Steve Carbone, the man best known as Reality Steve, emailed me back no more than a minute after I sent him a note asking to interview him. “Sure. No problem. How do you want to do this?” the email read, sent from his iPhone. Carbone is nothing if not plugged in, and as the man who famously spends his days “spoiling” ABC’s The Bachelor, The Bachelorette and subsequent spin-offs, his connectivity has paid off.
There’s really no one doing what Carbone does, even outside of The Bachelor franchise. He got his start with an email newsletter, which turned into a blog about the show in 2003, before getting his big break in 2009 during Jason and Molly’s dramatic season, when a tipster told him that Jason was going to dump Melissa after the finale and get together with Molly. Millions of pageviews followed.
Carbone has gotten the bulk of his press for reporting on who each lead picks before it airs—though he just scored his own profile in The New York Times written by Jon Caramanica—but his process and purpose doesn’t get a ton of attention outside the Bachelor universe. His life mission is essentially to break down the fantasy of reality television, shedding light on the complex relationship between producers and contestants, between the network and the production company (he’s been sued twice for doing just that). Carbone’s made some missteps, and he’s transparent about what he gets wrong in a way that the smoke-and-mirrors television shows he writes about are not (and in a way most journalists avoid): At the end of last season of The Bachelorette, Carbone mistakenly predicted Bachelorette Kaitlyn would pick no one, before Kaitlyn accidentally spoiled her own ending in a Snapchat gone wrong. Carbone quickly covered the news, but noted that the major gossip publications who devote covers to these contestants not-so-mysteriously did not.
In advance of tonight’s premiere of Ben Higgins’s season of The Bachelor (which marks the 20th season of the show), I talked with Carbone about how many contestants have sex before the Fantasy Suite, the racial makeup of the show’s cast, how he’s trying to be like Bill Simmons, and why he doesn’t read recaps by bloggers who don’t read the spoilers. Fittingly, spoilers for this season are included below. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
I wanted to talk to you because I’ve always gotten the sense that to you, the show wouldn’t be interesting without trying to figure out how it’s made as a product, which I feel similarly. It’s fascinating to try to understand how it’s manipulated.
Apple MacBook Air Laptop
The M1 chip delivers 3.5x faster performance than the previous generation all while using way less power. Get up to 18 hours of battery life.
It’s the same with me. People ask, “Do you like the show?” And it’s like, no, if it wasn’t my job, I wouldn’t watch it.
It seems like you write about it with a distance and a lack of passion. I think you probably won’t agree with this characterization, but when I read your work, I see you as a very nontraditional journalist.
Oh I wouldn’t consider myself a journalist at all.
The way you talk about cultivating sources and the way you won’t reveal certain information because you don’t want to burn people is very journalistic. What’s your take on that aspect of your job?
It’s weird because I have a college degree, but it was in communications. I was not a journalism major. I just started blogging. Trista’s season was the first one I started blogging about and it started out as an email and it just got bigger and then once I got the Jason spoiler it took off from there, but I never expected this.
I feel sort of an obligation that this is what I need to do because nobody out there on the internet is doing it. I don’t have any competition out there for spoilers because the major entertainment sites, the TVGuide.com, EW.com, Us Weekly, People, they’re all in bed with ABC. So the second they start spoiling as a headline—“Ben chooses Lauren”—they’ll be cut off from everything, and they’re not going to get it. So the only person that can do it is a blogger. I don’t have any connections to Hollywood, I’m just literally a one-man operation with a computer in my home in Dallas that happens to get a lot of information about this show. I think after spoiling for six years and getting a lot of stuff right, I think people just come to accept, okay, if Reality Steve has it, there’s a good chance it’s true. You have to have some sort of credibility built into you. I think my site has done that.
It seems like you found a community that wasn’t being served, but that you were also pretty self-taught. How do you get your information?
Honestly, it varies every season. Before every season starts, I don’t know where I’m getting my information from yet, but I know it’s coming. If you tape your show in advance, it’s just impossible for stuff not to get out.
Yeah, and they tape it pretty far in advance, at least at the beginning of each season.
I can say—and I’ve admitted this in other interviews—a lot of it is crowdsourcing. People just want to tell me stuff; they like feeling like part of this spoiling community. I don’t think people are out to screw me over, although I do get a little paranoid and I do have to vet out everybody that tells me something. For the most part, I know the stuff that I’m told just by what I’m told and the details of what I’m told. I’m like, nobody’s going to go out of their way to make this up, this is too detailed, it has to be true. And so I go with that. But you know, I’ve been wrong sometimes.
So it’s more gut instinct than you might think.
Yeah, and I think I’ve gotten good. Initial contact is usually over email and I’ve gotten better at just telling on an email whether or not it’s bullshit. And 95 percent of the stuff I get isn’t. But there’s the occasional ones that come in and it’s just like one sentence, two sentences, there’s no periods, there’s misspellings; I don’t take that as seriously as someone who takes the time to write me out a couple paragraphs. Everyone’s got motivations and I’ve gotta look into those sometimes, but for the most part, the easiest way to describe it is people just like to tell me stuff and [they know] they’re safe to tell me stuff.
You’re also as transparent as possible to your readers about your wins and losses and process, and have been from the beginning. Why did you start off that way?
This goes back to my radio days, when I was in sports talk radio: you never know when somebody is listening for the first time, and I took that over to the site. I know I’m repetitive, but I do that because I know that every single day somebody is probably on my site for the first time and has no clue what I’ve done in the past.
I don’t like to be wrong. I’ve hated being wrong on the endings I’ve been wrong on. But some people are conspiracy theorists and think I do it on purpose to keep people coming to site. It’s like, I don’t need to do that to keep people coming to the site. I have never purposefully put out a wrong spoiler, I never would. I’m very transparent about who I am. It’s why I have such an issue with message boards and comments sections because anybody can say anything and not have to deal with the repercussions. I’m out here with my Facebook page, my Twitter account, my Instagram, my email address is out there on every single column that I post. If you have an issue with me, I can be reached, as opposed to somebody who says anything on a message board or a comment section that nobody holds accountable.
Well it seems like it only benefits your work to be as transparent as possible.
Yeah. If I was just spoiling and nobody knew my name and I didn’t respond to emails it’d be like, “Well, he’s giving us this info, but this is just weird.” I had my 40th birthday in Vegas and I had 50 strangers show up this past year, which was really bizarre. And the people that were there could tell you, when I got up in front of the room to talk everybody for coming, I got choked up. I’m at my 40th birthday and I have 50 people in this room that I do not know; they came because of me and my writing. It was a surreal experience.
How do you see the site developing going forward?
The foundation of my site has always been recapping The Bachelor and Bachelorette and making fun of it, and I think that will always be there. I think the future of the site will probably go into more video stuff and starting up some sort of podcasting.
Longform reading is tough. Bill Simmons is probably what I’ve structured everything around; I don’t know the guy, but I’ve just been a Bill Simmons fan for years and seen what he’s done with his empire, and I don’t think I’m ever going to get to that level [with] longform writing.
Getting back to the show: I read everything out there, spoilers included. Whether I include it or not as the season is progressing, it is totally informing the writing that I’m doing and the way I’m watching the show. I don’t want to mislead our readers—my angle is always to be like, okay, what the real deal behind this incredibly financially successful franchise? But I know most people who write about it probably don’t look at it that way.
Yeah, it’s almost frustrating for me to read [recaps that don’t acknowledge spoilers]. Because inevitably, in that recap, they will say something that is just like, well, you’d know this if you read spoilers! It’s frustrating to read stuff like that. But I understand. I’ve said this in many interviews that I’ve done: there are still way more people out there that don’t know of me and of spoilers than do in terms of the viewing audience of the show. So I get it, there are plenty of people who turn on their TV for two hours on Monday night and then never follow and never read and never go on the internet in terms of this show and want to find stuff out and then seven days later it comes back on their screen for two hours and they don’t think about the show outside of the two hours that it’s on. And that’s the majority of their audience and not the minority.
In ABC’s ideal universe they want people to be talking about the show in between every Monday night episode. So it’s in their best interest to have people be obsessed enough that they’re doing brackets and following the contestants on Twitter and talking about it on Facebook, and your spoilers would help that, but they’ve also sued you for them.
Oh yeah, social media has played a huge role in the staying power of this show, just because they get their fans engaged. On Twitter every Monday night, Bachelor and Bachelorette is always a trending topic and that’s really what they care about, getting the audience engaged. If people are talking about it, whether or not they’re hate-tweeting about it or not, they’re watching, and that’s all that matters to them.
Which is super interesting, especially given this past season, because obviously Kaitlyn’s ending was spoiled the most any season has been by her social media presence. I wonder what you think about that fact that the producers have to walk this fine line between fearing it but also having to embrace it because they know it’s changing both how the show is made and received.
Kaitlyn’s was obviously something that could have been avoided. She screwed up. I don’t know if it’s actually written into the contract, but obviously there are 24 girls and 24 guys that don’t win every season, but you can’t not go back home and live your life. Everyone’s got to head back to work at some point—well, not anymore, these people make money off Twitter and Instagram—but for the most part you have to go back to work and live your life. You are basically told, “Look, you can’t go out on dates and post pictures with your new boyfriend while the show is airing. You have to keep up this sense of hey, I’m still in the running for Ben.”
I don’t know about girls on the first or second episode. If they did post something with a boyfriend, I don’t think the show would care. In fact, one of the girls from night one this year has already posted something with a new guy. But she was eliminated on night one. But if we get to the end and we’re talking about girls like Joelle and Amanda and Kayla, if they posted something on Instagram out on a date or in a Snapchat or something like that, and it got out, once again, there’s really nothing the show can do other than, “Hey, you gotta be more careful.”
But what Kaitlyn did essentially ruined her whole season and ruined her whole show. But they know that probably the majority of their audience has no idea what Snapchat is and didn’t see the story, and there’s nothing they can do at that point. She didn’t get in trouble for it other than, I heard, a tongue-lashing.
Her explanation later on was that she was sending that photo of her and Shawn to the producers. I’m a big fan of Lifetime’s UnREAL and I know you are too, and that show made it very clear that there’s arguably much more interesting relationship dynamics happening between the cast and the crew than is depicted there. All that behind the scenes stuff is really shaping the way they make decisions. They’re at odds, but at the same time they’re very close.
I’ve said it for awhile now and obviously in speaking to former contestants who have been on the show, these producers’ jobs is to make you think they are your best friend. Whether that takes alcohol or just being there for you at all times and whatever, it’s their job to get you to put your trust into them and then turn right around and fuck you over with the information that you gave them and opened yourself to them. That’s their job and that’s why they’re slime. That’s what UnREAL tried to portray. As likable as Rachel was, she didn’t like what she did, but she knew it was how she got paid.
It is an interesting dynamic; especially because we’re 31 seasons in now: You would think more people would know not to do stuff, but I’ve heard from contestants themselves. They’re just like, yeah, I knew they were trying to do that but I just gave them what they wanted because I wanted to go to bed. Like, they literally will not let you sleep. They won’t let you go to bed until you give them what they want on camera. And some of them [will say], I knew what I was saying was dumb or I shouldn’t have said that, but I was just so tired, it was three in the morning, they wouldn’t let me go to bed, so I just just gave them what they wanted. And at the time they’re not thinking that four months later when that airs, oh crap, that’s going to have some ramifications on me on social media and people are going to be talking about it. You’re not thinking about it when it’s three in the morning and you want to go to bed.
It ends up seeming that the closer you get to the end of the show, the closer a contestant ends up being to the producers, even talking to them later on after the show has stopped airing. Like Chris Harrison officiated the wedding of producers Pete and Cassie and there were all these contestants there. The contestants are all being screwed over but then they forgive them eventually.
They just don’t want to burn bridges with that show and they know if they keep in good graces, they still have the ability to be on another show, which is Bachelor in Paradise. It’s somewhat more realistic to meet somebody on that show since there’s the same number of girls and guys, as opposed to fighting with 24 other women for one guy. So they don’t want to piss anybody off because it’s like, “Well, she’s a troublemaker, we don’t need her on Paradise, we can find somebody else.”
I think a lot of these people now are going on the show knowing, alright, my chances of finding my husband on this show are very slim, but I have three things: I can build my brand and start making money off product placement on Instagram. Two, odds are that I will be The Bachelorette if I last long enough. And three, if not, I can go on Paradise and possibly continue my fame, increase my brand, and possibly meet somebody to date from the franchise. That’s why I think a lot of them, when they first get off the show they’re probably pissed off at the producers, like, “I can’t believe you did that, they told me I was going go far,” or whatever—which they do all the time, and then they’re not given a rose at a Rose Ceremony. And then I think after awhile they just kind of get over it, and are like, okay, now I get it, this is a game basically. This is what happens.
Right, it’s just two sets of people using each other and the ones that have the most power are always going to come out on top. On that topic, I was going to ask you, how does it break down between how much control ABC has and how much control the production company and the producers have in shaping the vision of the show?
I think because of the success of the show, I’m pretty sure that ABC just lets them do what they do. They’re just like, you guys know what you’re doing, we’re 31 seasons in, we win our two-hour time block every Monday night for women 18 to 49. Just keep doing what you’re doing. That’s the impression I get, I have no factual evidence to back that up, but I think this show and success of it kind of proves that ABC stays out of the way and just lets them do what they do because they know how to produce good television. They know what they have to do to get certain reactions out of contestants.
It seems like on a larger level they try to walk this line between promoting this very traditional agenda—one man picks one woman—but then, for example, with Kaitlyn’s season and also with Juan Pablo’s, they had these plotlines that are centered around the so-called “sluttiness” of the women around. So where Clare and Juan Pablo fooled around in the ocean and he kind of yelled at her about that, or how in the Men Tell All Chris Harrison asked Kaitlyn about how the people who were calling her a whore on Twitter. But the show was edited to make her look kind of like a whore. They didn’t have to present it that way.
It was so hypocritical of the show to do that, and so ridiculous. And I won’t defend Kaitlyn on many things at all, but I will say that she got the short end of the stick on that because knowing what I know through former contestants, there has been sex before the Fantasy Suite plenty of times on this show. And for whatever reason, they decided to use that on a storyline on Kaitlyn’s season. She was certainly not the first Bachelorette to have sex with a contestant before the Fantasy Suite, but once it happened with Nick, that’s what the last four episodes of the show revolved around, while other girls have done it. So if you’re Kaitlyn, you’re like, why me? Why am I getting singled out for it? It did kind of suck for her because that’s where all the slut-shaming came in; she was crucified for it. Well if they would have shown it with previous Bachelorettes, you would have had that reaction then.
They chose to show that but then they say like, oh, Kaitlyn, you’re getting harassed on Twitter, we feel so bad. It doesn’t make any sense, you’re the one who did that! But they can just claim that “Well, it never happened before.” They’re just banking on their viewers’ naïveté.
I think you told former contestants Jason and Molly on their podcast a few years ago that you’ve never met the men who prominently run this show marketed to women, like Mike Fleiss or Chris Harrison, besides the lawsuits filed against you, which obviously have gone through lawyers. What do you think about them?
Like I said, I’ve never interacted with either of them. I’ve been in the same room and both of them at one time each, but nothing ever came of it, I never said anything to them, they never said anything to me, nor do I expect to. It’s just weird for me because I know they’re not who they make themselves out to be publicly, but I know they’re good at what they do. So I respect them, but through the stories that I’ve heard about what goes on on set, I don’t respect that aspect of them at all. I just think the show, just the premise of it is so silly and ridiculous and the biggest problem I have with it is that they don’t make fun of themselves enough.
It seems like they’ve sort of started to a little bit with Paradise, because they’re slightly aware of the fact that everyone is laughing at them a little.
Paradise is obviously a looser show, but in terms of the Bachelor and Bachelorette, look at how serious they try to be every season about “who can find the one.” It’s so hoaky and not necessary because they will always stand behind The Bachelor and Bachelorette. Like hey, we’re just a show that everybody dates and this is real life, this is dating—no it’s not. It’s not anywhere close to what real life dating is like. Because if—and I use this story all the time—if I started dating somebody, I would be able to talk to them and see them everyday. I could text them every night before bed, we’d have a phone conversation before bed: your show is two and a half months where the final couple maybe spends a total of 48 to 72 hours together after two and a half months and you tell them, oh by the way, you’re supposed to get engaged! And not only during that two and a half months period where you only spend three days total with this person if you add all the minutes and hours together, he’s also dating somebody else the whole time—multiple people! So the concept is so utterly ridiculous but then stand behind it: this show is about love, a journey, or whatever, it’s such crap. And they don’t ever get away from that. I think they need to not take themselves so seriously.
Chris Harrison’s entire presentation of himself is about believing that the show works and that he loves helping create these relationships with people. Do you believe that that’s true?
No, I think that’s just him being a mouthpiece for the show. He has to say that. He’s the host of this popular show that’s been on for 31 seasons in 12 years. I don’t take anything he says regarding the show seriously just because he’s the host. He’s the frontman. Fleiss will do interviews here and there, but Chris is going to get the most interviews and he’s going to say stuff that’s going to promote the show. But I don’t believe it for a second.
If you really want to get technical and break down his sentences when he says that, the show isn’t promoting love because this isn’t a normal way two people meet, this isn’t a normal way your first dates go, this isn’t a normal amount of time spent together. All you’re doing on this show is introducing two people. And the engagement at the end is just a product of television. I guarantee if you talk to any Bachelor lead, I guarantee every single one of them would say, “I really didn’t want to propose at the end of this thing, but it’s for TV, so you have to.” No one wants to invest two and a half months into a show to have at the end the person say, “Oh yeah, can we continue dating?” That’s not romantic or what they want to accomplish. So of course the engagement and the sunset and the overlooking the water and some guy down on his knees, that’s what women want to see. They don’t want to see, “Hey do you want to go out next Saturday? Let’s just keep seeing each other.” So I think that’s why what Chris says is garbage, a lot.
He’s also said some evasive stuff about the racial breakdown of the casting of the show. What’s your perception of their decisions there, and whether they’re missing the opportunity to get an even wider audience if they actually didn’t just cast a bunch of white people each season?
I just look around the landscape of TV, and it’s mostly white people, and all they’re doing is following the landscape of TV. Are they missing an opportunity? Probably. But we’re 31 seasons in and they haven’t changed. Maybe at some point they’ll go with a black Bachelor. UnREAL seems to be doing it for season two, which is ironic. They’ll say it, when they do interviews and they’re asked about it, they’ll say, “I think we’re heading in that direction.” But it’s just like, at what point?
Now here’s the other thing that you have to keep in mind when talking about the whole racial thing is that we all know—I think it’s now 14 consecutive seasons where the lead has been someone from a previous season that made it to essentially the top four. When you only cast one or two black people a season, the odds of having a black lead are—you’re never going to get it. So unless they get out of that box and cast outside of the franchise, which they have said they don’t plan on doing, I guess they could always change their mind, but it doesn’t seem like it’s changing anytime soon because they like to recycle. They know if they cast somebody from the previous season they already have a built-in audience because inevitably, a girl who gets to the final four, we will have seen their hometown dates, and there’s a portion of their audience that is invested in that girl, so it makes sense to make her as the lead. Now, will a black person ever get to the top four? It hasn’t happened.
What do you think Ben’s season will be like? I feel like he’s pretty boring.
It’s weird because for me, the seasons just kind of run together. It’s all the same thing with different people. So I don’t see Ben’s being really any different than… I mean the travel is different obviously than Chris’s, where they only left the country once and went to places like Mexico and South Dakota and Iowa. At least we’re going to get better travel on Ben’s season. But in terms of your girl factor and your drama factor, I think it’ll be up there with every other season.
I guess I feel like with Juan Pablo, they really distanced themselves from him when he didn’t do what they wanted him to do, and then Chris was such a clear reaction to that, like, “Let’s get a good boy.” And it seems like with Ben they’re kind of doing the same thing, he’s a dude they can rely on who’s not going to fuck things up for them.
And Juan Pablo most certainly fucked things up for them. He was given a chance and it backfired on them. With Juan Pablo, it wasn’t a great season, it was a guy that people kind of turned on, they didn’t care. At first when he was on Des’s season it was like, ohhh, hot Latin guy, but once you actually heard him speak and try to form sentences—hotness only takes you so far.
Yeah it’s funny because his season was the first time people really started reading my recaps because people hated him so much.
Really nothing that they do is going to set the show back at all. Because if it didn’t get set back by Juan Pablo, what else can you possibly do? If it’s a trainwreck and your lead is just a disaster, people are going to tune in because they want to see this disaster. I think his season was fine, ratings-wise, it’s not like they took a giant hit because of this guy, but just also, like I said, if it didn’t fail with him... It’s the formula that people are tuning in for. Who cares who they cast? It’s the formula of dates and eliminations and crying and drinking—no matter who it’s coming from, that’s what people are going to want to see.
I think the casting of the 25 contestants is way more important than the lead; the lead has nothing really to do—I don’t want to say nothing to do with the show, but when you’re talking about it with your friends the next day, you’re not going to be saying, oh did you see what Ben did last night? You’re going to be talking about the Laces and the Olivias and the Mandys of this season. They’ve perfected it enough after 31 seasons—they know who to cast and once they get that cast they know how to manipulate them to get the show that they want. And I don’t know when they’re ever going to end either. It’s really weird. Did you think in 2004 when were were watching Trista’s season we’d still be watching this show in 2015?
People are always going to want to watch other people be stupid and make out.
The contestants on this show and the reason people watch reality TV in general—these are people like me and you. These aren’t high-paid actors and actresses who lead lives that we could never imagine leading. These are just girls that happened to apply and showed up at a casting call that could have been you or your friends. And then [with] social media, you can follow them and see their beauty products and their makeup tutorials and, “oh my god I could totally be friends with someone like her” and you might even send her a tweet and she might even respond. If you send a tweet to Taylor Swift, she’s probably not going to respond. The contestants are relatable to the average person. It’s fascinating. They could go on forever. I think the only thing that would change and is if they say, we’re sick of doing it, we had a great run, we’re done.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image via ABC