On March 25, 2002, The Bachelor started its dramatic, historic journey to find love. The concept was simple: One man would meet 25 women in the hopes that he’d find the one he’d want to marry, and along the way, America would fall in love with the story, tuning in week after week to watch romantic dates and try to guess which woman would land the final rose. At least, that was the plan. But would it work? “Nothing had ever been done like that before: Survivor had only been on one season and that was it for the reality shows,” host and executive producer Chris Harrison tells EW. “There was no template for any of this.”
With that in mind, The Bachelor producers were left to their own devices to craft what has now become one of the most successful reality shows of all time. In honor of the 15-year anniversary of the show’s premiere, which featured a young Alex Michel hoping to find a wife in Malibu, EW spoke with Harrison about that first hour and how they went about creating the show that’s become a phenomenon.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So I just re-watched the premiere of Alex Michel’s season…
CHRIS HARRISON: I watched that not too long ago and I was laughing at the original intros where I’m standing like 10 yards behind Alex. You look at all the things that have become commonplace and they happened in that first episode, but not really. It wasn’t refined yet, so it was all a little loose and a little exploratory. The girls started showing up and they met Alex and then they took like 10 steps and they met me. I talked to the girls later and they were like, “Wait, who are you?” No one had ever seen the show, so they were like, “Are you another guy? Who are we going to marry and have sex with?” [Laughs] It was so weird. We were like, okay next time let’s not have me standing right behind the Bachelor.
Your opening involved a serious walk-and-talk.
The Bachelor was my first big network gig and the first walk-and-talk was like five pages of dialogue that took me from the bottom of this pool area a good 100 yards up into the house, through the house, and out the front door. I didn’t know how network TV worked and so I memorized the entire thing. Obviously they have a teleprompter but I didn’t know so I had memorized it. It was hysterical. And I’m not married anymore; my first line was “I’m a happily married man,” so that’s how dated that is.
What were some of the biggest debates you all had crafting that hour?
We had no idea what to do with the rose ceremony because it wasn’t invented yet. At first we had all the furniture in the room, so they were sitting on the couches. We were like, no, that seems too casual. So let’s have them stand up, and they’re like, that’s weird we’re all just standing for no reason. So it’s like okay, let’s put them on the stairs. They’re like no that looks like a choir performance. It was like somebody moving their Christmas tree around a room — “No, here!” “No, here!” “No, here!” It took like all night just to figure out what the rose ceremony was going to look like.
What is your more prominent memory from that night?
This was by far the biggest thing I had ever been a part of. This was my big break. I just remember being scared to death and pulling up on set in my Nissan Altima that I was driving at the time and my boss, Mike Fleiss, was standing there. I’ll never forget the first words he said to me when I pulled up the first day: He looked at me when I got out and he gave me a hug and he’s like, “Okay the host of my show can’t drive a Nissan Altima.” I said, “Well do you realize what you’re paying the host of your show? I can barely afford this.”
I had never been a part of something so big. You could feel the excitement. We were all so excited to be creating something. People have to remember, back then, none of what you see and even laugh at now existed. We had to create all the lines, all the cliches, all the things that have become part of the vernacular. It didn’t exist that first night. We did date boxes in episode one where the girls would meet me on the beach and I had a ginormous box and they would open it. It was so elaborate and so stupid and we wasted so much time. We cut it out immediately because it just made no sense. We shot so much stuff because we didn’t know what we would use.
I always forget that it was a different house.
Yeah it was a house in Malibu. I’d only been in LA a couple years and so to be shooting in Malibu, I was the redneck who had made it. I was so excited. The other thing we did, we shot everything the very first day: my intros, everything, we shot all in one day. We finished at 7 or 8 in the morning and then we turned right around and the first date started at like 8:30 in the morning. We just killed ourselves.
And there were no gimmicks! The women got out of the limo, shook his hand, and that was that.
The gimmicks didn’t start until much later. It all evolved. It was very simple. The concept was there for this one guy to meet these women and then it was more like a social experiment of maybe this will work but we really don’t know because there is no template for this.
I appreciated seeing him ask women to repeat their names.
There’s no way you’re going to remember upward of 30 names in one night, especially when it’s such a whirlwind. And back then, too, you have to give a lot of credit to Alex Michel because he truly was the guinea pig. It really was a leap of faith from this guy who trusted us with his life to go do this. There was no experience or background to show that we were capable of this or that it was going to work or that it was going to look good. But that was part of the excitement too that I have a memory of when it all began: The innocence and naiveté of all of us — from producers to cast to the crew — there was so much energy from everybody including Alex and the girls because they didn’t know what was happening because we didn’t know what was happening. There really was genuine excitement when I would go in and announce we were going someplace. Back then, there was genuine excitement and energy not knowing what was to come.
The premiere didn’t involve women “stealing” Alex away. There were a lot more group chats.
Because we didn’t know to have people steal. The “can I borrow you” or “steal you away” didn’t exist. One thing I will say that has evolved over 15 years is our skill set as producers. And not just as producers of television but as producers of love and of relationships. We are so much better at facilitating that part of the show and I think that’s why you see so many more successful couples than we had back in the day because the show really is now built to be successful. When we started, that was our hope. It was a social experiment and a great television show and we were there to entertain you and then if it worked, great. But we really don’t know how to do that yet. We were like a therapist just getting out of college: You kind of know what you’re doing but not really. We didn’t have the life experience yet. And so now I think we do have that life experience and we really are good at what we do. We’re good at creating these couples and they last.
Do you remember much about casting Alex?
I was actually one of the last pieces of the puzzle put in place. I never auditioned; I just met with the producers and I officially got the job really close to Christmas and then I was going home for Christmas with my family and we started I want to say like January 12th or 13th. It was really odd how little I knew about the show and how little I knew about Alex and the girls. I was kind of walking into it blind, so Alex and the girls had really been cast before I was attached to the show.
Has anyone found Alex at this point? Do we know where he is?
No I think he’s still on the back of the milk carton. I had heard rumors he was either in New York, Dallas, or London. That’s what we triangulated: Somewhere in that general vicinity, but I don’t know where he is. And I haven’t spoken to him. The last I saw him was at an industry event where we spoke on a panel and that was it; that’s the last I ever saw of him. Back then they didn’t even have Dancing With the Stars to perform on so they were left to their own devices.
When did you know the show would be a success?
It wasn’t the first season. The first season, ABC was not doing well in the ratings. It was the end of an era: There as NYPD Blue and According to Jim and Eight Simple Rules, and I think The George Lopez Show was on, so nothing was really killing it and all those shows were kind of at the end of their lifespan. The network was struggling and then The Bachelor came along in the spring of 2002 and it was good but it wasn’t life-changing. But something happened over the summer of 2002, from Alex Michel’s finale to the beginning of Aaron Buerge that was just this title wave. All the sudden I could tell something was different and once we really got into Aaron Buerge’s season, in the fall of 2002, I knew my life had changed. I knew this was a different show. The numbers we were pulling in were Oscar and World Series-type numbers. I wanna say Aaron Buerge’s finale had close to 30 million viewers. [Ed note: It was the show’s highest-rated episode with 25.9 million viewers.] That’s when I knew.
You weren’t driving that Nissan for much longer.
I did not drive a Nissan for much longer. I think I upgraded to a Jeep Grand Cherokee.
What’s the key to a successful night one?
The fact that it’s fresh. The show starts anew every time. Whether you loved Nick or hated Nick, it’s gone. They’re no longer a part of our show. They’re a part of our story and we will continue to keep them a part of the family and that story will continue, but we start over. Now we have Rachel and these new guys and the show stays young, which is important . It stays young and it stays relevant, and it stays fresh. That is a huge part of our success and why I’m sitting at a rose ceremony 15 years into this. I’m excited and there’s stuff happening that’s never happened before. I’m as into it now as I was 15 years ago and that shouldn’t happen. I should be jaded and I really shouldn’t care about this franchise anymore, but I do. I love it and I can’t get enough of it. I get sentimental and cry when people get engaged and get married and have babies. I just love it.
I would like to apologize to the Bachelors and Bachelorettes that came before the big bank account, when the exotic dates were like driving down to Malibu or going up to San Francisco. Now we’re in Bora Bora and Thailand and Finland. Trista never lets me forget that!
At least she found true love.
I always credit her for being the godmother of the franchise. I don’t know if we would be here today without her. You have to have that tipping point. The show was good but you have to have that. She was that tipping point that validated everything we were doing and made everybody in our audience believe and realize what we’re doing is legit. I think if we had done five or six seasons and never had a successful couple, it probably would’ve waned. But instead, she legitimized everything we were doing and then we were off and running.
That’s probably the most romantic finale. I’m a sucker for the old days but that was probably the most romantic. And by the way, back then you didn’t even know: We got to that moment and we thought, wait, who proposes? How does this work? It was the first Bachelorette ever and she has the power but then we thought a woman still wants to be proposed to and a gentleman should propose. All these debates that we’ve had over the years that now you don’t think twice about, but back then there had to be a discussion of, okay who’s going to get down on one knee: Is it her or is it him? How history could’ve been changed!