Originally created 12/03/01

TV dating shows: It's a jungle out there

Dating as the ultimate stunt? When "Blind Date" producers set up Steve-O of MTV's "[filtered word]" for their show, he looked at it that way.

"I was pretty nervous," says the man who has been seen on TV putting a jellyfish on his head and showering in a car wash. "I've never really gone on a formal date before."

It began as he and his date tried on women's undergarments. Then they roped each other at a cattle ranch. Steve-O juggled cow droppings for her. Then they went to a nice restaurant to eat and drink. A lot.

He ended up ripping up his shirt at the restaurant and squeezing a lemon in his eye.

"I felt kind of bad," Steve-O says. "I wasn't even really on a date with her. I was on a date with the camera."

Turns out, it was good for everyone anyway: Steve-O and his date want to hook up again, and "Blind Date" loved the results. They are holding the episode to air during sweeps in February.

With outrageous participants such as Steve-O, the television landscape is becoming a virtual singles' mixer. During the 2001-2002 season, the TV dating genre has resurfaced in syndication as an outcropping of the primetime reality television trend.

"Blind Date" tags along as two strangers go out for the first time. To enhance the viewing, the show inserts cartoonish word balloons and thought bubbles to poke fun at the participants.

Other shows - including "Elimidate," its recently canceled primetime counterpart "Elimidate Deluxe," MTV's "Dismissed" and Fox's "Temptation Island" - make dating a backstabbing ritual by having suitors compete for the eye of a participant.

"Change of Heart" trails along as couples go out with other people and then decide whether they want to stay with the one they're with or head on to someone new.

Despite the fact other reality shows are sinking this season - even the much-vaulted "Survivor" is slipping - the reality dating show genre is flourishing. In syndication, "Elimidate" and "5th Wheel" are among the season's newest hits, drawing close to 2 million viewers nationally each day.

Yet many of these dating programs have the characteristics that critics say have driven viewers away from shows such as "Survivor": excessively whiny players, backstabbing and in-your-face elimination.

So why do these shows work when others don't? "Love is something people will always be interested in," says Alex Duda, executive producer of "Elimidate." "It's a great mystery. Also, these shows are fun and light. It's not a forced drama kind of reality show."

"It's a universal language," says Tom Klein, executive producer of "Blind Date" and "5th Wheel." "Everybody, whether they are in the world of dating or not, has experienced that, having to deal with all the issues of attracting a member of the opposite sex. It's the kind of thing that is really relatable."

Economics are also a factor. Dating shows are relatively inexpensive to produce and attract the easily seduced 18- to 34-year-old demographic, a group for whom advertisers lust.

Another reason: the singles population, and especially the never-married demographic, in the United States has risen significantly in recent years, the U.S. Census shows.

The audience interest is there. Sparks for the contestants need to be, too.

Charges that "Blind Date," now in its third season, coaxes its participants and manipulates the evening for combative television isn't true, says host Roger Lodge.

"A lot of people ask me if we intentionally set people up to hate each other," says Lodge, who is single but in a longtime committed relationship.

"The answer to that is a resounding 'no.' If we have a young pretty girl who opens the door and there is a long-haired rock 'n' roll guy standing there, well, that's what she says she is into."

However, all dating shows contacted for this story agreed that the more outrageous the participants, the better television it makes.

For contestants, the appeal of going on a show is obvious, says "Change of Heart's" new host Lynne Koplitz. In fact, she says she considered going on a dating show two years ago.

"I thought it would be fun," says the New York-based comic, "and they always have cute dates. So when you are out there on your own, scratching out whatever you can date, then you think, 'Why not? I could go on TV, have someone do my hair and makeup, and they will find me a cute guy.' I'm thinking: 'It's one night. Sounds like fun."'

Dates of the rich and famous

Everyone has had a bad date, including the hosts of your favorite dating reality shows:

AISHA TYLER ("The 5th Wheel"). "This one guy in college took me to see this really sad movie called 'Mississippi Burning,' and I was like crying hysterically through the whole movie and after the movie, and the rest of the night I was useless. I couldn't talk.

"He had to drop me off and go home. I was like this little huddled mass of sobbing. He was like, 'OK, I gotta go.' "

Did she see him again? "No," she says. "He never heard from me again. We both had a bad taste in our mouths."

ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL: Tyler married her college sweetheart, who is now a lawyer. "He laughs at my jokes," she says. "I like that about him."

LYNNE KOPLITZ ("Change of Heart"). "Most of my really awful, rotten dates were in high school. I had a date in California a couple of years ago. It was a double date/blind date. I was told the guy looked like Robert De Niro. Guess what - he looked like Robert De Niro after the accident.

" ... When we got to the restaurant, my date was not there yet. My friend's date excused himself and then came back to the table. He had to call (my date) and tell him what I looked like before he would show up.

"Then you would think Brad Pitt would be showing up, right? Well, it was like a little man who was like a Keebler Elf. He was the garbage pail version of De Niro. The whole evening (consisted) of him looking at me like he struck gold."

Koplitz admits she hasn't always been someone's dream date. Once, she didn't tell her date she was a standup comedian - until she took him to the club and she jumped up on stage to do her routine.

"He was like, 'What was that all about?' "

ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL: Despite the surprise she dropped on him, Koplitz and her date continued going out for several months.

ROGER LODGE ("Blind Date"). "I can't say I have had any really bad dates," says Lodge, then jokingly adds: "Well, OK, I did find out this girl was a (University of Tennesee football) fan, and I had to let her go."

ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL: Lodge and his girlfriend have been involved for several years. "Thank goodness I have been spared having to date these days," he says. "I don't know if I could do it."


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