In this episode of The Confessional, the showrunner of A&E and FYI’s Married at First Sight, Sam Dean, writes about producing the show, how people respond to it on social media, and more.
This television experiment pushes all of my expectations as a producer in the most glorious ways, because it’s raw and unpredictable. Married at First Sight evokes a provocative reaction and curiosity in all of us when we learn the premise for the first time. We now live in a society where traditional rules regarding dating no longer apply.
Married at First Sight combines traditional and modern techniques; it observes the sociological differences in modern society whilst giving a new approach to arranged marriage. We are attempting to execute a non-biased approach to arranged marriage using scientific matching methods. This is by no means a perfect science and we are continually evaluating the assessments and matching procedures.
My role is as a documentarian and thus my commitment to the married couples is to tell their truest and most unbiased story—a commitment that often does not please or satisfy the brides or grooms who are sentenced to watching their relationship unfold on national television.
In all relationships there are two sides to the story but less commonly discussed there are also two interpretations of every story. Thus it is often challenging and occasionally excruciating for our brides and grooms to watch their behavior as well as the daily trials and tribulations of their relationships play out publicly.
Remember, these couples are legally married. And their marriages are being caught on camera—with no producing element other than to make sure day-to-day as a married couple is being documented.
I don’t throw the word “authentic” around casually, so when I say the documentation of Married at First Sight is as authentic and as real as can be—I mean it, and I back it up with the knowledge that producing for 15 years brings.
Giving up control of casting
The strangest and toughest challenge of show running Married at First Sight is that I have to relinquish control of the casting and matching process to the relationship experts.
MAFS is a social experiment involving a sociologist, psychologist, sexologist and spiritual advisor researching candidates and matching three couples that will marry as strangers.
As a producer, I am accustomed to choosing the cast of a show. Typically producers choose a variety of conflicting characters such as a romantic, villain, diplomat etc.
Married at First Sight does not give me such power.
The power is in the hands of the four relationship experts, not the producers and not the network. Conventional casting rules are disregarded as the experts are looking for compatible matches without concern of whether or not the candidates will be traditionally considered ‘good TV.’
Perhaps most challenging to me is not knowing whether the candidates who are matched will be entertaining. This show throws most conventional rules out the window, and commands that we, as producers, truly trust the process, and that that we rely solely on these individuals to do the crux of the storytelling in the most natural and fluent way.
Gone are the tricks of the trade that would allow us to exploit certain moments for dramatic effect. We quickly learned that marrying a complete stranger is dramatic enough.
Having to learn about an individual whom you may end up falling in love with and devoting your life to is intense in it of itself. The stakes are all there; a heavy hand is unnecessary and actually could be detrimental to the experiment.
The experts and production team are all in agreement that we want the marriages to last. Many will try to claim that the twists and turns they see on Married At First Sight are simply ratings ploys. But until you stand at the wedding altar of two strangers, praying and holding your breath that they both say yes—you can never imagine just how very little producing is involved.
We hope that the couples matched will fall in love and create a long lasting and happy marriage together. There are no guarantees, so in order to maximize the likelihood of marital success the first thing we need to do is ensure we have enough choice for the experts to consider. We need the experts to have as many viable candidates as possible.
Candidates can apply online, but the casting team does not just rely on the MAFS website. They look for singles in all of the places singles are looking for love; in bars; social groups; businesses; on dating websites such as Tinder, OKCupid, Hinge, etc.
Eventually, we target a specific geographical area. We concentrate typically on areas that are densely populated and diverse. For season 3 we centered our search in Atlanta.
It is important that the matches live within driving distance from each other as once married they will move in together, resume their jobs and daily activities and share their lives together.
People are so quick to speculate on the matchmaking process. We strive to be transparent on every level. We cannot leave any stone unturned when it comes to finding potential candidates.
The casting team executes a thorough outreach which includes (but certainly isn’t limited to) sending e-mails, fliers, going to singles events, contacting church groups and university alumni, and exploring dating web sites. We research and reach out to everywhere singles frequent in order to give the experts the most amount of choice possible.
Irrespective of where we are searching for candidates, our experts look for the people who truly want marriage, commitment and are ready for marriage and commitment.
No annulments, only divorce if things don’t go well
We are asking people to take a huge risk; we are asking them to marry a stranger and to do so knowing that if it doesn’t work they will get a divorce. We are asking that they allow us into the most private parts of their lives with a crew and cameras.
They cannot have their marriage nullified as the courts grant annulments on the grounds of mental illness, fraud, forced consent, physical incapacity to consummate the marriage, lack of consent to underage marriage or bigamy.
These reasons do not apply to our participants, who undergo extensive background checks and psych evaluations and are deemed healthy to participate. Therefore, it is vital that the candidates know what they are getting themselves into before the experts start their research.
We also conduct a search for singles who do not know they are applying for Married at First Sight. These candidates believe they are applying for a show that involves a team of experts helping singles find love; they do not know that it is actually Married at First Sight. I reveal this to them in a meeting.
In an experiment that requires honesty from the participants and the experts, I appreciate that this sounds shocking, but in truth we need to reach out to as many people as we can to maximize the choices for the experts.
We want to have the opportunity to meet potential candidates who may want to proceed with this experiment and may benefit from it, but who would not have applied to the experiment initially.
Only after the candidates are fully informed do we ask them if they want to go forward with MAFS. This experiment requires genuine people who authentically want to find love, commitment and realize that in the form of marriage.
It isn’t a decision we expect anyone to take lightly. We ask everyone to consider the risks very carefully and to take the time to discuss the experiment with friends and family before they commit to the process.
Narrowing the pool of couples
The next stage is the workshops. This involves each of the experts researching each of the candidates left in the pool. MAFS is certainly not an exact science and the process is continually evolving and developing. The candidates all undergo the same highly sophisticated process. Dr. Pepper also conducts in-house visits, whereby she assesses the short listed candidates homes and sees how they interact with family and friends.
Throughout the process the experts are continually narrowing down the pool. In doing so, they face many challenges including the fact that some candidates meet all of their criteria yet they just don’t have a match for them within the pool. This is often due to candidates’ preferences and deal breakers. The experts honor the candidates’ preferences and deal breakers concerning race, religion and values with absolute importance.
As I previously mentioned, MAFS isn’t a perfect science. We are emotionally driven beings and ultimately often behave in an unpredictable manner.
Many of the experts’ assessments are self- rapport. This means they are centered on how the individuals view themselves. So the experts must assess whether the way individuals assess themselves is in fact indicative of the way they are.
I think a further challenge comes in that even if the experts assess that a candidate has good insight into himself or herself they cannot guarantee that the participants will always be able to execute changes and work on their issues when conflicts arise. The experts’ estimate how the candidates might respond under the extreme pressure of a blind arranged marriage with the added stress of being documented.
There are so many variables to consider, and I don’t believe it’s possible to truly know how the potential brides and grooms will respond to the process and each other.
This makes the matching process very stressful for the experts and the production team. We want the matched couples to have a positive experience and ultimately find love with each other. Unfortunately, the experts cannot guarantee this outcome and never promise that they will find someone their perfect match.
After the matches have finally been confirmed and revealed, the brides and grooms have approximately two stress-filled weeks to prepare for their weddings. At the weddings, we are all on tenterhooks as we have no way of knowing how the brides and grooms will react to their stranger spouse or whether they will back out and run.
Once the candidates are matched and meet at the altar each and every decision is theirs. We adapt our shooting schedules around the couples lives and working hours.
We pre-arrange a honeymoon for them but the couples make their own decisions on where to sleep, where to live, how to spend their time and how to spend their money, etc. We document the couples for the first six weeks of their marriage before they decide if they want to stay married or get divorced.
We are not in control of the way these couples interact with one another. The experts offer guidance, assignments and help throughout the process but ultimately the couples create the rules and dynamics of their relationship. They are like any other married couple, and though they met and married a complete stranger, they do so of their own free will. Ultimately they will decide whether to stay married or get a divorce.
We all want the couples to fall in love and live happily ever after, but, there is no pressure or financial incentive for the couples to stay married, it is completely and utterly their decision.
Once the experiment is over, each participant is offered aftercare to support him or her whether they choose to stay married or get divorced.
The unpredictability of marriage—and social media reaction
One thing we can’t fully predict or emotionally prepare the couples for is the reaction they will receive on social media. It’s so easy for anyone to anonymously go online and write anything about anyone. We cannot censor the Internet.
It is particularly tough for couples that choose to divorce, as they are recovering from the breakdown of their marriages whilst being publicly criticized on social media. It can be overwhelming and upsettingly stressful.
Married at First Sight evokes an emotional reaction in everyone when they hear the premise for the first time. In addition, it’s a show about relationships and thus a topic each and everyone of us can relate to and has experience of.
As such, everyone forms opinions of the data to day struggles and interactions the couples go through, Many people feel compelled to share their thoughts online; we have a large twitter following.
I am incredibly grateful that people feel compelled to tweet and share their thoughts; as a producer it’s important for me to understand the public opinion on MAFS and as an enthusiast of MAFS I am fascinated by what people have to say and I enjoy reading the conversation. However, it can be incredibly hard for the couples to endure.
The toughest part about this show is shielding our talent from the keyboard warriors that lurk on social media, viewers who are quick to want to unearth some dirty secret or name-call.
That is something no one signs up for. It is already a difficult task to marry a stranger and learn to manage in front of the cameras, but to also survive public scrutiny—there is a reason why we say our participants are unbelievably brave. These are folks who will stop at nothing to find love.
Online rumors and outright lies are par for the course. In this day and age people love a good train wreck and they love to take a wholesome concept, a show that is truly dedicated to the science of love, and attach their own theories and ideations.
It’s unfortunate and for our participants, very unfair, but social media is a big part of the TV consuming experience now. On the flip side, we are aware that true fans are passionate about the ultimate happiness of these couples. And for that we try to focus on the positive and ask that our couples do the same.
The one thing all of our brides and grooms have agreed upon so far, despite their decisions to stay married or get divorced, is that they have all learned so much about themselves throughout this experiment. Lessons they will hopefully take with them and use for the rest of their lives. That is, perhaps, the most gratifying element.
Married at First Sight is raw and unpredictable. The stakes are high and very real; the couples legally marry and face divorce if it doesn’t work. Marriage can be hard and divorce can be even harder. This social experiment doesn’t involve big stunts or set ups, instead, it follows the everyday hopes and struggles of married couples.
We all want to find love and we all want love to win for others and ourselves. It’s incredibly sad when our couples don’t find love, but exhilarating when they do. I will be forever grateful to each of the brave and remarkable participants who trusted the experts, married a stranger and allowed us to document their journeys together.
They allow us into their lives to capture their hopes, desires, dreams, vulnerabilities, celebrations and sometime disappointments.
I’ve worked in television for 15 years and without question this is the most risky, memorable, thought-provoking, well-intentioned, and extraordinary format I’ve ever been involved with. Simply put it is very, very special to me.