Stephen Carbone, a blogger known more commonly online as Reality Steve, calls The Bachelor “porn for women.” By that logic, Carbone is the master of premature ejaculation.
Carbone, a pugnacious, acid tongued 39-year old, is a professional spoiler. According to Carbone, his website averages about 1 million unique visitors when the show is on the air, and he has over 81,000 people following him on Twitter. Reality Steve doesn’t rest between seasons, either: He’s already posting spoilers revealing the cast members for the newest Bachelor season starring farmer Chris Soules. The show doesn’t air until January.
First a sports talk radio host in Los Angeles, Carbone started blogging after a series of recap emails he wrote about 2003 reality show Joe Millionaire became popular with his friends. Carbone posted his first reality show spoiler in 2010 after a secret source reached out and tipped him off that Bachelor lead contestant Jason Mesnick was going to dump contestant Molly Malaney and go with Melissa Rycroft before 2009’s Bachelor finale. Pleased with his resulting traffic spike, Carbone began actively seeking spoilers.
Now, it’s a livelihood, thanks to web advertising.
It’s a sign of the times that someone can make a living from blogging about reality television. But what makes Reality Steve unique is the years-long legal battles he’s had with Bachelor producers. Carbone’s been sued twice by The Bachelor’s production company and called out by The Bachelor’s creator personally on Twitter. It is a relationship marked by mutual hatred.
The fact that folks behind The Bachelor continue to fight with, rather than co-opt Carbone does not seem make much sense. After all, Netflix just released a whole site devoted to “living with spoilers.” Many television and music producers have embraced their lack of control around the release of news and entertainment–no such thing as bad buzz. But the question of spoilers in the age of streaming video and social media is not trivial. It’s a question content providers increasingly have to wrestle with–there’s a fine line between preserving artistic integrity and playing whack-a-mole with an audience hungry for information. It turns out that not all spoilers are created equal.
Carbone first got wind that NZK Productions and Horizon Alternative Television, the companies behind The Bachelor, weren’t happy with him in the summer of 2012. He received emails from their lawyers telling him that they had copies of emails he had sent to three Bachelor contestants. Carbone had offered the women money to tell him things. Things they weren’t allowed to tell him, according to their contracts.
“I shouldn’t have done it,” says Carbone, who now lives in Texas and has been making a living from his blog since 2012 after quitting his last job selling mattresses and bedding with his father. “I was still able to get my spoilers that season without them. It was just dumb.”
The women refused, but not before handing over the emails to the production companies.
The emails threatened a lawsuit unless he stopped posting spoilers, says Carbone.
“I called their bluff,” says Carbone in an email. He spoiled the season. A process server showed up at his door two weeks later.
Leaking, pirating, torrenting–the entertainment industry has been dealing with unauthorized information exchange since the advent of the Internet (and before). But it’s much more rare that legal action occurs against someone merely reporting information, not spreading copyrighted material.
But that’s exactly what happened to Carbone.
Carbone settled the suit, agreeing that he would not contact cast or crew or offer money in exchange for privileged info. However, he could still use information that came to him unsolicited. And according to him, it does. When Carbone went on to spoil two more seasons of The Bachelor, NZK Productions and Horizon sued him yet again claiming breach of settlement, which Carbone denied. This suit, too, was settled, though the terms remain secret.
“I’ve become the de facto authority for The Bachelor and I get things told to me,” says Carbone, who says he will never reveal his sources.
So has The Bachelor suffered as a result of Carbone’s rise? Not at all. In fact, since he began spoiling, the show has had a kind of renaissance. After being a bona fide hit during its first few seasons, the show was in a tailspin after season 12. Then, with Jason Mesnick’s abrupt (or as the show would say, shocking) reversal of fiancée in season 13, things picked up. Ratings have remained strong and even grown over the past few seasons, pulling in close to 10 million viewers in its final episodes.
Even The New York Times noted the upswing in viewers in 2013, giving credit to social media and better casting having “rekindled the romance between the reality series and its viewers.” Conventional marketing wisdom is that free publicity, like Carbone’s blog, increases audience engagement and that’s a good thing.
So what is, exactly, about Carbone that threatens the Bachelor franchise?
ABC declined to comment for this story and the production companies did not return calls, but as usual, the best answer is probably: Follow the money.
With the costs of quality dramas spiraling out of control, reality TV is by contrast extremely cheap. ($350,000 per episode, say, as opposed to, say, $6 million an episode for a Game of Thrones.) It’s important to the networks’ bottom line to protect a cash cow like The Bachelor, which frequently outperforms its competitors in its target 18-35-year-old female demographic.
According to data compiled by TiVo, the percentage of people who watch reality shows live, as opposed to DVRing them to watch later, is higher than that of other genres, like dramas. And the more people who watch a show live, the more you can make from selling advertising. This is not only because people who watch live are less likely to skip ads, but also because you can advertise time-sensitive things to them like movie premieres.
The network’s fear, theorizes Jonathan Steuer, chief research officer at TiVo, is if a show gets spoiled and you know what’s going to happen, isn’t that you won’t watch the show, but that you’re less likely to watch it live.
“You’ll just say ‘screw it,’ and skip through the boring parts and watch it on your DVR to get to the good parts,” says Steuer.
Carbone’s isn’t the only Bachelor spoiler site out there. There are entire threads devoted to spoilers on the fan site BachelorandBachelorette.net, and many of its members have spent years honing their sleuthing methods.
“We’ll have people who take ‘screen caps’ [screen captures] from every single commercial, preview, what’s coming up next, and compare hair length, earrings, birthmark, ears,” to try to identify who the people are says “Bee,” a member of the site who also runs her own Bachelor blog and asked to be identified only by her Internet handle. Once they’ve matched a mystery ear from a future episode to an ear from a previous episode, they know who’s made it through to that episode, and they have a spoiler.
Yet Reality Steve’s depth and consistency is like none other, and he adopts a kind of “fuck you” scorched-Earth policy, publishing the ultimate winner, and just about every other reveal from the show before the season has even begun to air. Where Carbone gets his information has baffled just about everybody, and some have wondered whether the lawsuits against Carbone were an unsuccessful attempt to frighten suspected leakers in The Bachelor’s production crew.
A version of this latter theory proved true in the case of Jim Early, a blogger who was sued by Mark Burnett’s DJB Inc., creator of the show Survivor, in 2010. Similar to Carbone, Early was sued for “misappropriation of trade secrets” and “tortious interference” for allegedly knowingly interfering with the contractual commitments of Survivor’s cast and crew after revealing a raft of secret details about the show on the blog SurvivorSucks.com. However, the suit was dropped when Early, the Arkansas owner of a string of spiral-sliced ham stores, revealed he had gotten the information from cast member Russell Hantz.
“Mark had no intent at all to go after me. He just wanted to find the leak,” Early told Fast Company.
In a recent ethnographic study on spoilers commissioned by Netflix, cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken found that the better a show is, the more people are bursting at the seems to talk about it, even at the risk of spoiling it for others. Not groundbreaking news, and The Bachelor is no House of Cards. But it does highlight the fact that as time-shifting (and binge-watching) becomes more commonplace, there is a very good chance that any and every show will be spoiled for somebody. Spoilers are a part of the cultural conversation now, and it’s up to the viewer to protect him or herself accordingly.
Of course there are still things like the Oscars and the Super Bowl that are still widely watched live, and made into more of a community event by the chattering of social media. But those events are broadcast live, as in, they didn’t tape four months prior and rely on ironclad contracts to keep them secret.
It would appear that The Bachelor has two choices: Either become a better show, as in The Wire-level good, so that who wins or loses is incidental. Or else broadcast the results live.
Or perhaps there’s a third angle.
Last year, Reality Steve received intel that Desiree Hartsock would ultimately end up with contestant Brooks Forester in the finale of Bachelorette Season 9. Moderators on the site got the same info, even though some members, via “screen caps”-style sleuthing, had determined that competitor Chris Seigfried was actually the one.
When the finale aired, sure enough Seigfried was the winner. Sleuthers believe they–and Reality Steve–were purposefully fed the spoilers misinformation.
“It was very fishy,” says one of the site’s members. She explains that the emails that members received were worded exactly all the same, were terse and to the point, and did not elaborate beyond “Brooks will be the [final one.]”
If this is true, Carbone had become an unwitting character on The Bachelor. Spoilers have had a whole new life as a metanarrative on social media; he’s the court jester of #BachelorNation. And even producers might admit that he is good for ratings. Now some viewers watch just to see if he’ll be wrong again.