With a combined 28 seasons on air, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have been a massively successful franchise for ABC. It pulls down respectable ratings and it’s extremely cheap to produce. Shooting it takes about a month, add in two months of post-production and a largely anonymous “cast”, and you have a bona fide cash cow for a major television network. But that’s not what this article is about. This article is about how the show can teach people about the very nature of capital itself.
Do you know how much money Robert Downey Jr. earned for Iron Man 3 and The Avengers? 50 million dollars. Each. Why did Marvel Studios pay him so much money? Because Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. His role in Iron Man was so memorable and entertaining that his agents were able to negotiate a cut of revenue for future films within the Marvel universe, which is something only bankable movie stars are able to get.
A bankable movie star is somebody who audiences will pay to see in a movie even if the movie isn’t that good. Plug Sandra Bullock in a by-the-numbers romcom and you get a 300 million dollar box office gross. Plug in Katherine Heigl in another generic romcom and you get half that amount. To borrow a term from baseball, you could say that Sandra Bullock’s RAKH (revenue above Katherine Heigl) is somewhere around 150 million dollars.
The Bachelor/Bachelorette is great for ABC because the show’s formula actively prevents its participants from becoming bankable, which means they’re cheap to acquire. The beauty of the franchise, at least from a corporate perspective, is that there is always a bachelor or bachelorette and a couple dozen contestants vying for his/her affection. As long as everybody in the “cast” is relatively attractive and well spoken, the show will succeed based on the merits of its formula, not the bankability of its cast.
Plug in any woman or guy who’s an 8 or above, and people will watch. The ratings of the show will not change appreciably based on the individuals who get cast in the show. Every episode is the same. Every cast is interchangeable. Despite the fact that they get a few dozen different people with each season, people inevitably fill in (or get portrayed as) a certain archetype: the bitch, the overly competitive asshole, the nice guy (read: chump), the sexpot, the ingénue, etc.
So what’s in it for the contestants? Exposure, which is a form of capital. The funny thing about capital is that it tends to beget more capital, even if it isn’t all captured by the initial investment. Even though the vast majority of the capital is vested in the show itself, that doesn’t mean that the individuals on the show can’t build some capital for themselves. Some of the “cast” end up becoming c-list type celebrities during the show’s run.
If a member of the cast is particularly memorable or entertaining, they can oftentimes parlay that into minor gigs like reality TV show hosts, guest spots on talk shows, and interviews (a form of earned media). Once you work your way onto the c/d-list, you can try and build your star by staying in the game. For many people, even a life on the d-list is preferable to that of being a normal.
And the reason why it’s preferable to be a minor celebrity than a normal is because even the most minor of celebrities derive a large portion of their overall compensation through capital and not labor. There are plenty of attractive women who can go in front of a camera and recite lines reasonably well, but there’s only one Jennifer Lawrence, who gets paid like she’s Jennifer Lawrence and not like just another attractive blonde. In the show business, having a name means having capital.
And having capital means you’re in a position to build even more capital. In a year, everybody is going to forget the current Bachelorette’s name but The Bachelorette will live on for many more seasons, earning fat checks for the people that own it.