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Dating game shows are television game shows, some say reality game shows, that incorporate a dating system in the form of a game with clear rules. Human matchmaking is involved only in selecting the game's contestants - usually for amusement value as opposed to any concern for their happiness or compatibility. The audience sees only the game - an important feature of all dating game shows is that the contestants have little or no previous knowledge of each other, and are exposed to each other only through the game, which may include viewing a photograph or at least knowing the basic criteria for participation (typically participants are not already married).

Like other games, the outcomes of this activities are open to rigging (analogous to match-fixing in football), leading to missed matches and possibly unhappiness in the participants. These programmes have also been criticised for complicating courtship with needless public expectation (see Heisenberg effect). In spite of this, some programmes have produced episodes that portray follow-ups of unions forged therein, possibly with off-springs.

Popular dating game shows were an innovation of TV producer Chuck Barris in the 1970s. The Dating Game, his first, put one unmarried man behind a screen to ask questions of three women who are potential mates, or one woman versus three men - thus hearing their answers and voices but not seeing them. The audience could, of course, see them all. The various suitors were able to describe their rivals in uncomplimentary ways, which made the show work well as a general devolution of dignity. Questions were often obviously rigged to get ridiculous responses, or be obvious allusions to features of the participants' privates.

The Newlywed Game, by contrast, another Barris show, had recently-married couples competing to answer questions about each others' preferences. The couple who knew each other the best would win. Sometimes others got divorced. Once, someone divorced after appearing on the Newlywed Game got a "second chance" on the Dating Game. Gimmicks were the lifeblood of all such shows. This drew criticisms for instigating disaffections that could not have been effected.

The genre waned for a while but The New Dating Game and the UKmarker version Blind Date revived it, and the old shows were popular in reruns, unusual for any game show. Cable TV revived some interest in the 1980s and 1990s and eventually new shows began to be made along the old lines. Gay variations began to appear on a few specialty channels.

Other shows focused on the conventional blind date, where two people were set up and then captured on video, sometimes with comments or subtitles that made fun of their dating behaviour. He Said, She Said focused not on setting up the date, but on comparing the couple's different impressions afterwards, and for their cooperation offering to fund a second date. These resembled the reality shows that began to emerge at about the same time in the 1990s.

A completely new type of dating show merged it with the reality game show and produced shows where the emphasis was on realistic actions and tensions, but which used less realistic scenarios than the traditional blind date:
  • Temptation Island, where long-standing heterosexual couples were deliberately separated and made to watch each other's mates interacting romantically on and after dates, making extensive use of video which is the only means by which they could communicate on the island.
  • The Fifth Wheel, where four people, two of one sex and two of another, are allowed to meet and bond slightly, but then a fifth wheel of one or the other sex, but always a heterosexual, enters and attempts to break up the equilibrium.
  • Who Wants to Marry A Multi-Millionaire, which actually set up a real marriage, and put women in the situation of vying to marry a millionaire bachelor. The show turned into a major embarrassment for the Fox Network, who aired the series. Soon after the couple married, the husband was found to have a domestic violence record. The woman quickly had the marriage annulled. Charges of materialism or demeaning to the woman have also been levelled.
  • Joe Millionaire, which did likewise, with the twist that the bachelor was reputed to be a millionaire, but wasn't, although the cash prize offered by surprise at the end eventually made the deceptive scenario a bit less abusive.
  • The Bachelor, where a single man got a chance to choose from a pool of 25 women, with eliminations over a period of several weeks; and The Bachelorette, which reversed the gender roles from The Bachelor. In the first two seasons of The Bachelorette, the last woman eliminated from the dating pool in the previous season of The Bachelor was given the opportunity to "turn the tables".

Some common threads run through these shows. When participants are removed it is usually one at a time to drag out the action and get audience sympathy for specific players. In shows involving couples, there is a substantial incentive to break up any of the existing relationships. In shows involving singles, there is a mismatch of numbers ensuring constant competition. This is what creates the action, the tension, and the humiliation when someone is rejected. There are also reports of mercenary practice, that is, members of one sex paid to participate in the game to attain balance of sex ratio.

The first gay version of these more realistic shows to receive mainstream attention was Boy Meets Boy, with a format similar to that of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. The show featured an unusual plot twist. Eight of the men from the show's original dating pool were actually straight men pretending to be gay; one important part of the plot was whether the gay star would be able to recognize the straights.

Some gay and straight romances have been sparked on the other reality game shows, suggesting that they too may really be "dating shows" in disguise. But any social situation has the potential to result in romance, especially work.

A sobering caveat of the power of television and romance in combination came when a popular dating variant of the talk show, inviting secret admirers to meet on the stage, backfired on the Jenny Jones show. The admirer was a homosexual friend of a heterosexual man who was so outraged that he later murdered the admirer. The secret admirer variant of the talk show has remained popular, e.g. it is still done on Oprah, but with less emotionally loaded surprises, and much more careful checking of the guests' backgrounds and attitudes.


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