How Does “The Bachelor” Keep Its Secrets?

As fans of The Bachelor are already well-aware, it was announced last week that current contestant Rachel Lindsay is going to be next season’s Bachelorette star. When the casting was revealed in an interview with Lindsay on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Kimmel responded with surprise at the casually implicit spoiler: clearly, Lindsay does not end up going all the way and marrying Nick.

The next Bachelorette.

The revelation prompted a mild but visible backlash over the next few days. With only a handful of women left on the show, it definitely hurts the suspense to concretely know things don’t work out for one of the frontrunners. Bachelor/Bachelorette host Chris Harrison actually issued an apology for the ill-timing of the announcement, claiming, “I hate that anything was ruined for #BachelorNation”.

I was personally a little bummed to find out Lindsay doesn’t “win” (I had actually pegged her as the most likely victor). But in the wake of the spoiler, I started thinking about how strange it is that this kind of thing doesn’t happen all the time.

Isn’t it weird that we don’t already know who (if anyone) won The Bachelor? If Nick really ended up getting engaged to one of the contestants, it seems impossible that it would be a securable secret. He would have to, at some point, be spotted brunching with her, or buying wedding decorations. His friends and family would have to find out; even if Nick is prodigious at being vague and non-disclosing, it seems insane that he would be able to spend any kind of substantive time with his loved ones without eventually slipping up and dropping some leading hints on the results of the most high-stakes experience of his adult life. Imagine getting engaged on The Bachelor, going home to all your friends, and being forced to deflect every question about the state of your love life for three months (all while, I guess, sequestering your new fiance away in some studio bunker so that nobody can spot you two together). It’s mind-boggling.

Out of curiosity, I started looking into the means through which the show tries to keep its contestants from spilling the beans on their ultimate fates. Turns out, the penalty for talking is pretty Draconian: a $5,000,000 fine for breaking contract and prematurely revealing secrets. Suddenly, the task of being wishy-washy for the duration of a TV season didn’t seem so tough.

But is a massive financial threat all there is to keeping spoilers from leaking? In a sense it doesn’t feel airtight at all for people intent on breaking the rules: it would be so easy to simply take money under the table, talk up spoilers anonymously, and never be nailed to a leak, because individual responsibility is super hard to prove. And what do we make of the fact that spoilers have, in fact, gotten out in the past?

Eric Goldman, professor of law at Santa Clara University, discussed these issues in a blog post analyzing a typical Bachelor contract. He states that there are three main reasons for the $5,000,000 penalty being insufficient:

“First, if a third party could find a way to make more than $5,000,000 from an early disclosure, it could facilitate an efficient breach. Second, bachelorettes may not be motivated by such huge numbers because it’s simply not comprehensible. Finally, the bachelorettes may be judgment-proof.”

What this means is that the contractual penalty is basically a scare-tactic that is not likely to be enforced, and also not likely to be understood as serious. Goldman’s post was published in 2003, and successive years have proven his criticisms to be valid. In 2015, The Bachelorette was famously spoiled when star Kaitlyn Bristowe released a Snapchat video of her cuddling with one of the contestants. When confronted about the leak by Jimmy Kimmel (the go-to Bachelor/ette spoiler guy I guess), who told Kaitlyn that, “they were very, very mad at you here at ABC”, Bristowe simply laughed the whole thing off. Charges against her never came.

The king of spoilers.

Charges did come, however, for one spoiler-source: Steven Carbone, better known as “Reality Steve”, the notorious blogger who has made it his life mission to ruin every single season of the Bachelor/ette by publishing anonymous tips about the fates of the contestants on his website. Carbone has weathered two major lawsuits against ABC, one of which ended in him agreeing to a five-year interdict on communication with anyone related to the show. He’s a fascinating person, an intelligent, contradictory hacktivist on a crusade to disassemble every season of a show he claims he doesn’t even find that engaging. His methods are surprisingly simple, and highly revealing of the loopholes in the show’s spoiler protection strategy: mostly, he just gets emails from people who want to ruin stuff, or he bribes cast and crew members to give him dirt.

“I swear, this is the easiest money you’d ever make, and you and I are the only two people that would know,” one bribery missive allegedly stated, and Carbone was almost right. Spoiling The Bachelor/ette has the potential to be an insanely easy job to pull off, so long as all parties involved are able to keep their mouthes shut.

The obvious flaw, of course, is that bit players who spill secrets for cash tend to make poor confidantes.

It makes sense that Reality Steve has been taken to court. He is basically a lightning rod for corporate vengeance; his entire brand is “subverting and injuring The Bachelor/ette”, so taking him down is both extremely easy and extremely satisfying for those jilted forces in pursuit of show-hijackers. But while spoiler-lords like Carbone might be easy to nail, the multitude of slippery suppliers are much harder to track down and penalize. And even when the contract breachers are high-profile (like Kaitlyn Bristowe), I have to imagine that it’s difficult to legitimately enact as extreme a punishment as the studios might want to (Bristowe allegedly voided responsibility in the Snapchat fiasco when she said that publicizing it was an accident; she had “meant to send it to a producer”). Of course, all of this is still just about justice; the problem of spoilers potentially leaking remains up in the air. In the words of Reality Steve, “if you tape your show in advance, it’s just impossible for stuff not to get out”.

I don’t personally know what the solution to this is. There was a lot of talk in the wake of Kaitlyn Bristowe’s Snapchat spoiler about how social media is going to eventually erode the suspense of The Bachelor/ette and I think that’s probably true. Most normal people’s lives are extremely public now, and a lot of Bachelor/ette stars count on social media as a means of extending their fame. Spoilers seem so inevitable that I can actually imagine a point in the future when people don’t even care if they already know who wins: the concept of suspense might just be eliminated from the show and The Bachelor/ette could become more a chronicle of a budding romance than a “competition”.

And yet there are still secrets. As the buzz over Rachel Lindsay’s spoiler proves, most people who are watching The Bachelor still do not know who is going to win, even if they’re on social media all the time. Somehow, even though it’s so easy and there are rascals out their striving to make it easier, the vast constellation of people involved in a season of The Bachelor/ette typically keep quiet.

Something that I think is interesting is the fact that this year’s Bachelor alumnus aren’t all just living spoilers. If you knew Corrine and she came home and somehow was able to not talk at all about her experiences, wouldn’t you just be able to tell what happened? Wouldn’t her demeanor be at all effected by heartbreak/betrothal? I was extremely surprised that she did an interview on Ellen: I figured I would immediately be able to sense whether or not she had won. I was not.

Poker face.

For some reason, Bachelor contestants are amazing at preserving the fragile sense of ambiguity that surrounds them. They are somehow able act in such a way that you can never say for absolute certain whether or not their journey ended horribly or beautifully. They feel like they’re really trying to keep the secrets of the show alive, which is crazy, since all it would take from a jilted runner-up is a sly, blameless eye-roll to spoil their arch and injure the season. In a weird way, I kind of feel like spoiler protection actually operates on the honor system. The Bachelor/ette contestants seem legitimately intent on preserving the sanctity of the show, no matter what happened to them. Maybe that’s just because they want to be invited back, but I think it also might be motivated by a strange respect for the concept, an intrinsic knowledge that a principled person is heedful of any game’s core rules. Nobody can say how long this system will persist, but for now, I find it interesting, and heartening, to think that a reality television institution could end up inspiring any kind of stringent value system. Say what you will about The Bachelor/ette, but don’t say nobody takes it seriously.