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'Four Weddings' is latest member of TV's wedding party

The new reality show on TLC is one of a growing number of shows that feature nuptials and the planning for the Big Day.

February 13, 2010|By T.L. Stanley

Here are a few hints that a bride-to-be is a stickler for detail: Her colors are "persimmon and sunshine," she's built an elaborate website for the nuptials, and she's been churning out spreadsheets for months for an event that will last a couple of hours.

That's Nadine, a contestant on “Four Weddings,” a new reality show on TLC where four women face off to win a dream honeymoon. The program, which premiered in the high-profile post-"Miss America" slot, is the latest entry in an over-the-top reality genre that's become increasingly popular -- in spite or maybe because of -- the times in which we live.

Frugality is the new normal, making the conspicuous consumption of weddings and their accouterments seem passé or even garish, and marriages continue to fail at a quick clip. The U.S. divorce rate, though down slightly, remains one of the highest in the world. Civil unions are now part of the conversation, with the very definition of marriage -- see: Proposition 8 debates -- under a microscope.

"People look to these shows for fantasy, escape, something that makes them feel good," said Salaam Coleman Smith, president of Style Network, home to "Whose Wedding Is It Anyway?” "At its core, a wedding is a love story, and there's nonstop interest in a love story."

Cable network WE TV has built its brand with such shows -- from sugar-centric “Amazing Wedding Cakes” to girls-behaving-badly flagship “Bridezillas” -- yet the network is planning more wedding-themed docudramas and competitions.

"We don't seem to be able to get enough wedding programming," said Kim Martin, president and general manager of WE TV and its spinoff, a fast-growing 24/7 channel devoted to the Big Day that launched in August. "When people are going through tough times, they want programming that's aspirational." Nevermind that the top-rated non-sports show in all of ad-supported cable last year was the episode of TLC's "Jon & Kate Plus Eight" where the embattled couple called it quits. More than 11 million people watched that train wreck.

On the flip side, the wedding genre's so hot it's birthing its own subgenres. Along with myriad series and specials that cover weddings soup to nuts, there are a budding number devoted to dresses, cakes, makeovers, ice sculptures, celebrity hookups and experts.

Weddings aren't just lacy and lovely, they're also big business, to the tune of about $60 billion a year in spending. (About 10 million people get engaged every year, many of them during Christmas and at Valentine's Day, and more than 2 million couples get married).

That may help explain why networks are so mad about these shows, which draw national advertisers like David's Bridal, Geico, AT&T, Ford, Verizon Wireless, Procter & Gamble and other blue chippers in categories that include airlines, hotels, furniture and food.

There are lots of potential fans, even among viewers who aren't planning a wedding. And those are desirable eyeballs.

The average bridal viewer is tech-savvy and educated, with a quarter of the audience reporting a six-figure household income, according to Nielsen Media Research.

"Modern weddings are a perfect storm of individuality and consumption -- they're ready-made for TV," said Karen Sternheimer, sociology professor at USC. "They've become a rite of passage where huge expenditures are seen as normal. And it's not even an investment -- it's one day."

And it's no longer just a cable game. Wedding- and marriage-themed shows are hitting the networks, with CBS' experimental “Arranged Marriage" coming in midseason and Jerry Seinfeld's comic take on the ups and downs of wedded bliss, "The Marriage Ref,” getting a sneak peek after the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics.

ABC, hoping for a franchise-stretching ratings winner, will televise the knot-tying of recent "Bachelor" contestants Jason Mesnick and Molly Malaney next month. A previous "Bachelor" wedding, when Trista and Ryan got hitched in 2002, pulled in more than 17 million viewers.

"It's character, it's stories, and it's advertiser-friendly," said Gary Lico, president and chief executive of CableU.tv, a firm that analyzes programming trends. "There's such a richness of story possibilities and, of course, promotional considerations."

Style, WE TV and TLC all reported ratings increases in '09 for their wedding programming, with "Whose Wedding Is It Anyway?," for instance, jumping 60% last season. (New episodes kick off this spring.)

The network snagged 5 million viewers when it aired the Italian wedding of E! news anchor Giuliana DePandi and former "Apprentice" winner Bill Rancic.

WE TV's three-hour Sunday night wedding block continues to grow -- it pulled in 23 million viewers collectively in '09 -- and its well-watched, product-packed "Platinum Weddings" launches a new season March 7.

There's been a concerted effort, partly as a nod to the Great Recession, to mix it up in wedding shows, including a breadth of budgets and styles rather than just pricey, traditional affairs. They've also included same-sex couples, Bollywood weddings, goth weddings and redneck weddings.

Platinum WeddingsMeredith Davis, a 27-year-old aspiring actress living in New York, has been in nine weddings since her college days and has a sister, cousin and close friend getting married this year. She regularly watches "Say Yes to the Dress," We TV's "My Fair Wedding," "Platinum Weddings" and "Amazing Wedding Cakes."

"You never give up hope that you'll live in a fairly tale someday," she said. "I'm in such a stressful field with lots of rejection. It's so nice to come home after a crummy audition and watch a wedding show. It's not like I'm going to switch on 'Law & Order.' "

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