In 2014, TLC unleashed a beast, a beast even executives at the network weren't fully prepared for. The network, known for launching the Duggars to fame and taking a look at strange addictions, introduced viewers to couples going through the K-1 visa process on 90 Day Fiancé in January 2014. Now, seven seasons and several spinoffs later, 90 Day is not only a ratings hit, but it has also secured its place in pop culture.
Alon Orstein, TLC's senior vice president of production and development, said network brass had a feeling the show was something special when they were developing it, they sent it straight to series, but the real surprise came after it premiered.
"I think we were surprised at how much it's really kind of immersed in the zeitgeists now," he said.
"We were talking the other day just internally about how so many people come up to us—and we've had this happen in the past with some of our other shows that kind of hit that zeitgeisty moment—but we have friends and family members and just random people you might run into in the grocery store or a hairdresser, when they hear you work at TLC go, 'Oh my gosh, I love 90 Day Fiancé,'" Orstein continued.
Orstein said almost immediately the show developed an audience on social, and they've been "pleasantly surprised" at how the show has been able to break through the ever-growing glut of TV programming. In fact, the franchise is still adding to the television landscape.
With 90 Day Fiancé proper, Before the 90 Days, Happily Ever After?, The Other Way and new miniseries 90 Day Fiancé: Just Landing, Orstein said there are still ways the franchise could expand. "We feel there's still elements to be explored beyond where we're at right now. Don't know what those will be yet, but we do feel like there's still opportunities," he said.
So, what goes into making one of reality TV's most successful franchises? We've got the scoop.
IS IT REALLY REAL?
Every year the same accusations get leveled, especially with some of the more, uh, May-December romances, and viewers don't believe the couples are legit. They do their social media sleuthing; they pull out receipts. But Orstein wants to assure viewers it's not staged or faked at all.
"We strive so hard to track to the authentic journeys of all of these people. It's in fact something we take so seriously, again not even just on 90 Day, on a lot of what we do on TLC," he said, noting that sometimes they work to find a time and place to shoot a conversation, but the conversation remains genuine.
"The real calling card of TLC and certainly with 90 Day Fiancé is that it is authentic. We're not putting these couples together; these people aren't actors. These are real people and it's all about individuals looking for ‘the one.' And sometimes it's across thousands of miles and sometimes they haven't known each other for very long, but these are all people who have connected on their own and we want to be that fly on the wall who's along for the ride," he said.
THE SCREENING PROCESS
According Orstein, the whole interview and screen process for casting varies.
"Sometimes it could be super short because we could interview someone that we really liked and something is instantly happening, particularly on [Before the 90 Days] and, and sometimes on The Other Way, where, 'Hey, I'm going. I'm going to meet this person,' or, 'I'm going to meet move to this other country and I'm on this timeline and I really need to keep it.' And we want to honor that," Orstein said.
Other times, TLC and production might be on the fence about a couple or need more information and want to meet the friends and families of potential cast members to really get a feel for what they'd be working with and to answer additional questions.
"So, it can really run the gamut. Someone could be in the casting pipeline for a decent amount of time or someone could be very short before we go launching into production," he said.
Part of the interview process is determining whether these people are on the show for the right reasons.
"I would broaden this even beyond 90 Day Fiancé because we used to be concerned about this on some of our other shows, particularly anthology shows...things like My Strange Addiction, or those where we just wanted to make sure that no one was trying to either get on the show for a lark or get on the show to advance their presence in some way, shape or form," he said. "So, we are always certainly checking folks out, but also asking a lot of the relevant questions to make sure that this is an authentic journey, this is a real relationship. Of course, we do background checks and social checks and all of those things, but we're also really—through a lot of questioning in the casting process—doing everything we can to try to make sure that there are for the right reasons."
90 DAY DANGERS
The nature of 90 Day Fiancé means production crews travel all over the world, sometimes to some remote and high-risk areas of foreign countries. In Brazil, while cameras were up on cast members Paul and Karine, they came in contact with a machete-wielding man. Orstein said behind the scenes they have measures in place.
"We are incredibly serious about making sure that crew, couples, their families, etc., are safe at all times. It is number one priority, whether we're in the US or abroad. Certainly, if we're in a dicey area abroad we have producers and security and are really making sure that we're doing everything we can to mitigate risk," he said.
Regarding the specific moment with Paul and Karine, Orstein said they were all surprised when they heard about it and even more shocked when they finally saw the footage. "It happens. It's happened enough on shows in the US in places that weren't maybe as risky as where we were in Brazil at that time. So, you never know when something might happen along those lines. But we are very careful, particularly because we're traveling to some countries which may have higher risk than others. It's something that we spend a lot of time, particularly Sharp Entertainment, the production company, making certain that they're dotting all their I's and crossing all their T's, taking protective measures," he said.
CROSSING THE LINE
During season three of Before the 90 Days, some viewers wondered why production didn't intervene with Caesar and his long-distance girlfriend Maria. To viewers at home, it seemed clear he was being taken advantage of. Is there a line in which producers and behind-the-scenes players ever get involved? Orstein said they "try not to interfere in the natural course of things outside of the emergency situations" or if they are "compelled to get involved in some way, shape or form for legal reasons or whatnot."
"Certainly, we are very sensitive to the needs of individuals, if people need support if people need guidance, in some way we would like to provide that," he said. "I think each situation is probably different and it's probably case by case as to when production would get involved."
If there was a physical altercation, then production would intervene. A verbal one? It depends. "It's not necessarily our place to interfere with that," he said. "So, it does vary case by case, and I think the crews and the very strong production personnel that are on this show have a really good sense of when to step in and when to not."
AFTER THE 90 DAYS
What happens to couples after their 90-day journey is done? Orstein said they take prepping cast for dealing with press, fame and any emotional trauma that may have happened on screen "very seriously."
"There is prep on the front end, as far as when folks are first getting into it because these are regular people who haven't been exposed to this kind of situation in the past—being on television social media—all of that stuff," he said. "And we provide support throughout, both TLC and Sharp, as far as just making sure people are comfortable. If people do reach out or we feel that they might need help for whatever reason, we will do so. And then again, after filming as well, we still want to be able to provide support and access to resources if need be for anyone who we feel might need it."
90 Day Fiancé season seven is airing Sundays, 8 p.m. on TLC. Before the 90 Days season four premieres Sunday, Feb. 23 on TLC.