The Rise And Fall Of “The Bachelor” Franchise

“The Bachelor” franchise has been a pop culture staple for two decades, but declining ratings show the rose is starting to wither.

By Meghan Dillon10 min read
Screen Shot 2023-07-28 at 10.21.26 AM
The Bachelorette 2023 ABC

The Bachelor franchise has been around for two decades, so it naturally has had its ups and downs. While the show is still on air, and spinoffs and future seasons are already scheduled, the ratings indicate that the reality dating show isn’t the pop culture staple it used to be. From promising beginnings to the scandal that ousted the show’s beloved host, it’s safe to say that the history of this franchise is both complicated and messy (which is kind of fitting).

The Early Years

The first season of The Bachelor aired in 2002 and was an immediate success. The first episode had a whopping nine million viewers, doubling to 18 million by the season finale. Chris Harrison was the host, and Alex Michels, a successful businessman, was the first Bachelor. Alex got engaged to Amanda Marsh at the end of the season, and though the relationship didn’t last, the season gave us the first Bachelorette, Trista Rehn.

Trista’s season of The Bachelorette aired in 2003 and also was an instant hit. She already had a built-in fanbase from being the fan-favorite from Alex’s season of The Bachelor, making it easy to root for her to find love. Her season’s premiere had 17.44 million viewers. Trista picked Ryan Sutter at the end of her season, and the two married in a televised ceremony later that year and are still married today with two adorable children.

Although the ratings reflected a successful show, the early years of the franchise didn’t actually have many successful relationships. The second Bachelorette lead to marry the man she picked was Ashley Herbert in season seven, but she and her husband got divorced in 2021

While the early seasons were full of drama, nothing beats the drama of the season 13 finale. Jason Mesnick was selected as the lead because he was a loveable single dad from the fourth season of The Bachelorette. He found himself in a conundrum when he realized that he should have given his final rose to Molly Malaney instead of Melissa Rycroft. He broke off his engagement to Melissa on live television before pursuing a relationship with Molly, and it was pure chaos. Luckily, the story has a happy ending because Jason and Molly later got married and now share a daughter together. Melissa also found her happy ending and is now married with three kids.

What’s interesting about this era is that ratings were high (lack of streaming services and DVRs likely played a role), and social media wasn’t prevalent. The franchise launched its first spinoff, Bachelor Pad, featuring former contestants competing in a Big Brother-style reality contest while living in the Bachelor Mansion. It only lasted for three seasons, quickly being usurped by the current hit spinoff, Bachelor In Paradise.

The Golden Age of The Bachelor

By 2013, The Bachelor was a reality TV staple, and host Chris Harrison was a household name. Fans saw the show as a perfect form of escapism, leading Monday nights to be synonymous with watching the show and having a glass of wine. Things were looking good for The Bachelor franchise, but it was about to become great with Sean Lowe’s season.

Sean Lowe was an instant fan-favorite on Emily Maynard’s season of The Bachelorette, and nobody was surprised when he was cast as the lead on the 17th season of The Bachelor. He was the classic all-American guy who every girl wanted to date, and his insistence on waiting to have sex until marriage won him major publicity points for a show that was infamous for normalizing the lead having sex with the three final contestants during Fantasy Suite Week. Sean ended the season by proposing to fan-favorite Catherine Giudici. The two married in early 2014, making Sean the only lead of The Bachelor to marry the woman he gave his final rose to. Sean and Catherine are still together to this day, have three beautiful children, and are considered by many to be one of the best couples the franchise has ever produced.

It’s safe to say that Sean may have set the bar a little too high though, as season 20 lead Ben Higgins is arguably the only one who can compare to him. Like Sean, Ben was fan-favorite on Kaitlyn Bristowe’s season of The Bachelorette for his Midwest charm, and nobody was surprised when he was cast as The Bachelor. He got engaged to Lauren Bushnell at the end of the season, but the couple went their separate ways a few years into their engagement. Ben is now married to wellness influencer Jessica Clarke, and Lauren is married to country singer Chris Lane. Despite not marrying his season’s winner, Ben is still a fan-favorite of the franchise.

Since Ben Higgins’ season, there has been a decline in Bachelor leads that have won over the franchise as he and Sean did. Luckily, fans were still in store for some entertaining seasons. Season 22 lead Arie Luyendyk underwhelmed fans but appeared to be anything but boring when he made the same mistake Jason Mesnick made in season 13 by breaking up with Lauren Burnham in the finale before proposing to Becca Kufrin. After Arie broke up with Becca on-camera, he pursued a relationship with Lauren and proposed to her during the After The Final Rose finale event. Arie and Lauren went on to get married and have three children together. Becca later became the lead on The Bachelorette but split with fiancé Garret Yrigoyen a few years after the proposal. She went on Bachelor In Paradise to meet Thomas Jacobs, and the two are now engaged and are expecting their first child together.

Other chaotic seasons include Colton Underwood’s season, where he infamously jumped a fence in Portugal after front-runner Cassie Randolph broke up with him. Colton and Cassie rekindled (but didn’t get engaged) and broke up in 2020. In 2021, Colton came out as gay and is now married to political strategist Jordan Brown.

Peter Weber’s season was also unforgettable. This season featured one of the most uncomfortable dates of all time where contestant Victoria Fuller’s ex-boyfriend, country singer Chase Rice, performed at their one-on-one date, but that didn’t beat the chaos that was his season’s finale. Peter’s final two contestants were Hannah Ann Sluss and Madison Prewett, and while it was clear that Peter favored Madison, his family favored Hannah Ann. Madison self-eliminated in the finale after finding out that Peter had slept with Hannah during his Fantasy Suite date, leading Peter to propose to Hannah Ann before breaking off their engagement (on camera, of course) to pursue Madison. 

Peter’s family (mainly his mom, Barbara) berated Madison and said their relationship wouldn’t last during the After The Final Rose special, and Peter and Madison officially broke things off a few days later. Peter went on to date Kelley Flanagan, another popular contestant from his season, but broke up near the end of 2020. The two got back together briefly in 2022 but broke up again in 2023. Hannah Ann is now engaged to Indianapolis Colts running back, Jake Funk, and Madison is married to Grant Troutt, the son of a billionaire.

While the quality of leads and marriages decreased on The Bachelor, they only increased on The Bachelorette. During this time period, three of the seven leads of The Bachelorette – Desiree Hartsock, JoJo Fletcher, and Rachel Lindsay – all married the men they gave their final rose to. Of the three couples, JoJo and her husband, Jordan Rodgers, are the favorites among fans.

This also led to an increase in highly entertaining seasons. Season 11 lead Kaitlyn Bristowe is still favored among fans of the show. She was not only funny and fun to watch, but her season featured popular contestants like Ben Higgins, Tanner Tolbert, and Jared Haibon. One of the most memorable moments from her season was the petty feud between the final two contestants, Shawn Booth and Nick Viall. Kaitlyn chose Shawn in the end, but the pair broke up a few years later. She is now engaged to Jason Tartrick, a popular contestant from Becca Kufrin’s season.

Season 12 lead JoJo Fletcher had big shoes to fill when she was cast as The Bachelorette, but her bubbly and relatable personality made her easy to root for. Her season not only introduced her to now-husband Jordan Rodgers but introduced fans to beloved contestant Wells Adams, who is now married to Modern Family actress Sarah Hyland. Still, one of the most memorable parts of JoJo’s season was the introduction to contestant Chad Johnson, possibly the pettiest and most entertaining villain in the history of the franchise, who famously told off Chris Harrison on Bachelor In Paradise.

Hannah Brown of season 15 had one of the most interesting seasons. She was funny, relatable, and easy to root for, but her season introduced fans to all-time favorites like Mike Johnson and Tyler Cameron. Her season’s villain, Luke Parker, is probably the most hated contestant of all time. From gaslighting Hannah to picking fights with other contestants, nobody was sad to see him go.

Hannah’s season also had an explosive ending when she chose Jed Wyatt over Tyler Cameron in the end. It was later revealed that Jed had a girlfriend before coming on the show and getting engaged to Hannah, only for them to break up on camera after his secret was revealed.

This era also introduced fans to the hit spinoff, Bachelor In Paradise. While the previous spinoff, Bachelor Pad, only aired for three seasons, Bachelor In Paradise has aired for eight, with the ninth season expected to air in September of 2023. The show allows contestants from previous seasons a second chance at love at a stunning villa in Mexico. Each week, the men and women switch out handing out roses while more members enter the villa to stir up drama. This leads to plenty of love triangles and petty arguments but also creates some beautiful love stories. Bachelor In Paradise has introduced some of the most iconic couples of the franchise, like Jade Roper and Tanner Tolbert, Ashley Iaconetti and Jared Haibon, Hannah Godwin and Dylan Barbour, and Joe Amabile and Serena Pitt.

Of the 34 couples that have formed on Bachelor In Paradise that either left together or engaged, 13 are still together. Three couples divorced, four remain married, five remain engaged, and the other four are still dating. While the success rate is far from perfect, it’s much better than the relationships formed on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.

The Scandal That Broke The Bachelor

It’s safe to say that the golden era of The Bachelor franchise ended when the Covid-19 pandemic began in March 2020. Clare Crawley was announced as The Bachelorette during the finale of Peter Weber’s season of The Bachelor, only to be postponed by the pandemic. Clare’s season was filmed in the summer of 2020 in a hotel and, uneventfully, she choose Dale Moss as her winner a few weeks into filming. The show then brought out Tayshia Adams as the new lead, who ended the season engaged to Zac Clark. Both engagements have since ended.

While this season was arguably the least captivating, it’s safe to say that this was the beginning of the end for other reasons. When Matt James’ season of The Bachelor aired in January 2021, nobody could have predicted that this season would bring the biggest scandal in the history of the franchise. Matt made history when he was cast for being the first black lead of The Bachelor, adding more pressure for him to succeed even before cameras started rolling.

From the first episode, it was clear that Rachael Kirkconnell was a front-runner. She was kind, beautiful, and seemed to be genuinely interested in Matt, but it didn’t take long for her controversial past to come to light. Fans were quick to uncover photos of Rachael wearing a hoop skirt at an Old South party from her college days in 2018, and the racist undertones of the party theme led many to question her character. Rachael would later confirm that she was uncomfortable with the party theme and left to go to the beach with friends after the photos were taken, but this was only the start of the scandal.

On February 9, 2021, host Chris Harrison went on Extra to discuss the scandal. Host and former Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay, who was the first black lead of The Bachelorette, asked him his thoughts on the photos, and Chris was quick to say that fans should give Rachael grace since they don’t know all of the details of the situation yet. He also asked if “it was not a good look in 2018, or not a good look in 2021?”

It’s safe to say that the timing of this conversation couldn't have been worse as the BLM movement was gaining traction and people were already agitated by the Covid lockdowns. Nonetheless, Chris could have done a better job articulating his thoughts to make the conversation more productive. But the damage was done, and Chris announced that he was "stepping aside" from the franchise.

The scandal got deeper when the finale aired, and fans learned that Matt picked Rachael in the end. He didn’t propose, but the two continued dating after the season wrapped. They broke up due to the scandal but got back together shortly after, and are still dating to this day.

Chris Harrison announced that he was leaving the franchise for good in June 2021, marking the end of an era. Regardless of what you think of the scandal, it’s safe to say that many believe that Chris Harrison shouldn’t have had to leave the show over this, which is reflected in the drop in ratings and Instagram followers for both leads and contestants.

The Rise of Influencer Culture

The golden age of The Bachelor coincided with the rise of influencer culture and Instagram. It was common to see contestants gain large followings, with popular contestants and leads getting hundreds of thousands of followers overnight. This sprouted the social media careers of many favorites of the franchise, particularly Kaitlyn Bristowe and Tyler Cameron. Kaitlyn has maintained her status as a fan-favorite lead through her podcast and various brands, while Tyler’s career as a model and influencer skyrocketed after he was eliminated from Hannah Brown’s season. Many saw going on the show as an easy way to Instagram fame, but it’s not that way anymore.

In the golden age of the franchise, female leads had no trouble getting more than or at least close to a million followers on Instagram. The numbers were comparable in the early days of the post-Chris Harrison era, but have been showing a steady decline since: Katie Thurston has 747k followers, Michelle Young has 680k followers, Rachel Recchia has 529k followers, Gabby Windey has one million followers (she likely has a larger following than the others because she used to be an NFL cheerleader and went on Dancing with the Stars after her stint on The Bachelorette), and Charity Lawson has 141k followers. The trend is the same with popular female contestants – it wasn’t hard for many of the popular contestants to reach at least half a million followers, while the most popular female contestant from the post-Chris Harrison era, Susie Evans of Clayton Echard’s season, only has 390k followers. 

The trend is similar among male leads and contestants. The men almost always have fewer followers than the women, but most male leads and popular contestants didn’t have a hard time breaking 400k or 600k followers during the franchise’s heyday. When it comes to this era’s leads, Clayton Echard has 271k followers and Zach Shallcross has 216k. While some popular contestants like Greg Grippo have 373k followers, season 19 fan-favorite Johnny DePhillipo has 126k followers. It’s even worse for Charity’s season, as fan-favorite and front-runner Joey Graziadei only has 28.7k followers. 

So what changed? While most fans know that many contestants sign up for the show for followers, there has always been an unspoken agreement to keep that part quiet, but some contestants don’t do that anymore, which irritates fans. Suzana Somers, founder of the viral Instagram page Bachelor Data, believes this plays a role in the decline of followers. She told Time magazine, “I think people have a greater sense of ownership on who they want to follow and whether or not they give that person a platform.”

A perfect example of this is Brendan Morais and Pieper James on the seventh season of Bachelor In Paradise. Rumors spread that the two were together before the show started filming, but Brendan showed up on the first week of the show to start pursuing other women. When Pieper arrived the next week, both were caught on camera talking about their follower counts. This, and the fact that both Brendan and Pieper were cruel to other contestants on the show, led them to lose tens of thousands of followers. This goes to show that if you break the unspoken rule of speaking of going on the show for Instagram followers, fans will rebel by unfollowing you.

It could be a coincidence that this season was when follower counts started to drop, but it’s also when viewership started to drop, and you can easily argue that the firing of Chris Harrison led to so many viewers tuning out.

Where The Bachelor Stands Today 

After Chris Harrison left, the next two seasons of The Bachelorette were hosted by former leads Kaitlyn Bristowe and Tayshia Adams before former Bachelor Jesse Palmer took over Chris Harrison’s job as host during Clayton Echard’s season of The Bachelor.

Clayton’s season was uneventful until the controversial finale, where he told three women he loved them and was sexually intimate with two of them. Contestant Susie Evans self-eliminated after finding out that Clayton had sex with the other two remaining contestants, Rachel Recchia and Gabby Windey. Clayton apologized to both women, only to backtrack a few days later, and sent both Rachel and Gabby home to try to win Susie back. After Susie rejected Clayton, he became the first Bachelor in history to leave the show single.

Susie and Clayton got back together after filming ended, only to break up after a year of dating. Rachel and Gabby went on to become the leads for the next season of The Bachelorette, which was controversial due to the two women competing for the affection of the contestants. Both Rachel and Gabby ended the season engaged, but both engagements were called off within a few months.

This brings us to the most recent seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Zach Shallcross’ season of The Bachelor was deemed “boring” by fans, and it’s reflected in its historically low ratings. His season was followed by Charity Lawson’s season of The Bachelorette, which is currently airing. While Charity’s season has been entertaining so far, the ratings are continuing to plummet.

From a fan’s perspective, it’s safe to say that the show isn’t the same, and it’s a shame. Personally, Zach’s season wasn’t my favorite, but was far from my least favorite, and I’m happy that he and his fiancée Kaity Biggar (who he proposed to at the end of the show) are still together and appear to be happy. What makes me truly sad is that Charity deserves better. She’s beautiful, sweet, fun, and relatable, and would have had no trouble breaking a million followers and creating a lasting platform for herself if she had been the lead a few years ago. Her season has been entertaining with charming contestants and the most annoying villain since Luke Parker graced our screens to gaslight Hannah Brown in 2019.

According to Newsweek, the first season of The Bachelor had an average of 10 million viewers (Sean’s season also had around 10 million viewers) an episode, while Zach’s season averaged 2.9 million. When it comes to The Bachelorette, Trista’s season averaged 16.7 million viewers an episode. Katie Thurston’s season (which was the first without Chris Harrison) averaged 3.4 million viewers. Charity’s season is averaging 1.9 million viewers an episode, a 60% decrease from Gabby and Rachel’s season.

While ratings had been declining for the franchise for a while, it seems that Chris Harrison’s departure was the last straw for many fans, which is understandable. He was the host of every season in the history of the franchise until 2021, arguably making him the face of the franchise. Love him or hate him, it’s clear that the show isn’t the same without him. While Jesse Palmer is likable and is clearly trying his best, he’s not Chris Harrison, and that’s a problem. Chris Harrison himself has thrown shade at the franchise for the decline in ratings and has noticed the show has changed, which is sad coming from the man who was the face of one of the most popular shows on reality television for nearly two decades.

While The Bachelor franchise is now competing with other popular dating shows like Love Is Blind and Love Island, there’s still a chance it can make a comeback. The franchise recently announced its long-awaited new spinoff, The Golden Bachelor, which is set to air this fall and has already been a hot topic among Millennials. With the positive comments from fans on Instagram, there’s a chance that the Bachelor franchise might take back the crown for the most popular dating show soon.

Closing Thoughts

From its early days as an escapist dating show to a cultural phenomenon to a pop culture relic, the Bachelor franchise has an interesting history full of ups and downs. With other dating shows like Love Is Blind and Love Island here to compete, the Bachelor franchise appears to be the show of the past. But, can a spinoff geared toward an older demographic save the franchise? 

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