What could a modern Pinoy dating show look like?

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At a time when dating shows are being reimagined for contemporary audiences, is there room for a local dating series? Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It’s a tale as old as television. Since “The Dating Game” premiered on ABC in 1965, we’ve been watching would-be couples go through highly mediated courtship rituals from the comfort of our homes.

This seminal show featured a contestant interviewing three would-be suitors through a partition. The suitors were encouraged to disparage one another in the hopes of positioning themselves as the final choice. The show was a success and ended its fourth and final run in 1999.

The 2000s introduced increasingly deranged twists to the genre: from the process of elimination on “The Bachelor,” to the reveal on “Joe Millionaire” that the “millionaire” contestants were competing to date was a blue-collar worker, to the all-nude premise of shows like “Dating Naked” and “Adam Seeks Eve” (which both had seasons shot on beaches in the Philippines. Pinoy Pride?). The higher stakes and the staggering twists fit right in with the sensationalism of reality television during that decade. However, through a contemporary lens, it’s easy to see that many of the emotional tactics at play were extremely manipulative and often unethical.

Why have we never seen the genre attempted on Philippine television? And what could a Filipino dating show look like? To answer these questions, we look to the way dating shows have evolved to fit today’s audience and the existing dynamics within Filipino reality shows.

Popular dating shows that have emerged over the last couple of years share their predecessors’ core DNA but attempt to course-correct some of the shortcomings of the past.

The eighth season of MTV’s “Are You The One?” in 2019 was the first to feature a completely bisexual and pansexual cast. The show typically assigns “scientific matches” at the start of the show which the participants must guess over the course of their time together, but this new dynamic increased the number of possible combinations and gave the show space to create a more nuanced conversation on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

Netflix’s “Love Is Blind” has its contestants interact in adjacent rooms, literally unable to see one another until one of them proposes. The rest of the show is a fast-tracked trip to the altar. “Too Hot To Handle,” another Netflix show, hinges on its contestants’ abstinence, gradually decreasing the prize money if these participants engage in any sexual activity. “Dating Around” ditches a lot of the genre’s most over-dramatic tropes and acts as more of a cinematic meta-commentary on modern dating, intercutting one person’s date with several partners, as if they’re all happening at the same time.

Chemistry experiments

By design, every dating show tests its own hypothesis on love. “Love Is Blind” asks whether love trumps physical attraction — and if that initial bond can survive until the wedding; “Too Hot To Handle” pits sexual attraction against monetary gain; “Dating Around” dissects the process of attraction (or aversion) that happens over the course of a date; “Are You The One?” very literally spends a season testing out its ideal romantic pairings.

And while it’s entertaining to put these facets of love under a microscope, the nature of “reality” in reality television is always subject to question. As Miranda Popkey explains in an essay on “Love Is Blind” for The New Yorker, “Unfortunately, the fiction that these programs are capturing anything resembling ‘reality’ is now almost impossible to manufacture. Participants on reality television shows now know both what to expect (isolation, sleep deprivation, misleading edits) and what is expected of them (tears, fights, anything else that might fall under the rubric of ‘drama’). Consciously or unconsciously, they tailor their behavior accordingly.”

She adds, “It sounds like a tautology, but it’s not: only people who want to be on reality television now appear on reality television.”

In his essay, “Playing For Celebrity: Big Brother as Ritual Event,” communications scholar Nick Couldry studied the very first U.K. season of “Big Brother” and tried to grapple with the nature of early '00s reality T.V. as both fictional (constructed and consumed as a narrative) and real (a space for participants and viewers to gain life insight). He says, “The media were both fictional space and window onto reality. There is no need for the media to resolve such ambiguities, since it is precisely on such ambiguities that the media’s symbolic authority relies.”

This is to say that as constructed as dating shows may be, as unlikely as it may be that these people will end up together once the cameras stop rolling, that isn’t the only thing that matters. Dating shows are far less interesting for the possibility of whether these relationships can last outside the show, but more for the examination of human behavior in a petri dish.

Local love stories

Aside from the dating segments in '90s noontime shows, local TV has briefly dipped its feet in romantic reality shows. In 2010, GMA aired “Take Me Out” based on the Australian dating show “Taken Out.” It’s a compressed form of "The Bachelor" where a person has to impress prospective matches and pick one for a date at the end of the game. The show had Jay R and Gladys Guevarra as hosts and eventually featured celebrity guests such as Carla Abellana, Luis Alandy, and Venus Raj, looking for a date. ABS-CBN also had “I Do,” which functioned more as a prescriptive couples counselling challenge show with Judy Ann Santos and Jayson Gainza. The winning couple took home ₱1 million pesos, a house, and their dream wedding.

But perhaps the most recognizable model we could have for a modern dating show in the Philippines is “Pinoy Big Brother” (PBB). Over the course of 14 seasons since 2005, the local franchise of the Dutch show has become a touchstone of Filipino reality television, launching careers of stars such as Gerald Anderson, Kim Chiu, James Reid, and Maymay Entrata. The show creates a similar petri dish to dating shows, keeping contestants holed up in the same “house” for months on end, slowly eliminating housemates via audience votes until there’s a winner. Even if it was never designed as a dating show, part of the show’s appeal is in the capacity for housemates to develop cabin fever and become intimate with one another.

It’s in the framework of “PBB” that we can find what could make for an exciting Filipino dating reality show. It’s clear that local audiences respond well to romantic narratives. “PBB: Teen Edition 1” famously pitted Gerald Anderson and Mikee Lee against each other for season winner Kim Chiu’s affections. After the show, Anderson and Chiu became a real-life couple and an onscreen love team.

However, it’s also in the show’s shortcomings and scandals that we see the roadblocks to a more romance-centered reality show coming to the Philippines. The show has been a lighting rod for criticism from all sides since its inception. Conservatives were so appalled by the sexual undertones in its first season that an MTRCB suspension put a temporary stop to the show. Marginalized groups have been critical of its portrayal of women, Indigenous groups, and the LGBTQIA+ community over the course of its 14-year run.

While a new show would have the potential to do its subjects justice with a nuanced portrayal and discussion of gender roles, SOGIE (sexual orientation and gender identity expression) and cultural sensitivities, it needs to also hold up against the conservative backlash that faces “PBB” every time its contestants so much as kiss onscreen. It’s a tough line to walk for a dating show that’s built on real-life intrigue between prospective couples.

Another factor to consider is that the Western dating conventions most dating shows are built on are culturally incompatible with traditional Filipino “panliligaw.” While contemporary Filipinos definitely date around, traditional beliefs could get in the way of an audience getting behind one of these formats directly adapted with Filipino contestants. “Love Is Blind” is impossible here. Who would agree to get married in the high-pressure environment of a reality show when there’s no option to divorce your T.V. spouse afterwards? Good luck getting a show like “Are You The One?” or “Too Hot To Handle” past the MTRCB. “Dating Around” feels like the most socially acceptable model among contemporary shows and even then feels a little too niche for a T.V. channel to bank on.

If we’re ever to have a local dating show in the Philippines, it’ll have to be built from the ground up, taking our specific context in full consideration. However, just as “PBB” has offered a generation of cultural conversation (as well as satiating viewers’ need for voyeurism and rubbernecking), a dating show would be a fascinating cultural document of how Filipino love unfolds (under the scrutiny of a T.V. crew and millions of viewers). It has the potential to become a space for both enthralling narratives and rich cultural insight, and it’ll be worth seeing someday if it ever comes to be.