NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Not too long ago, "The Bachelor" seemed to be on its last rose.
In 2008, ratings on the show had ebbed significantly, with the average audience of people ages 18 to 49 tuning in to the program slumping to about 3.3 million, a shadow of the 10.1 million the program enjoyed in its second season. "We were essentially canceled three years ago," recalled Mike Fleiss, creator and executive producer of the program, which is now 10 years old. "The staff had been on the show for a long time and [they] were burned out; it wasn't exciting for them anymore. If you're not excited about making the show, it's hard to get the viewers to watch it."
Like the relationships depicted on this long-running reality program, however, the connection ABC's "The Bachelor" has cultivated with its audience has its ups and downs. Today, "The Bachelor" has become the sort of "go-to" romance reality program -- for good or ill, a heartwarming program that brings groups of viewers together.
"It pays to be first," said Tim Brooks, a former TV-network research executive and co-author of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows." When viewers get interested in a new program concept, he added, "they tend to stick with their 'first love' long after the imitators have faded."
Being first may have helped "The Bachelor" survive, Mr. Fleiss said, but other factors are at play. Producers eventually scrapped the notion of creating an entirely new storyline when each new "Bachelor" cycle started up. Mr. Fleiss and his team found success when they tapped Trista Sutter (nee Rehn), a runner-up on the first season of "The Bachelor," to star in the first season of spinoff program "The Bachelorette." So they developed the concept and imported it to "The Bachelor," in the hopes the audience would identify more strongly with someone it had seen before.
Crucial to the program's mild lift in the ratings (along with ABC's decision to tie the show in the fall with its hit "Dancing with the Stars") was the move to take Jason Mesnick, a previous contestant on "The Bachelorette," and feature him in the cycle of "The Bachelor" that started in January 2009.
"When we bring someone back, they are a friend of mine," and now the show has a pre-established comfort level, said "Bachelor" host Chris Harrison of "I'm not going through this with some guy I don't know."
Keeping "The Bachelor" fresh is of critical importance to ABC, which has had programming challenges as of late. "Dancing with the Stars" is showing new life and the network's comedy-heavy Wednesdays has gotten good notice. Still, ABC's best-performing shows -- "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy" -- are growing long in the tooth. New dramas ABC lined up this past fall -- "Detroit 1-8-7," "No Ordinary Family," and others -- have not set the world on fire. As a result, veteran programs such as "The Bachelor" are carrying more weight for the Walt Disney property.
Perhaps that's why the network homes in on the show's heavily emotional moments. Competition, passion and rivalries all play a part in keeping the audience coming back, said Marla Provencio, exec VP-marketing, ABC Entertainment Group.
"The Bachelor" has become an empire of sorts, according to data provided by Kantar Media. In the 2006-2007 TV season, the show snared approximately $89.7 million in advertising. For the 2009-2010 season, "Bachelor" and its spinoffs brought in about $177.9 million, Kantar said (Kantar includes no ancillary properties in 2006-2007). Last season, AT&T, L'Oreal, Verizon Communications and Johnson & Johnson were the show's top sponsors.
Surprisingly, "The Bachelor" had some trouble forming relationships of its own. Mr. Fleiss had worked on the now-infamous "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" for Fox, and was trying to put behind him that program, which ended with the world discovering some background issues with the multimillionaire in question, Rick Rockwell. "It was a really scary time for me."
The premise for "The Bachelor" came to him as he cast about for ways to make the premise of the marriage-minded reality program "more responsible." He came up with the rose conceit that has become a hallmark for "The Bachelor," and started pitching.
Mr. Fleiss said he was turned down by UPN, NBC, WB -- and even, at first, ABC. He saved the pitch when he was at a dinner with a senior ABC entertainment executive and managed to re-spark the network's interest. "It wasn't a quick slam dunk," Mr. Fleiss recalled, but the show has proven its durability. "When you get to the core of it, it has the potential for a happy ending, but each week there are girls crying," he said. "You don't want to eavesdrop but you can't help it, and here the cameras are rolling and it's hard to turn away."