — provide insight and tips that are well-received by viewers.

WE tv has received letters, tweets and emails from viewers who claim that the shows have helped improve and in some cases saved their marriages, Gellert said.

Marriage Boot Camp explores real relationships — the couples are not just put together or feature people who are taking it lightly — these are people actually fighting for their relationships,” said Gellert.

The network later this month will launch a new season of the series, which will feature among its celebrity couples Kendra Wilkinson and Hank Baskett, whose infidelity issues were prominently profiled during the last season of WE tv’s reality series Kendra on Top.

“The very point of Marriage Boot Camp is to counter some of the negativity toward marriages and bring it back to the positive, life-giving institution that it is and should be,” Carroll said.

And it’s not just traditional marriage that’s getting a look from viewers. Shows such as FYI’s Arranged and TLC’s Married by Mom and Dad focus on the shunned but still-prevalent practice of arranged marriages.

Arranged, which follows three couples whose marriages were arranged by their families, sheds light on a different aspect of marriage that isn’t discussed openly, according to FYI’s McCarthy.

Said McCarthy: “The storylines are compelling and they’re authentic and quite playful, and people can watch and ask themselves could I ever marry a stranger at first sight, so it has a double promise for viewers.”

TLC in fourth-quarter 2014 will debut Married By Mom and Dad, in which men and women who have been unlucky in love put their romantic futures in their parents’ hands. The network, which has walked down the aisle of the wedding genre which such shows as Say Yes to the Dress, Bride by Design, 90-Day Fiancé and its newest effort, Curvy Brides, said the marriage genre offers stories and experiences that its targeted female audience can relate to, TLC & Animal Planet group president Marjorie Kaplan.

FYI has at least one new show lined up for later this year, tentatively titled The Seven-Year Switch, in which couples experiencing the so-called seven year itch swap partners for a week to bring back lessons to use in their own marriages.

“I think when trends are hot people try to invent their own way into it,” McCarthy said.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.