Let's talk about how 'The Bachelorette' is a huge hit for young audiences AND a "ratings disaster"
People are eagerly claiming the show has bombed for being "too woke" but it's more nuanced than that.
We’ve had one week of The Bachelorette, and the defining narrative from the majority of the audience that I’ve been involved in is that it’s a breath of fresh air. More than that, it’s a gust of life-saving oxygen in a previously very depressing hetero cave: it’s giving us life.
People seem thrilled, and excited, and on board. It’s certainly seemed like anecdotally on social media, people are hugely involved.
But unsurprisingly, that is not the narrative being pushed in the media. Instead, we’re getting articles about how the show has “bombed”, and premiered to a “record” low audience.
“The new season of the dating reality show debuted on Wednesday night to just 397,000 viewers (5-city metro)”, says new.com.au “losing easily to Nine juggernaut The Block, which attracted an audience of 851,000.”
While the article simply presents the facts and stats, the comments section of that article and others have used the presentation of “poor numbers” as fuel for a “go woke, go broke” narrative, claiming that it’s Brooke’s bisexuality and Indigenous heritage, and the show’s new mixed-gender casting that has driven away the good “normal” folk of Australia. It’s a popular spin, and one that media outlets love to capitalise on, pitting diverse and representative casting in tv and film against a mythical “silent majority”. A narrative around the all-female Ghost Busters was a good example of this - it made a perfectly cromulent amount of money, but media got good clicks creating a story of failure to fuel the culture wars.
What isn’t getting a lot of attention is that the show was a surprise hit for young people - and when it comes to ratings for commercial TV, that’s often rarer than gold.
“While The Bachelorette ranked a dismal 14th for the night in “all people” ratings, it was a popular choice for younger viewers. It ranked second in the 18-49 demographic and first for viewers aged 16-39.”
But it kinda makes sense, right? Don’t ratings just come from a select council of Australia’s oldest people who agreed to put a spy-cam in their ye olde television sets? Does it even count digital streams? I have no idea.
To help make sense of all this, I reached out to Australia’s premier Bachelor scholars, Max Quinn & Xavier Rubetzki Noonan of the Bachelor of Hearts podcast.
“First of all - I'm not really a proper media researcher,” Xavier tells me. “I know people have actual degrees in this stuff and I am just a Virgo who likes making graphs to promote their podcast. So, you know, grain of salt.”
How do ratings even work in Australia?
Xavier: “Like you, I was initially pretty shocked by the overnight ratings for Wk 1 of Brooke's season. With 397,000 people tuning in on night 1, making it the lowest-rated premiere in Australian Bachie history, and then following that with the lowest-rated Bachie episode of any kind on Thursday night (overnight figure of 345,000), the initial impression isn't good.
Firstly it's important to contextualise how ratings work in Australia. Overnight ratings, like the ones being reported in that news.com.au article, only include real-time viewing and 'as live' viewing. I believe this includes people watching live on 10Play on a smart device/computer/etc (as opposed to exclusively viewers watching the broadcast on a TV), but it still doesn't give a full picture of how many people are interested in the show. Consolidated ratings, which are released 7 days after the initial broadcast, combine overnight ratings and time-shifted viewing (which initially reflected folks taping the show onto a DVR or similar device to watch later, but now generally means streaming viewers catching up on 10play). And for reasons I'll get into, I think this figure is more important than ever, especially for 10 and especially for this season of Bachelorette.”
Max: “To say that the episode bombed is reductive — undoubtedly 10 were hoping for higher overnight ratings, but we know that August (when this year’s Bachelor was airing) was 10Play’s highest month ever for VOD streams, and it should also be noted that a great deal of the country has gotten out of an extended lockdown in the past fortnight. With this said, based on last week’s UpFronts (in which the Bachelor franchise was renewed for 2022 but was paid little more than lip service when compared against stalwart franchises like MasterChef and The Masked Singer), I would wager that the show isn’t as big of a drawcard or priority for the network because it is not rating as well.”
Xavier: “I guess it's also worth noting that ratings are still tabulated using the Nielsen ratings system, which have been in place since around 1950, which is not without flaws - a fraction of the population is selected to participate and only those who are accepted are used as the sample size (in America it's about 40,000 people, from a population of around 330 million), from which they basically multiply out to get the overnight number - so while there are efforts made to capture the reactions of all feasible demographics, it's not really a random representative sample and we don't really know how many people are watching.”
Is woke TV ratings poison?
Xavier and Max remind me that there’s been a significant downturn in audience size for the entire Bachelor franchise in general in Australia over the past few years - this season is not alone.
For example, the 2021 season of The Bachelor, starring pilot Jimmy Nicholson, premiered in July to a dismal 482,000 viewers from metro cities across the country. The premiere of last year’s Bachelorette duo Elly and Becky Miles’ love story had drawn the lowest audience on record with 628,000 viewers, a significant drop from the 716,000 viewers who tuned in to watch Angie Kent’s season debut in 2019.
They also remind me that TV ratings are down across the board for every show, due to all sorts of factors including the rise of streaming and digital tv channels.
Xavier: The most watched seasons of the show are well behind us - the only seasons to have mean total viewer count of over 100,000 are Bachelorette S3 (Sophie Monk), Bachelorette S1 (S*m Fr*st) and Bachelor S3 (Sam Wood). I think there are a tonne of possible reasons that play into the smaller numbers in recent years, for example: folks who watched earlier season/s may not be sticking around for a 10th/15th/19th bite at the apple. These days we have a much more crowded dating reality TV marketplace, with splashier/more dramatic shows like MAFS & Love Island on broadcast TV + Too Hot To Handle / Sexy Beasts on streaming.
I also think the show has changed in some pretty tangible ways. People who have a strong memory of what the show once was (or felt like) are rightly cynical about the producer manipulation, planned dramatic setpieces, and casting of wannabe influencers in recent years.
I believe the youth are our future
But Xavy and Max are really optimistic about the show, believing that making the show more palatable for a young audience is only ensuring longevity in a fairly tired franchise.
Xavier: “I think casting Brooke as the Bachelorette is the smartest move 10 have made with this show in quite a while, because it ticks a lot of boxes at once. Firstly, it's a groundbreaking moment for queer representation on Australian TV and within the global Bachelor franchise. This in itself is going to invite in a lot of curious first time viewers, likely within their target demographics, which it will hope to convert into regular viewers. I imagine there's a healthy degree of scepticism towards the historically heteronormative institution of Bachie, but I do think this season's good intentions are evident (at least so far). Similarly, casting the first Indigenous Australian lead (and the way this has been handled in the show so far) shows that the production is at least willing to begin to engage with criticisms of its lack of diversity.
Another box that's being ticked is that Brooke is a known quantity from the franchise's history. Perhaps the main advantage of a long-running franchise like The Bachelor is that there is history to pull from - we're invested in Brooke's romantic journey because we've seen her try and fail in the past (especially on Nick Cummins' season which was the fourth-highest rated on average overall). I also think just having a younger lead than usual, who's already active on social media & leveraging that audience is smart - it gives Brooke a hint of the Sophie Monk or Nick Cummins built-in audience. Brooke is getting kind of big on TikTok which, as I mentioned before, is a cool thing young people like me are into. I'm being facetious but also - if the Bachelor franchise continues to be married to Instagram forever & ignore what's happening on TikTok, it will age along with its millennial audience & eventually fall out of the cultural conversation altogether.”
Max: “It’s a smart advertising zag as other networks zig (in my opinion) older, and compete for what can only be diminishing returns. Young people fashion culture, it only makes sense that advertisers would want to target young people, and — the pimply grossness of capitalism notwithstanding — it feels salient for 10 to move in this direction.
It’s also, like, good for the actual breaking down of barriers in representation (especially!! In regional Australia!!), which I personally care heaps about — but who really cares about that when you’re also making smart moves to secure that yung advertising bag, baby! I’m being facetious, it’s a mix of both, and it’s fair and fine for both to happen concurrently. I just wanted to say that I think that’s a fair assertion that Brooke’s season feels like it aims younger — and that, so far, I think 10 are delivering on a youth-friendly (and, advertiser-friendly!) version of progressive television programming.”
We’re already guaranteed more Bachy in 2022
Let’s hope 10 doesn’t kneejerk to this kind of criticism and walk back this new, more representative TV - but as Xavy and Max have pointed out, it’s in their best interest to stay the course.
I got a bit depressed when I saw those numbers - it’s not hard to believe that mainstream Australia doesn’t want to engage with a queer Bachelorette. But I also understand that The Bachelorette is now a fresh battlefield for a completely overblown culture war, that doesn’t really represent the world around us.
I’m so excited for the rest of this season.
The Bachelor of Hearts podcast is available wherever you get podcasts! We have been making our show for over 5 years, in which we try to find the good in a franchise we sometimes have quite mixed feelings about but can't seem to stop watching. We try to be quite analytical about it while also being very goofy and funny. We have lots of great guests including the wonderful Bec Shaw and Patrick Lenton, plus people who've been on the Bachie shows, and our other smart and funny friends. There are also jingles. We are on socials @bohpod / @xavierrn @maxquinn.
Patrick Lenton is a writer and author. His latest book is called ‘Sexy Tales of Paleontology’. He is a deputy editor arts + culture at The Conversation.
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