At long last, after 40 seasons and 18 years on the air with multiple active shows in the franchise, ABC has finally cast its first black lead on The Bachelor.
The network made the surprise announcement on Friday morning on Good Morning America that 28-year-old real estate broker Matt James will be the next Bachelor on the 25th season of the reality show.
The announcement caught many fans by surprise. There was no fanfare leading up to Friday’s reveal. Typically, the next lead of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette is announced at the end of the preceding show’s season. Obviously, given the COVID-19 pandemic and with entertainment production shut down for months, nothing is quite on schedule this summer. (A new season of The Bachelorette should have been airing by now, and was set to start filming in mid-March, but it has been postponed indefinitely.)
ABC had the opportunity to make the announcement in primetime earlier this week as the network is airing greatest hits–like montages, scraping together previously seen (and relatively no new) footage from previous seasons on Monday nights for the next several weeks. And even if the first mashup episode—a flashback to Sean Lowe’s season in 2013—was filmed weeks ago, it’s not as if producers couldn’t have filmed a last-minute update with host Chris Harrison from his makeshift home studio.
James is also a surprise choice because he has never appeared on any of the programs within The Bachelor franchise. He was set to be a contestant on the upcoming season of The Bachelorette, and he was known to “Bachelor Nation” (a term referring to the collective fanbase as well as former participants on the various programs) through social media and The Bachelor subreddit community as the friend of Bachelorette runner-up and fan favorite Tyler Cameron.
Producers have toyed with the show’s formula for picking the next lead over the years, but the conventional standard that had evolved was the next lead would come from the top three or four finalists on the last season of the preceding show. So if producers were casting for the female lead on The Bachelorette, they would be looking at the top three or four finalists on The Bachelor. Sometimes that pool included even the “winner” in cases where the relationship fell apart right after cameras stopped rolling.
That formula was easy enough to understand, but it almost always ended up precluding people of color from being the lead on The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. It took years for Warner Bros., which produces the show in association with ABC, to start casting more contestants of color, and even then, those contestants were often sent home by the white leads within a few episodes at the beginning of each season. It wasn’t until attorney Rachel Lindsay was cast as the lead in 2017 on the 13th season of The Bachelorette (after she was in the top three of Nick Viall’s season of The Bachelor) that the producers finally cast a black lead.
And it’s not as if producers didn’t have multiple opportunities to cast more contestants of color—let alone a lead. They could have gone back to casting leads who hadn’t appeared on the franchise, as they did with James, which is also what they did in the first several years of the show.
Ahead of the most recent season of The Bachelor, there was a fervent online campaign among fans to cast United States Air Force veteran and portfolio manager Mike Johnson as the lead after charming turns on both The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise, a co-ed version of the show that operates like musical chairs and is reminiscent of MTV’s Spring Break in the 1990s. Instead, producers went with Delta pilot Peter Weber, which suffice to say, ended with very mixed results.
It would be easy to dismiss the announcement of James as the next lead as nothing more than trivial matters from a reality dating show. But The Bachelor, including all of its spinoffs, is one of the most-watched and most lucrative franchises on primetime television. It’s become part of the pop culture lexicon. To deny its influence and what the lead represents is dismissive of the messages this show does send to its viewers.
For many fans, not getting Johnson as the first black Bachelor last summer was the final straw, suggesting producers were more concerned about pleasing certain demographics within the fanbase than actually making any improvements in diversity. As demonstrations broke out nationwide and globally in late May and early June to protest police brutality and to support the Black Lives Matter movement, a group of fans within Bachelor Nation launched a Change.org petition arguing that ABC and Warner Bros. have a responsibility to cast more BIPOC leads and contestants.
Now, given the surprise nature of ABC’s announcement coupled with the news cycle focused on the Black Lives Matter movement and a push in the news and via social media to amplify black voices, it would be easy for critics to argue that producers rushed this out to undercut anyone suggesting the franchise is at best, tone-deaf, or at worst, racist. Producer Robert Mills, who oversees The Bachelor for ABC, told Variety that the decision to cast James had been “talked about for quite some time,” suggesting he was already in the running as the lead for his own season even before being cast on the currently on-hold season of The Bachelorette with Clare Crawley.
Mills also denied that James’s casting had anything to do with comments made by Lindsay on the official Bachelor podcast, Bachelor Happy Hour, which she cohosts with another former Bachelorette, Becca Kufrin. During the most recent episode of the show, Lindsay discussed in depth her experience as the only black lead in the franchise, and her dismay with producers over the lack of interest in promoting diversity within the cast. Lindsay said that if changes weren’t made soon, she would cut ties with the franchise altogether.
“It wasn’t a response to that. We could have made this announcement earlier or later,” Mills told Variety.
While the announcement that James would be the first black Bachelor was met with praise and even joy by some fervent fans online, it’s hard not to feel irritated that it took nearly two decades for one of the most prominent and long-lasting reality television shows to finally get the message.
And in the midst of the pandemic, it’s unclear when James’s season will air—or when or where it will even film. There have been rumors that producers plan to quarantine the cast and crew for two weeks at a resort location and then film for several weeks from there, but nothing has been confirmed yet. The only detail ABC has announced is that the next season will air in 2021.
More must-read lifestyle coverage from Fortune:
- COVID-19 has changed how people exercise, but that doesn’t mean gyms are going away
- The soda market is popping with new contenders. Will they stay or fizzle out?
- 5 new books to read in June
- The fall of CrossFit founder and CEO Greg Glassman, who resigned after racist remarks
- WATCH: How the battered food-service industry is weathering the coronavirus
Subscribe to raceAhead, a newsletter on race, culture, and diversity in corporate America.