Australian audiences are in love – with love.
As viewers tire of cooking and renovation shows, networks are wooing them back with romance. That means fewer saucepans and spanners – and more rose petals – on your screens in 2016.
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Channel Seven has two new programs: the compellingly awkward First Dates and the intriguingly-titled Kiss Bang Love. Nine is reviving The Farmer Wants a Wife, starring one contestant from its previous season of Married at First Sight. (That show didn't work out for the contestant, obviously, but it drew big ratings for Nine and will return this year.) Ten has The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, both huge hits in 2015. Brutally-honest Chinese dating show If You Are the One will air on SBS2, including some Australian-made episodes.
Debuting on ABC is Hatch, Match & Dispatch, tracking people's life milestones at a registry office, and comedy documentary series Luke Warm Sex. All up, our free and pay TV channels will screen at least 19 shows about relationships in 2016. (See panel for details.)
For this, you can thank The Bachelor: a once-struggling reality show that became a pop culture phenomenon and helped revive an ailing network. Just as The Block and MasterChef spawned a wave of imitators, Ten's lucrative franchise has renewed its rivals' interest in love.
"The existing [cooking and renovation] genres are starting to feel overdone," says media analyst Steve Allen, managing director of Fusion Strategy. Some viewers are sick of reality, he acknowledges, but the "ratings bubble" is yet to burst. Instead, audiences are being spread more thinly over a glut of newer shows, which is why they don't rate as highly as they used to.
Dating programs hold promise: Married at First Sight averaged 1.2 million metropolitan viewers last year while The Bachelorette drew 1.03 million, trending worldwide on Twitter some nights. Even lower-rating series "punch above their weight", according to Allen, because of who they attract: younger audiences who watch each episode intently while dissecting them on social media.
Above all, we want to be entertained. "People don't see these programs as reality," Allen insists. "They're relief from reality."
We might scoff at rude or selfish contestants, says Relationship Australia's Bill Hewlett, but in doing so, we're refining our own social norms.
"It's a fantastic opportunity to observe people, in a safe way, as they go through their rituals," says Hewlett, a clinical services specialist in NSW. "It's a chance to work out what your values are; what you will and won't tolerate." He sees this as a modern version of village gossip, which helped communities learn which behaviours would be rewarded or punished.
All of which is fine if generosity is valorised, say, or bigotry is condemned. But our expectations can be skewed by a focus on the "happily ever after" myth, or a belief your life will fall into place with the "right" partner.
"Traditionally, romance novels have done a similar thing," Hewlett notes. "They end with the couple riding off into the sunset."
For TV producers, the "will they or won't they?" dance of potential love has inherent dramatic value. For most of us, the drama peaks years down the track, when the infatuation has (inevitably) faded. There is "enormous value", Hewlett believes, in programs that probe long-term relationships, such as ABC's 2013 documentary series Making Couples Happy.
Most shows, however, have a critical flaw. When contestants feel angry or unhappy, they tend to look around – at their job, appearance, and especially their partner – and conclude these things are to blame. It makes for compelling viewing, but it's not especially illuminating.
"Your life didn't fall apart because your last relationship didn't work out," Hewlett says. "Your predisposition to fall apart was set 30 years ago. We're all pre-destined to have a particular view of life, and ourselves, based on our childhood experiences."
Television's power is limited. Still, if it can address this societal blind spot, in some small way, Hewlett considers this useful. Not least because we find these shows so enthralling. "Our emotions and our brains are very active while we're watching. It's as if we're there, like we're experiencing it ourselves."
All you need is love
Seven, Starts Feb 3, 9pm.
Aussie singles are sent on blind dates and filmed with remote-control control cameras. Awkward, sweet, funny – but mainly awkward.
Watch for: The unbelievably cocky guy foisted upon poor Caterina. Is she being trolled on national television?
Kiss Bang Love
Seven, later this year.
Ten people "skip the awkward dates" ... and pash 15 strangers each. Because that's much less awkward. Romance ensues, apparently.
Watch for: Whatever the "bang" part of the title is meant to mean.
Married at First Sight
Nine, later this year.
Four expertly-matched couples meet for the first time on their "wedding day" (though they are not legally hitched). After living together, and with guidance from psychologists, they decide whether to continue their relationship.
Watch for: A same-sex couple? Producers have been hinting at it.
The Farmer Wants a Wife
Nine, Starts Feb 1, 8.45pm
Eight marriages, ten babies, three long-term relationships: Farmer has more runs on the board than its competitors. And this season yields more success stories.
Watch for: Farmer Lachlan, the former Married at First Sight contestant now trying his luck on a different Nine dating show.
The Bachelor, US version
9Life, Tuesdays 8.30pm
In Australia, The Bachelor is billed a "family show". In the US, it's unashamedly adult. Which explains the "fantasy suite", a camera-free room where the star and his lady-of-choice can spend the night.
Watch for: Token casting. White women named Amber or Lauren usually around comprise about 80 per cent of the contestants.
The Bachelor Australia
Ten, Starts in August or September.
One bloke takes his pick from a harem of women. Appalling, if it weren't for the fact everyone watches ironically.
Watch for: The rose ceremonies, each one a masterpiece of amplified drama.
The Bachelorette Australia
Ten, Starts in October or November.
A woman taking her pick from a bunch of blokes. Last year's debut out-rated all three seasons of The Bachelor, though it ran for a paltry 10 episodes. Now, it gets the full season it deserves.
Watch for: The identity of this year's bachelorette. Ten could do worse than go with firecracker Laurina, a former Bachelor contestant.
Eleven, later this year.
A pixilation-heavy program in which nude heterosexual couples go on dates. Awkwardness, hilarity (and occasionally sex) ensues.
Watch for: The things that get stuck on, or in, uncomfortable places. Proof that clothes are less a social construct and more a requirement of comfort.
Adam Looking For Eve
SBS2, German version starts April 29, Dutch version starts June 10.
A bit like Dating Naked, but more European in both language and sensibility. Which means no prudish pixilation.
Watch for: Ahem...
If You Are the One
SBS2, later this year
This compellingly-frank dating show drew 50 million viewers in China, with one contestant telling a suitor she'd "prefer to cry in a BMW" than laugh on the back of a motorcycle.
Watch for: The Australian-made specials.
SBS2, Starts March 21, 6.30pm
The Amazing Race meets The Bachelor, with 20 singles roaming nine exotic destinations. They proceed to the next stop by winning challenges, and the victors get to choose their dates.
Watch for: Pretty scenery and pretty contestants.
SBS, Starts in March
Why do couples use webcam to broadcast themselves having sex? Why do men become gigolos? Billed as an "intricate and warm-hearted study of modern love", this series is hosted by Emmy winner Charlie Russell.
Watch for: The exhibitionists.
Hatch, Match & Dispatch
ABC, Starts February 11 at 8pm
Narrated by actor Marta Dusseldorp, it follows the intimate milestones that occur inside the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.
Watch for: Activist Norrie, who won a High Court battle to be classified as "sex non-specific", demanding an official marriage interview with partner Sam.
Luke Warm Sex
ABC, Starts in March
Comedian Luke McGregor, 33, has had sex three times ... two, if he's honest. So he goes on a journey to get better at it.
Watch for: The "home tips and suggestions".
Newlyweds: The First Year
Arena, Thursdays 9.30pm
Follows the ups and downs of the first year of marriage for four couples.
Watch for: "Celebrity hairstylist" Brandon, married to "celebrity fitness expert" Craig.
Untying the Knot
Arena, Tuesdays 9.30pm
This is "conscious uncoupling", reality TV-style. Vikki Ziegler, who presents herself as a "celebrity divorce attorney" promises "dignity" to couples who are "deadlocked in divvying up their most-prized possessions, ranging from the family pet pig to a Lamborghini".
Watch for: Fights over pets. Always the worst.
Ex on the Beach
MTV, Wednesdays 9.30pm
Attractive young people are lured to an island with the promise of new romance. Then producers spring their disgruntled ex-lovers on them. Everyone realises they're trapped. Classy.
Watch for: If trash is your thing, this show is for you.