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'Love and dating are super relatable': Why Netflix is doubling down on reality romance

"The Ultimatum," which debuted this week, marks the streaming service's latest dating show. But there are many more to come.
Scene from "The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On".
Scene from "The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On".Netflix

After the huge success of "Love is Blind" and "Too Hot To Handle," Netflix knows one thing for sure: Its viewers are thirsty for reality dating shows.

So it's no surprise that in March, the streaming service announced that "love has no off season." Meaning, the streamer is bringing eight shows in the genre — some new, like "Jewish Matchmaking," and others returning — to viewers in the next year. The company even made the announcement via a catchy tune, sung by "Love is Blind" co-host Nick Lachey and some favorite faces from across the Netflix reality dating universe.

"There are some categories like dating and relationships that are proven fertile ground in terms of what viewers really love to see," Brandon Riegg, Netflix’s vice president of unscripted and documentary series. "Our job was to start building offerings in those various categories and figuring out what sort of approach resonated the most with our members."

The key to that: Shows that are authentic and relatable.

"Love and dating are super relatable," Riegg said. "These shows have to reflect that same truth and relatability that you see in your own life or friends and colleagues lives. That's really been a North Star for us as we're vetting these projects." 

Netflix's decision to expand its slate comes as other studios and streamers also double down on the genre.

Long before streaming services even existed, ABC reigned supreme with its "Bachelor" franchise and spin-off shows. Now, there is no shortage of programming in the genre — shows like "FBOY Island" and "My Mom, Your Dad" on HBO Max; "90 Day Fiance" on TLC; and "Love Island," which was first in the U.K. and now has its U.S. version on Paramount+.

There are a "lot of great shows out there on cable, and other streaming services jumping into that space," Riegg said. "It's not like we're the only ones doing it. But I'm proud of what we've done with it."

Love and dating are super relatable. These shows have to reflect that same truth and relatability that you see in your own life or friends and colleagues lives

-Brandon Riegg, Netflix’s vice president of unscripted and documentary series

"It's an evergreen category,” he added.

Going all in on the genre has paid off. As MSNBC columnist Emma Gray noted in her latest article, "the proliferation of streaming services plus a global pandemic created the optimal conditions for a reality TV renaissance: lower budgets, tighter turnarounds, fewer locations and a public trapped at home, ready to consume content."

"Our appetites are voracious — for love, for roadmaps, for people doing it all wrong so we can reassure ourselves that we are getting something right," wrote Gray, who is the co-host of the podcast “Love to See It,” which dissects reality TV shows.

'The Ultimatum' is Netflix's latest offering

Netflix's latest offering is the “The Ultimatum,” which debuted Wednesday. It features six couples who decide to partake in the show, or “experiment” as many of them call it, because one partner is ready to get married, whereas the other isn’t quite as sure. Thus an ultimatum is issued — and in just over eight weeks, they must commit to marriage, or move on.

"I think every human being on the planet wants to be loved for who they are on the inside," said executive producer Chris Coelen, CEO of Kinetic Content, which is also behind "Love is Blind."

"'The Ultimatum' is one of those archetypes that you hear about in our world," he added. "It's also relatable... every person who is of a certain age or maturity has been in a relationship, has sort of been in a place emotionally or mentally where they're considering a long-term lifetime commitment to someone. Everyone [in that situation] has thought about am I further along than my partner is? If you haven't been at that situation, it's unusual but you know of people been in that situation."

Coelen said he loves the relationship genre because there are "all kinds of ways to look at relationships, and all kinds of points people are at in relationships." 

"It’s very real and the stakes are very high and there can be really long lasting positive impact for people who participate in these shows," he said.

As of Thursday afternoon, "Ultimatum" ranked no. 2 in the US, Riegg noted.

"It just shows we've found that great sweet spot," he said.

What makes a good reality dating show?

At home, viewers see the edited version of "reality." For the producers of these shows, the behind-the-scenes process is equally as enthralling.

For "Love is Blind," for example, Coelen said they had over 30,000 hours of footage to sift through. There were couples who got engaged that didn't even make it to the show's final cut.

So what makes a reality dating show good? How do the producers know what to include and what to omit?

Scene from "Love is Blind: Japan".
Scene from "Love is Blind: Japan".Netflix

"If there was a magic formula we should copyright it and get at it," Coelen joked. "I'm half kidding."

Cian O'Clery, the series director and executive producer of "Love On The Spectrum," said there's a space for lot of different styles of reality dating shows, which is what makes the genre so interesting.

His docu-reality series, which Netflix will release a U.S. version of this year, follows people on the autism spectrum as they navigate the world of dating and relationships.

"As with anything, it's all about the storytelling and the characters," he said of what makes a show compelling. "I think it's all about people connecting with people on screen and wanting to join them in their journeys."

Love On The Spectrum: Season 2.
Love On The Spectrum: Season 2.Netflix

Of course, O'Clery said, "some reality dating shows work when you've got villains and drama and conflict." But, he believes some "just work well when it's just about connection and people trying to find someone special."

Viki Kolar, an executive producer on "Too Hot To Handle," agreed.

"When shows try to get too distracted from that, when drama is just for the sake of drama, people shut off," she said.

"Genuinely I think what makes it good is people on it are believable," she said. "When you're there and you watch it they fall for each other. Obviously real life takes hold [after the show wraps]. But in that moment, guided by someone that makes them be honest about feelings, what makes it good is they are following real feelings. Yes, we are producing, [but] we aren't fake producing. We are just guiding."

The reality dating show genre is what O'Clery described as going through as "a renaissance at the moment."

"What's interesting is the space is expanding in different ways," he said. "They aren't all shows like 'The Bachelor.' We are getting different sort of perspectives."