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Formats Unpacked: Married At First Sight Australia
How a reality show built accountability into the format
Hope you’re all having a great week.
I was chatting to a friend recently who the social content for a huge brand. I asked him how TikTok was working for him. He told me that he’d been putting out interviews for the last couple of years and they were doing OK. But then he formatted the questions so that every interviewee answered the same questions. It allowed him to chop them up and use them in a range of ways. His numbers went through the rough. The algorithm clearly loves a format. After all, memes are mini-formats, right?
Anyway. On to today’s unpacking. I was looking for a new binge. And for my sins, Rob Alderson gave me one. It comes in the shape of a reality show that all of my friends have tried to turn me on to. I respect Rob’s taste so much that he has succeeded where all of my friends failed. I’m hooked.
Rob is a freelance consultant working with brands and non-profits on messaging, content and storytelling. He makes things people really care about. He has a wonderful substack called. Do subscribe. You won’t regret it. Previously he held the role of editor at It’s Nice That and then WeTransfer’s WePresent. Rob knows a good story when he sees one and is a lovely chap too. So hire him.
Over to Rob…
What is it?
Married At First Sight Australia (TV show).
What’s the format?
Reality TV masquerading as anthropological experiment.
For the latest series, 10,000 people applied to marry a stranger. A panel of relationship experts pairs up the couples, who then live together for eight weeks as husband and wife.
Every week there is a Dinner Party, where all the couples come together and drama inevitably unfolds, as the Experts watch on from another room.
This is followed by the Commitment Ceremony, where each couple submits to a grilling from the Experts, in front of all the other participants (who invariably get involved in the most contentious conversations).
Both husband and wife are then asked if they want to stay in the experiment or leave. If both say stay, they stay; if both choose to leave, then they leave. But if one chooses to leave and the other chooses to stay, they stay on for another week.
The show suggests that the secret to a successful relationship has more to do with chaos theory than soulmates. Some pairings work beautifully, either from the off or over time. Others implode, or disintegrate, slowly and sadly, in front of our eyes.
There are various international versions of the show, but for some reason it’s the Australian one that has really shone.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
Sometimes a format explodes the genre and creates something totally new - think Wordle and word games. But elsewhere, it’s about adding a clever twist to something tried-and-tested.
With MAFS (as the cool kids call it), the twist is not what it appears to be (the wedding). It’s accountability.
In many ways, it’s a pretty traditional reality dating show, with the stakes only slightly heightened by the fact that the couples actually marry each other at the beginning.
The real genius is the Commitment Ceremony. Each week, every couple has to sit there and discuss their relationship. And the experts pull zero punches, pinning down bad behavior and forcing genuine, nuanced reflections on their respective strengths and weaknesses.
Whatever else we witness in between, we know this reckoning is coming. And so do the couples.
In a show like Love Island or Big Brother, people often swerve the consequences of their actions. Maybe the other participants force the issue. Maybe they have to squirm through a post-eviction interview. But in MAFS, accountability is part of the process.
And this spreads within the group itself too. So the Dinner Parties are often fraught with showdowns, as the participants take it upon themselves to confront miscreants and question each other’s motives.
It’s toe-curling at times, of course. But it also forces a dynamic that we don’t often see in Reality TV. And I would argue, it genuinely contributes to the success of certain couples, who are able to process and move on from all manner of shoddy marriage behaviour.
In the dating world, Netflix’s Love is Blind is a good example of a format that falls the right side of the additive twist-gimmick line.
But this same idea can be seen in something like the TV Quiz show Pointless, where contestants need to not only answer questions correctly, but anticipate which right answers will be the least obvious.
If you’re a freelance creative in need of inspiration we have something for you. It’s called Proper Fancy. It’s like a team Show and Tell but for people without a team. Or even for people with a team that doesn’t do this sort of thing. If you run a company and are on the look out for new creative freelancers then feel free to join us too.
Thanks for reading.
See you all next week.