ABC Exec on 'Bachelor' Franchise's Future: From the First Black Bachelor to Exploring Queer Relationships

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ABC

Hannah Brown's season of The Bachelorette will go down as one of the most unforgettable in franchise history. With a windmill and a fence jump behind us, and apparently the biggest f***boy ever ahead (his words, not ours, Blake Horstmann- sorry!), we had to get Rob Mills, ABC Entertainment's Senior Vice President of Alternative Series, Specials & Late-Night Programming, on the phone to discuss the promising, and ever-changing, future of Bachelor Nation. 

ET: Season 15 of The Bachelorette just finished with stellar ratings. Sex became a big part of the conversation as the season went on; I would imagine that helps ratings. How will sex continue as a topic on the shows?

RM: Starting with Andi Dorfman’s season, where Nick Viall revealed that they had slept together in the fantasy suite, I mean … that was a really low blow: that was meant to embarrass and it humiliated her. But, that was the first time that sort of the lid was blown off, even though it was always speculated. You know: ‘Who knows what happens in the fantasy suite,’ … Kaitlyn Bristowe’s season [brought up sex] too. As we move forward, we should look and say ‘OK, why is that?’ And [see] if there's something we could or should be doing to just open up that conversation more. I think you'll see the cast members, [including] the women on the upcoming season of The Bachelor, they won't be afraid to talk about things now, because they sort of know nothing is off limits anymore. [The door] was opened a crack with Andi, and Kaitlyn kind of opened it a little more. Hannah [Brown] just kicked the door down.

Religion is sometimes an ‘it’s too taboo’ topic, but it was a part of this season more than ever before. Could we see politics come up in the show in the future?

Why not? I mean how many relationships have you heard about, especially now, with such a divided country, that fall into turmoil because of that? ... I don't want this to turn into MSNBC, this is not going to be a political roundtable, but certainly nothing is off limits. We should encourage the cast … If we are totally committed to this being about somebody finding a life partner or not finding a life partner, you have to have those conversations. 

Significant drama also came from things happening off camera this season; ex-girlfriends in particular. Have you accepted that it's impossible to know everyone's skeletons in the closet when you are casting the show?

We're trying to get better and better with that. This season we put the guys’ faces and names out there. … So certainly there was a scenario where [Jed Wyatt’s girlfriend] could've come forward. ... There was a bit of a feeling of failure on our part, especially with somebody who is as great as Hannah. … You have to have some acceptance that we can't find everything. You’re definitely going to see us do that [again]; it certainly helped. There were red flags we found out about. 

Well, casting for ‘Bachelor’ is now underway. What are you looking for, generally, when choosing a lead? 

It’s changed over the years. You do look at who people want. … Like after Becca Kufrin’s season, the last thing you left with is, ‘Oh my gosh, Blake is so heartbroken. He needs to find love.’ And then you find that everything, especially now in the world, everything moves so quickly. People forget about that. Then you have to think, who's going to have the most interesting story arch for 24 hours? With Colton [Underwood], that was a really interesting story. This guy is a virgin, but he really wants to fall in love. … Who's gonna be the story that we can stretch out over 10 weeks?

There are, of course, calls for the first African-American Bachelor, but as you're saying, it's about finding the right person and story for the show. Does Mike Johnson fit the bill? 

He’s absolutely in contention to be The Bachelor. … He is just somebody that people really love. He's got a great story. We have somebody who has served our country, has really suffered through heartbreak. … You’ve got a billion dollar smile and he looks great. He's got a following; those are the reasons he's in contention more than, ‘Oh, this is so great, we can check that off now.’

Why not decide on the Bachelor and announce it now? 

Number one is the cast for this season. This means nothing if the cast isn't into who he is. So there's that, but also we don't have to make a decision. We don't start until September, and don't forget Colton and Nick came from Bachelor in Paradise. So there's still some people that can be, who knows? Dean [Unglert] has that mustache now. Everyone thought he was too young, now maybe that is going to work out!

Speaking of Bachelor in Paradise, we're excited to see the first same-sex relationship in franchise history on BIP this season. Why now?

It was an authentic story where Demi Burnett really was confused [about her love life] and wanted to go to Paradise to figure things out -- to see if this was somebody she wanted in a long relationship. She started to think, ‘I think it might be, but I want to figure it out,’ and asked if [this woman] could come to Paradise and explore this relationship. It wasn't necessarily that it was the right time. It felt like: this is a great story, no matter who it was. If it was an ex-boyfriend too, if it was the right story, we would've found him. … Absolutely, I think that everybody feels really, really proud about this. This is a storyline that didn't get swept under the rug. … I'm excited for people to see it. It's done really well and tastefully, but not shy about it at all. It's really great for the franchise.

Well, Paradise starts Monday, August 5. What can you tease?

It’s a really great soap opera. We've been lucky with these past seasons. The guys on Becca Kufrin's season -- I think our dream this season was actually Jason [Tartick] who is happily in love with Kaitlyn Bristowe -- but we thought, ‘Imagine all these people on Paradise.’ With Colton's girls and Hannah's guys -- it really is great that these are such characters. There's a lot more backstory that gets explained in a way that really helps set things in motion. … Marriages, engagements and babies have come out of this show. I think you'll see really, really happy endings like we've never seen before on this show.

You have had a trio of amazing seasons: Colton Underwood’s Bachelor, Hannah Brown’s Bachelorette and now, it seems, the upcoming season of Paradise. Does this trajectory make you feel more confident than ever about the franchise’s future?

The last six or seven years, we've sort of been saying that the last two shows made on ABC are going to be America's Funniest Home Videos and The Bachelor. Absolutely, it's going to be on forever.