Overseeing ABC flagship series The Bachelor for 12 years, network SVP Rob Mills is well acquainted with reality TV drama, though few seasons in recent memory have proved as heated and controversial, or required as much executive dexterity as Arie Luyendyk Jr.’s Season 22.
As production on the latest season of the reality dating series wound down and Arie selected Becca Kufrin as his bride-to-be, all was well until the Bachelor started having second thoughts, deciding to break up with his fiancée and run back to runner-up Lauren Burnham. As the situation unfolded in real time, cameras continued to roll, and the decision was made to air an unedited cut of Arie and Becca’s breakup, shot from two perspectives for all to see. Subsequently, an “After the Final Rose” episode was tacked onto the season to allow viewers—and the show’s contestants—to process their feelings.
What then unfolded in this period was an Internet firestorm. As Arie was deemed the ultimate villain of his own season, a Minnesota politician proposed legislation to ban Luyenduyk from Kufrin’s home state, and avid fans of the series sent Becca over $6000 on the Venmo app in sympathy for her plight—funds which the contestant ultimately donated to Stand Up to Cancer.
While Mills anticipated a strong response to the season’s conclusion, he was unprepared for the intensity of the upset he saw in response to the season’s orchestration—though he stands behind the direction the show took.
“Look, my mantra with this show especially—but honestly, all reality shows—is, ‘Apathy is the enemy.’ We knew there was going to be a strong reaction, but that’s certainly okay,” the executive told Deadline, reflecting on the series’ execution, its brand and its history. “The worst thing is when you have a couple where people are like, ‘Yeah, no. I guess it’s fine. I don’t really care all that much.’”
Whatever one’s reaction to The Bachelor’s latest season, time may heal all wounds—while Arie set off on his new life with Lauren, Becca was declared the fourteenth Bachelorette, getting her own chance at happiness, in a move emblematic of ABC’s continued cross-promotional strategy.
Could you explain your history with ABC and The Bachelor franchise?
I started in late night but then moved into alternative series in about 2005, and the first two shows that I covered—America’s Funniest Home Videos and The Bachelor—are both still on the air. When I started as a junior executive, those were the first shows.
With The Bachelor at that point—I think it was the ninth season I started with—it had seen better days. It wasn’t the sensation it was when it first came on the air, and I was going to learn as an executive on this show. We thought it would be like a scripted show, where it would have a life cycle, and then you move on to new shows—and then all of a sudden, we saw it rebound when we turned it into a soap opera, more or less, with people from previous seasons being the leads. So I’ve been here through all of this, in between, rising here at ABC to lead the entire department.
The Bachelor has been an ABC institution since 2002. To what do you attribute the outsized, continued success of this series?
When reality started in 2000 with Survivor, it was the Wild West, and everything was so bracing and different and unique. This was something that was a great one-line concept—“One guy is going to date 25 women”—and it was just fascinating.
When you say that, and you look at the one-liner, it does feel a bit like a game show, where one person’s going to win—and if we were still doing that, I don’t know if it would still be on the air. But I think once we started using leads from previous seasons, that’s when it became more rooted in story. It really became like a soap opera.
To me, it’s hard to find a comp with any other reality show. It has more in common with dramas, and some of the moments are as funny as anything you’ll see on TV. But it’s a story-driven show now, not a competition, which is what has really led it to stay on and be as relevant as it’s ever been.
How does the series reflect ABC’s brand or mission in the alternative space?
I think certainly as a reflection of the network—and not just ABC, but the Walt Disney Company—there is a fairy tale aspect. Both ABC and Disney were forged on good stories told well, and that’s really what The Bachelor‘s all about, telling a story of one guy or one girl looking for their companion. I think also, some of the key brands here are aspirational—at the end of the day, that’s what [The Bachelor] is. The entire season is always a bit of a roller coaster, but it always has a happy ending. Even this last season, which looked like, “How do you possibly wring any happiness from that?” But you ended up with an engaged couple, and a bachelorette that everyone is excited to see fall in love.
What has it meant for the network for past contestants to be able to return as the leads in future seasons? Between The Bachelor, The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise, there has been a lot of crossover, as you’ve mentioned.
To go back to this being Disney, the fact we’ve been able to franchise this show the same way we do with things like Lucasfilm and Marvel has been great, and it’s something I’m immensely proud of. It’s allowed us to keep a show that now is dependent on these storylines fresh.
It’s absolutely fantastic for us that Nick Viall was able to become the Bachelor out of Bachelor in Paradise. It used to be that you’d have one relevant contestant from the previous season of Bachelor or Bachelorette who became the lead. Now, any one of the 28 or 29 people who step out of the limo on Night 1 can remain vibrant and relevant in the Bachelor universe, which is great. It means that there’s no end to the amount of stories we can tell.
This season went to unexpected places, and it seemed like once Arie dumped Becca K., the production had to shift gears and figure out how to reshape the season’s ending, with the addition of the “After the Final Rose” epilogue. Working on a series like this, is it critical to be flexible and responsive to what’s happening in real time?
Absolutely. The one thing we’ve learned, especially now, is that the show is so social, and really, the fans are the silent producers of the show. So you’ve got to be able to be nimble, and listen to what they want, and see what’s working. You brought up the additional episode—it’s not the easiest thing in the world to cancel two hours of programming on a night and slide in a live episode, but we’ve learned, just in the producing of the show, that you’ve got to be really nimble.
When the situation with Becca unfolded, how did you and the production team proceed? At what point was a decision made to air an unedited version of her breakup with Arie?
It was a step-by-step process. One of the things that was interesting, when Arie was with Becca after we finished filming, was the fact that he kept talking about Lauren. Not in a, “I need to get back with her” [way], but you could see she was really on his mind. It was interesting that he wasn’t saying, “I’m so excited for my new life with Becca,” but more, “Gosh, I feel so bad about ending things with Lauren.”
When he finally did say, “Okay, I can’t. I need to see if I can get a second chance with her,” we then moved to film Arie saying goodbye to Becca. I always say, it’s a contract these people make with the audience that they’re going to show them the entire life cycle of their relationship—good, bad, and ugly. So we did that.
We filmed the breakup, and then once we watched it and it was so riveting, a couple things occurred to us. In most of the show, especially in the early episodes, a lot of it is the spirit of the law, as opposed to the letter of the law. As long as we’re getting the gist of what happened on the date or at the cocktail party, you cut things way down. A 20-minute conversation could be 30 seconds.
But this Becca and Arie goodbye was so riveting that we knew we had to play it in real time. Then, knowing that—that that was going to take up so much time of our finale—and also knowing there were going to be so many questions afterwards, that’s how the live Tuesday night “After the Final Rose” came about.
What was your take on controversy stemming from the show’s navigation of this complicated moment?
It’s funny—my feeling is, the audience wants to see everything. This is important for them to know, how this breakup happened, as opposed to Arie sitting on a couch talking to Chris Harrison saying, “Yeah, I ended things with Becca.” I was surprised at the vitriol of, “How could you guys film this?” Even with Becca saying, “Yeah, I understood, and it’s okay.” And obviously, she’s the Bachelorette, so there were no hard feelings on her end.
I’d imagine that the producing of reality television is difficult to navigate. You want to go for the heightened stakes, the emotion and the drama, but that can often result in crossed boundaries and hurt feelings.
Yeah, you have to look at it. People can disagree, but I think the feeling was, we’re not really crossing a boundary. Was it a private moment? Yes. But it was also a universal moment. It was, “I’m sorry, I’m thinking about somebody else. I need to break up with you.” It’s something that everybody has gone through, and it felt important.
This is why people love this show and they care about it so much, because this is a universal thing. We’ve all been in love. We’ve all had our heart broken. We’ve all done something ridiculous on a date. So I definitely think that it didn’t really feel all that invasive, or that we were crossing a line. Becca was a little bit blindsided, but afterwards she saw this, signed off and wanted everyone else to see how this happened, as opposed to her and Arie talking about it. They’d rather show than tell.
Is the pressure to arrive at an ending to a season at a certain date a challenge you routinely bump up against? Some felt that given the nature of the show, Arie was forced to come to a serious decision before he was ready to make it.
The one thing we learned a long time ago, with Brad Womack not picking anyone, is that this show can’t exist in a vacuum. If the lead said, “I need more time with these people,” we would figure it out. The most important thing is to get real relationships out of this. Because we’ve taken that tack, I think we’ve done a better job with the couples from Bachelor and Bachelorette, but also on Bachelor in Paradise, where we’ve had marriages, we’ve had babies. So that’s the great thing.