Bennett Graebner ’94 is executive producer for the popular television shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette on ABC. On his latest show, Love at First Kiss, which debuted on TLC in August, strangers test their chemistry by locking lips.
What is the basic idea of Love at First Kiss?
At its core, it’s two strangers kissing and seeing what happens from there. It’s often people who aren’t necessarily each other’s physical type—someone who you may see at a bar and say, “He or she is not for me.” The kiss kind of forces people to see if there’s a connection there. What we try to do is to match people emotionally and intellectually, and less by physical type. It’s really interesting to watch.
If they like the kiss, each gets to decide if they want to go on a two-minute speed date. If they like each other after that, they get to go on a real date. It’s up to them to decide if it’s love at first kiss and whether they want to continue seeing each other. Each step along the way, if someone decides they’re not feeling it, they don’t have to show up.
We’re playing matchmaker as much as we do on The Bachelor, and like The Bachelor, sometimes we were right and other times we were dead wrong. I was surprised at how much emotion there was when it didn’t work out. A kiss is very powerful and there were people who shed tears.
How did the show come about? It’s such a wonderfully weird concept!
It was a Dutch show that we bought the format to. We saw it and loved it. It doesn’t surprise me that the Dutch created it—they’re known for being a little crazy.
We made some changes. For instance, we really thought it would be fun to get to know some of these people a little bit better. On my show, if someone comes on and they kiss a stranger and it doesn’t work out, and we think it’s someone the audience will want to see again, we bring them back.
This is not your first time producing a romance-themed reality show. You produce The Bachelor and The Bachelorette as well. How do those compare with the new show?
They are similar in that the people are all looking for love. The big difference is that on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, you’re following these people over the course of a couple months, and that’s a significant period of time. On Love at First Kiss, it’s quick—it’s almost like the speed date version of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. Things happen much faster and you don’t get to spend as much time with these people; however, you do get to jump-start their relationship.
What goes into creating a reality television show?
It’s really the same storytelling principles you find in scripted material, be it television or film. We’re really telling the same kinds of stories and using the same types of techniques; you’re talking about characters, beginnings, middles, and ends, and how to create romance, drama, tension, and conflict, and all those things that make for a great story. But the challenge is that you have to do it with people who exist—this isn’t scripted and I can’t tell them what to do.
There’s a lot of skepticism about reality television, but the truth is, if people don’t connect, if they don’t fall in love, the show doesn’t work. That’s the best part of the work—seeing people make connections with each other. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s beautiful and it makes me feel good about what I do.
You must have seen some pretty outrageous and surprising things in your work life. Would you share a couple of examples?
On camera, that’s what makes The Bachelor and The Bachelorette so successful. Everyone knows the format of the show, but it’s different every season because of the people who are on the show and things happen that are totally unexpected. You just never know and that’s what makes the show so much fun.
Off camera, we find ourselves in all parts of the world. Being with people in other countries has really been great and it’s really opened my eyes. We were in Taiwan one night with the bachelorette, who was on a date with one of the bachelors. The rest of the guys and I were at the hotel and I told them I’d take them out for some drinks. We walked around and got lost and ended up at a bar. We’d been there for a couple of hours and all of a sudden, I turned around and realized we were essentially in a brothel. We got out of there pretty quickly.