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Finding the Love Connection on Television:
What Are the Messages about Dating?

We just can’t get away from reality shows these days. Everywhere we turn, there’s yet another program trying to come up with some “new shocking twist” to the same old idea. Think The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, or For Love or Money. But are these shows really that new? The answer is a little complicated: yes and no. The answer is “yes” because, until a couple of years ago, we didn’t see twenty-five women attempting to “win” the affections of one man. But the answer is “no” because we’ve seen “reality dating” on television for a long time. From The Dating Game to Studs (does anyone even remember that one?), this is not a new concept. Let’s analyze the messages about dating from one of the precursors to The Bachelor-type shows: The Love Connection.

I selected Love Connection because it enjoyed a ten year run on television and was in syndication well into the 1990s. According to an article in Advertising Age by M. Magiera, “TV syndicators lookin’ for love,” relationship programs attract many viewers, thus receiving high ratings. Therefore, there were ample opportunities for people to watch the program and be affected by its message.

Even as early as 1992, Doug Seay, Senior VP-Director of broadcast programming at Hal Riley & Partners, said that relationship programs, "Are about to explode as an ad buy ." This was also evident by the fact that new shows jumped on the bandwagon, such as That's Amore, Love Struck Live, Meet Your Match, and How's Your Love Life. In fact, How's Your Love Life was patterned after the popular Love Connection.

Supposedly, the relationship program genre represents "real-life" dating. The guests on the show are not actors; they’re real people going out on real dates with other real people. Although there has been some research conducted on the perceptions of dating on television, most studies have analyzed fictional programming (e.g. dramas, situational comedies, and soap operas). We need more research done on unscripted programming. This essay represents a baby step in that direction.

Love Connection was, in essence, video dating on television. In the opener for every show, the announcer said, "Welcome to Love Connection! Where old-fashioned romance meets modern day technology, where you hear all the intimate details of a first date."
One participant would choose a dating partner after viewing the videos of three different people. The videos showed the pictures of the individuals while they explained in fifteen seconds who they really were. Then, the couple went on the date and afterward appeared on the show to recount their experiences in "hair-raising" detail. The audience was shown brief clips from the original three videos, and then they voted for whom they thought the guest should have chosen for the date. The show's host, Chuck Woolery, acted as a nosy friend who had to probe deeper and deeper to get every last juicy morsel and uncover all of the "squirmy" things underneath the façade of dating. As a result, he helped the viewing audience to hear all of the intimate details of a first date.

The tone of Love Connection was usually humorous and mildly racy at times. The guests most often either loved or hated each other. The bad dates generated the humor for the show, and the viewers looked forward to that. The audience always reacted with laughs, "oohs," shrieks, and howls. Thus the show created an atmosphere similar to the one we might expect eavesdropping on adolescents talking about dating and the opposite sex. But how real were the dates? How much were the couples coached on what to say before they went on camera? I find myself asking these questions even today with our new wave of reality dating shows.

Love Connection sent many messages about qualifications for a "good" date, a dateable partner, and what dating means. First, let’s start with what makes a “good” date. It clearly has particular boundaries. It starts with a partner who gives you compliments. A good date also is expensive, unique, and fun. A good date ends up with sexual relations (not necessarily intercourse, but at least some form of physical contact). Even if all of these criteria are met, if one partner chooses not to go out again, then it becomes a bad date.

Bad dates are signified by lack of physical attraction, lack of physical intimacy, and lack of respect. Of course, a primary signifier of a bad date can be found in the lack of another date. Bad dates are filled with insults and derogatory comments. Bad dates, though, are still expensive and unique.

Dateable partners are primarily represented by physical attractiveness. This preoccupation starts, though, with the nature of the show. The participants have little information about the person they select to date, except for a brief video.

The post-date commentaries were all laden with comments about physical attractiveness. An ideal image began to emerge; an ideal (especially for women) not unlike the one described by Naomi Wolf in her book The Beauty Myth: women are to be thin, have large breasts, nice legs, and perfect appearance. Men are to be physically fit and athletic.
Both sexes should be interesting, but that is secondary. Other considerations are evident as well, such as money and education. This message marginalizes those with physical flaws, personality quirks, low paying jobs, or little education. People have to fit a certain ideal before they’re even considered a dateable partner. We can see that this type of dating program provides boundaries for people to live within and operates as a social constraint.

These notions are expressed by the actual participants on the dates and are reinforced by the audiences' reactions. For each of the above descriptors, the audience reacts accordingly. The audience cheers for sexual innuendo, whistles at attractive people, and makes a selection as to whom they think the person ought to go out with. The audience thus plays a prominent role in the creation and then reinforcement of the show’s messages.

Therefore, in order to date, people have to be attractive. Also, though, people have to be desirable. They have to go out on several dates a month, which suggests that the person is wanted or attracted by the other sex. Thus, dating is an indication of the attractiveness and desirability of a person. Normal people are attractive, fun, and date often. Abnormal people do not.

Although we will always question the “reality” of these shows, the messages they send create the vewer’s “reality.” They suggest specific patterns of behavior and how people ought to engage in dating and what ought to occur on a date.

Even though Love Connection has been off the air for some time, it’s still part of our television cultural history. While The Bachelor-type shows of today may be different in form, I think the messages are still the same. Television is a very powerful socializer, and it’s important to examine its content so that we can come closer to understanding people’s (especially young people's) real-life dating and sexual decisions.

July 2004

From Carol Morgan Bennett, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Wright State University

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