For someone going into his 20th season of the most “dramatic weekly television show ever” the first thing you notice about Chris Harrison when you sit down to talk to him is within moments you are taken by his gentlemanly charm and just how undramatic and comfortable he truly is. From his laid back nature, to the sense that he is at a good place in his life, the man responsible for bringing the romance back to mainstream America, along with the ups and downs that go with it, has learned a lot over the years. With over 13 years under his belt as the host and producer of the “Bachelor”, “Bachelorette” and other franchises that have come thanks to the original, Chris’ easy going and sometimes introspective look at life gives you the feeling that you’re catching up with that best friend that you had in high school that you hadn’t seen in years instead of being next to one of the most influential entertainment powerhouses in the business.
When, then up and coming TV personality Chris Harrison walked into the offices of ABC back in 2000, he didn’t expect much. The network wanted to jump on the new trend of reality competition shows, and had asked him to host a dating show, where one man would cull through a group of 25 women through a series of dates and cocktail parties, ultimately proposing to one final suitor. It was called The Bachelor. “I was hoping [the show] would last a few hours,” Harrison jokes. “I would meet someone at the network, and it would lead to a real job.” Thirteen years later, The Bachelor and its chief companion show The Bachelorette have remained juggernauts for the network. They still bring in upwards of 10 million viewers to Monday nights.
A few weeks ago I had a chance to talk to Harrison about the upcoming season of “The Bachelor” which debuts tonight on ABC, Bachelor Ben, and life in general.
How did Ben Higgins come to be the newest Bachelor?
“Ben was an easy choice for us. You know, It’s always nice when you have options and we did have options this season but it was a bit of a no brainer. You look back to Caitlin and Brit and that decision and we had options but we were really torn. There was really no right or wrong answer and we ended starting with both and in retrospect I don’t know if that was a good answer or not but at the time, it was the answer. With Ben, it was just such an easy and obvious decision and it’s nice when you have something that’s such an easy choice. You guys, I mean you as the Bachelor Nation, if you watch the show, made that choice for us and we were all 100% in. He’s just such a genuine, sweet, humble, good guy but as you see, he also has something that as a producer is nice because there is that fragility and there’s that vulnerable side to him where he does have some issues to deal with and some things to get over. And I know it’s hard to believe with a guy that looks like that, that he could have any kind of issues. But again that goes to show just how hard it is out there and just how brutal it is, you know? I think that’s the wonderful thing about The Bachelor, I think that it’s something that we can all empathize with. It’s why you can relate to what’s going on, and it’s why the franchise has spanned 13 years and now 20 seasons of The Bachelor not to mention The Bachelorette because it’s a very simple concept really to think of as a show.”
What can we expect from Ben and Season 20 of The Bachelor?
“It’s a great season. You know we were under a little bit of pressure cause we wanted to really stand up to this 20th Season although you can’t really do that because you can only work with what you have. Luckily, I think we hit a home run with this guy. It’s a great season, he’s a good guy, and the women are fantastic. When you have a guy that is a catch like Ben, obviously the level of interest and the level of competition brings along with it some innate problems and right from night one it was on-when the women came in and saw what they were after, and it was on. So it’s a good season with some familiar faces, twins which, as a couple of guys here would think, the idea of twins is appealing. You think “Oh Twins!” and then when you think about it for more than 4 seconds “Oh that’s horrible. There are so many problems with that. They’re related and family and this is weird and they’re sisters”, so it’s a very interesting season. To add to all of this Ben has a great deal of trouble with the idea that he can be loved. Finding love is an arcing theme you’ll see throughout the season that he kind of deals with and inevitably there’s that bottom out. This always happens. There’s a point in the season when everybody just gets gutted – there is that bottom that you reach. Everybody has a different bottom when you go through something like that and inevitably, every Bachelor and Bachelorette gets kind of strung out, and that’s one of the great things about how we produce this show and this process that people probably outside the show don’t understand is it does. It really does strip you down naked and then you kind of start new, and you start to build. You can’t fake your way through this.”
When casting the show, how do you figure out who is there to find love, and who is there to use the show for their own fame?
“You can’t fake your way through this. Whether you’re one of the 25 or 28 this season or if the guy or girl himself, you can’t fake your way through it, you just can’t. The first night maybe — maybe the second night, but eventually you will be found out. If you come in and say, “You know what? I’ve never done this but I’m going to be the wild person, I’m usually a really quiet, sweet girl, but for this, I’m going to go in there and I’m going to blow the doors off the place.” You can’t fake it for that long. Eventually, you show up, your real self and that is kind of the duty of this show. We all yell at our TV screens and shout “Oh my God! Why don’t you get rid of that person? Don’t you see what’s going on?” Well, at first they don’t. They don’t get to see everything we do. But eventually they do get found out, whether it’s Bentley or whoever it is. You get shown for who you are. Again, kudos to the producers and the process that we created so that it does eventually kind of expose that.”
What stories can you share about the show, or personal, or both?
“My own tragic experiences? No I mean honestly personal? It’s funny you know, I was married for 19 years and I love the show and I love doing it and I think it’s being happily married, having 2 kids, and being a family man that was so important to me along with hoping to be a really good host and being a rock for these people. But I think oddly enough, the last 4 years since my divorce that has made me empathize with them a lot more and realize why they’re all here, and what they’re going through. It’s really interesting how my opinions have changed a little bit. I think I’ve become probably a better listener and therapist and friend over the years. And then as for stories from the show, someday there will be a mother of all tells-all some day and I’ll write this incredible, bizarre tell-all of this franchise that has changed my life dramatically.”
How has The Bachelor evolved over the years?
“If you watch the evolution of this show, you know what we were talking briefly. We started with the concept 15 years ago. The reason I know this so well is my son was born. He was 6 weeks old when I got the job and I met Mike Fleiss, the creator of the show. It was this crazy concept and reality was very new, very edgy. Survivor had just come on the air, and then we were next. And I remember running into Jeff Probst at an event and I asked him just what is it, this Reality TV thing. I was a sportscaster and I knew how to host but this was very different. There was no template, there was no playbook laying how you host a reality show. Jeff actually just said, “You’re going to have to figure it out. I had to figure it out on “Survivor. Your thing is going to be so different. You’re just going to have to find your space. Early on, I was a bit of just a talking head and I almost did have a script per se. I didn’t really think too much out of the box. I was just trying to keep my job honestly at the time. I was scared to death, it was my first network show, and we picked up with 6 one hour episodes- that was it-that was the original concept. No Bachelorette- that was never intended to happen. This is just kind of a one-time deal that we thought we would do. And now here we are today in the 20th Season and there will be at least ten 2-hour episodes along with maybe a 3-hour episode and 2 specials. All told that amounts to at least 23, 24 hours of television will be produced. We used to be 6 hours, it’s stunning when you think of how much we produce and now I can’t even fathom doing a one-hour episode. I don’t know how we would do it. We can’t, and think about your favorite shows, whether it’s Revenge or Scandal, or whatever it is, they get an hour. If you went to them and said, “Guys, you’re doing a 2 hour Show.” They’d be like “It can’t be done. You could never produce that much.” Plus they couldn’t afford it but it’s amazing that we do 2 and 3 hour shows and yet we remain I think, compelling and interesting.”
How has the onset of Social Media changed the show?
“When we first started, we controlled the message. Mitch would call and say; hey you’re doing an interview with People Magazine and ET. They would sit in a room and they would control everything that we said, did, and what got out. There was no such thing as spoilers and our show was very private. We had very private dates. We never did public dates back then because we kept everything so secret and maybe something possibly might leak out but it was so hard for information to really get out like it does today. Over the years, social media started growing, then came Facebook and then you go onto Twitter and Instagram and blogs and all that. It’s amazing how our show has had to embrace that. I think one of the reasons our show remains relevant is we have to stay with the generation that’s at hand. Ben’s 26 years old. When I started this show, I was 30 and now, I’m older than that. But it’s a “Dazed and Confused” thing. I keep getting older, they stay the same age. Ben’s 26 and he’s of this generation now and so that’s part of the reason that the college age kids love our show because again, it’s relevant to their generation. We have had to grow with you guys. You guys demand more and you have expected more out of television especially. I think it’s good and bad. But you push the envelope. I don’t know if you’ve noticed on the last 3 years, our show has become a lot more organic. There was Juan Pablo when we first became really exposed. We had no choice but to show who he was. Maybe back in the day we could have faked it a little bit, glossed it over and still made him pseudo likeable and done the best we could. One of my favorite examples ever was, Ryan down in Mexico when he slept with one of the girls, and then jumped off the balcony and broke his leg. Who knows what we would have done with that. I mean it was just too good of a story to have to tell because it’s the greatest story ever but again now we just show the audience everything that happens because it’s going to get out. Our National Security secrets get out- you don’t think 28, Twitter crazed kids on the Bachelor are going to talk? Of course, they’re going to talk. They can’t eat breakfast without talking. I mean, they get up, go to the bathroom and have to show people. So the Bachelor, when they recorded The Bachelor, of course they’re going to talk. These people do exist to talk. They take pictures of everything they do. So you know, you have to embrace that. That is our show and that’s the generation -to fight that would be insane.”
What more can you share about how the 20th season will be the “most dramatic season ever?”
“This season is interesting because the drama is more Ben induced and caused because of who he is and how he kind of holds himself, carries himself throughout the show, which is extraordinarily well, and he’s very open. The best way to go through with this is to really just wear your heart on your sleeve and give yourself up to the process. And that is so much easier said than done because you have to say take me at my most vulnerable moments and you know, and that’s scary to do but it really only works if it you do it that way. Sean Lowe is a good example. Sean sees, and I’ll bring him up a lot because they remind me a lot of each other in that we got a glimpse of Sean on the Bachelorette by mid-season. Everyone liked this guy. But then when you saw him on The Bachelor, you really fell in love with him. He’s got a sense of humor and how self-deprecating he was and what just a good guy Sean was. I think Ben’s the same type of guy, how sincere and humble and faith based, and he really just gave himself up to us, and said “Go like I trust you guys. You’re good at what you do. Take care of it.” It’s scary when you have someone’s life in your hands but we kind of took it and ran. And so because of that and because he really just gave himself and threw himself into the fire, the drama will follow. We don’t have to produce that. Ben did a good job of really giving himself over to us and the women kind of had to follow. The women had to really give it up too and that was a very vulnerable space. So it’s a dramatic season but I think in a very different way than what we’re used to.”
So now that Chris finds himself single, would he ever consider being the next Bachelor?
“Here’s the thing about being ‘The Bachelor’: I believe in it and I love the show,” he said. “But I have been producing this show — hosting it and been behind the curtain — for 13 years. To come on and act like I don’t have any knowledge of how this is put together — you have to have a little sense of naiveté and innocence coming into this. I just know a little too much. it wouldn’t work because I wouldn’t be thinking about what I need to be thinking about and that is, finding love and just going through the process. So long story, short, “No” until ABC comes and says, look, here’s 50 million dollars.”
Will Ben find love? Will this truly be “The Most Dramatic Season Ever?” Find out tonight as Chris Harrison is back for the trials and tribulations of finding true love as “The Bachelor” begins its 20th season.
Disclosure: I have been invited by Disney to cover this media event. All material and expenses for this event have been provided courtesy of Walt Disney Studios but all opinions my own.