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Kiss and Tell : Boom in Dating Shows Turns Viewer Into Voyeur


The search for love used to be a semi-private affair.

Now, as those on a quest for that special someone adjust to new dating rituals and sexual rules, TV has stepped up its role as matchmaker and standard-bearer for love and dating in the '90s. In TV-dating land, where you too can meet Mr. or Ms. Right, fall in love and live happily ever after in less than 30 minutes, there is no shortage of would-be couples or stages to put them on. In the Los Angeles area alone, viewers can tune in to "love shows" five times a day.

"It's a fantasy for the viewer," said Rick Rosner, producer and co-creator of "Personals," a late-night dating game on CBS that unites couples using a format akin to that in the personal ads. "People watch and say, 'I wish I was there. If I was there, he'd pick me.' "

The phenomenon of dating via TV began with "The Dating Game" in 1965--one swinging single picking his or her ideal date, sight unseen, through a series of mildly provocative questions. Since then, TV dating has exploded into a major money-making industry, and the number of shows continues to rise.

In its ninth year, "Love Connection" is the longest-running dating show currently on the air. Twice each weeknight on KCAL Channel 9, viewers can watch a man or woman choose a date from among three videos, after which the two come together to tell the audience "everything that happened on their date."

Its provocative counterpart is "Studs," which airs weeknights on KTTV Channel 11. It sends two young men on blind dates with the same three women, then brings the five together on the air to describe, in lurid detail, their experiences.

As racy as "Studs" may get, late-night TV pushes the boundaries of sexual innuendo even further. Along with "Personals" is CBS' "Night Games," which pits three women against two men, and through a series of questions determines the most compatible pair.

A plethora of new romance and dating shows are slated for production in the fall--among them "Infatuation," with former "Newlywed Game" host Bob Eubanks, "How's Your Love Life," "That's Amore," "Bring on the Boys" and "Friends and Lovers," which will replace "Night Games" in the CBS lineup.

Producers say that the TV dating boom has been fueled by the audience's apparent fascination with seeing couples either fall in love or rip each other apart, and by the number of people willing to disclose intimate details of their personal lives before millions. But in the age of AIDS, they acknowledge, there may be a more serious reason under the surface.

"Perhaps it's a reaction to the realities of dating these days," said Rod Perth, vice president of late-night programming for CBS. "It's a vicarious thing to watch these shows. Dating is very different these days than it was in the '70s, '80s and especially the '60s. People have to be far more selective and discriminating."

And television can help in that regard, said Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist Robert R. Butterworth.

"TV has become a new teaching tool," Butterworth said. "It shows us what men and women like. It allows people to rehearse without getting involved. There is a sense of trying to understand the mating rituals of the '90s. So many things are changing, and people are confused. People can watch these shows and find out what works."

Watching other people overcome dating dilemmas makes it easier for viewers to take the plunge, he said. "When people make mistakes or say the wrong thing on TV and survive, you think you might be able to survive mistakes in your own life," he said.

The TV dating shows, however, don't necessarily present a reflection of reality, or even a completely accurate reflection of a couple's dating experience.

"We tell people when they audition, we are not a dating service, we're entertainment, and we're here to make good TV and to make money," said David Pringle, a former guest coordinator on "Love Connection," "Personals" and "Love Stories," a now-defunct show in which couples who had broken up discussed their relationship. "The most important thing is to get a response from the audience--that's why we're on the air. It's got to be a love or hate type of thing. If not, we're history."

Although the dialogue on the shows is not completely manufactured, the guests are "coached" to a greater or lesser degree. On "Love Connection" and "Studs," the guests are interviewed after their dates, and the show is put together reflecting those responses. The discussion is guided in order to produce the most provocative on-air encounters.

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