ABC’s Robert Mills on Their Retro Summer TV Lineup and Why the Bachelor Franchise Remains So Strong

Alec Baldwin (left) as the host of Match Game. Photo: Heidi Gutman/ABC

Sunday night’s Game of Thrones finale is unquestionably the weekend’s biggest TV event — except, perhaps, for die-hard fans of classic TV game shows. Hoping to take advantage the stunning success of last summer’s Celebrity Family Feud, ABC is pairing season two of the prime-time edition of Steve Harvey’s megahit with revivals of iconic quizzers The $100,000 Pyramid and Match Game, hosted, respectively, by Michael Strahan and Alec Baldwin. The three-hour block, dubbed Sunday Fun & Games, is part of an aggressively retro-flavored ABC unscripted lineup: In addition to an already-launched reboot of To Tell the Truth (hosted by Anthony Anderson) and season two of a resurrected BattleBots, on June 30, the network will roll out a six-week flashback concert series dubbed Greatest Hits, hosted by Arsenio Hall and featuring acts such as Backstreet Boys, En Vogue, Kenny Loggins, and REO Speedwagon. Overseeing it all — as well as summer staples The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise — is Robert Mills, the head of alternative series, specials, and late-night programming at ABC. Vulture recently caught up with Mills by phone to discuss the reasoning behind this summer’s old-school strategy, as well as the continuing success of the Bachelor franchise, why he’s so active on Twitter, and whether more revivals might be in the works. 

So before Celebrity Family Feud roared on the air last summer, it had been several years since a game show had really worked in prime time. But you clearly believed the time was right to bring them back. I think ordering Feud was one of your first decisions after you were promoted to head of alternative last year. Were you really that confident it would work?
Literally the first call I made [after being promoted] was to Steve’s agent saying, “This will be a smash in prime time.” This is something I’d wanted to do for years. And it was sort of like, okay, now I’m in the position to do it — it’s the first thing I’m going to do. I know this is going to work.

What made you so certain?
It just stemmed from the first thing I’d seen [of the Harvey edition of Feud]. It was one of these clips that went viral. The question was, “Name something you put in your mouth that you don’t swallow.” I think that was the question. And the woman said, “I’m a pastor’s wife, I’m just gonna say it. It’s sperm.” And Steve does this two-minute comedy bit on it … and I just was laughing hysterically. It was such a flashback to really great comedians that I had loved, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and George Carlin. I had no idea just how funny he was. In the years since I had seen that clip, the numbers for the syndicated show went up and up and up. And at that point, I knew there was just no way this was not going to work.

Normally, a network would try to dramatically increase the episode order of something as successful as Feud was last summer. So why aren’t there more?
[Producer] Fremantle, rightly so, is very protective, and they’re taking it a step at a time. Last year they gave us six [episodes]; this year they’re giving us ten. They don’t want to, for lack of a better word, Millionaire us. They want these to be special, and I completely respect that. And this show is very special to me, too, and I don’t want the audience to get tired of it.

Sort of like Family Feud now, you’re going straight to the triple-point round this summer. You’re building on the success of Feud by putting in reboots of Pyramid and Match Game. How and why did you decide to expand the Sunday game franchise so quickly?
It was sort of accidental. We had been looking for something to do with Michael Strahan in prime time forever. We had done a pilot with him that we both liked, but it didn’t ultimately feel like it was the right thing for Michael. And then his agent called me — I think it was last November — and said, “Michael wants to do Pyramid.” At that point we thought, “Well, there’s only one place to do that.” After Family Feud. And then at that point it was like, “Oh gosh, you know what would be a great … 10 p.m. show? Match Game.”

How did you woo Alec Baldwin to take over as host of Match Game?
This is the most random thing. I went to his agents and I said, “I really want Alec to do Match Game.” And they said, “We gotta tell you, he’s not interested in doing any reality. He’s been pitched everything under the sun.” I said, “But you’ve gotta at least bring this to him. I think he’s going to know Match Game and like it.” I based this on him playing Charles Nelson Reilly in the SNL Inside the Actor’s Studio sketch. He played him so well, I thought that even if he had never watched Match Game before that, I’m sure he watched episodes to prepare for that sketch, so he at least had a familiarity with the show. And they did. The next day they came back and said, yeah, he’s actually interested in this. The next week I was sitting with him in New York having a drink, and it’s been a lovefest since then.

What have the tapings of Match Game been like?
The tapings have been as raucous as anything I’ve ever been involved in — and you know, we do Bachelor in Paradise. The celebrities really, really wanted to do this. A lot of them love and remember the game, especially Rosie O’Donnell. And they also love Alec, and they want to play this game with Alec. The stakes are — it’s $25,000, which is a lot of money, but it’s not life-changing money. It really feels like you’re at a late-night cocktail party.

Speaking of which, the old Match Game was legendary for what went on backstage. Are you providing alcohol or other …substances?
There is a fantastic bartender who makes them whatever they want. You’ll see in the first episode. I mean, J.B. Smoove — I’m not sure what he was drinking, but you’ll see him drink it several times during the episode.

There’s actual drinking that takes place on camera?
Oh, yeah! They have little drink holders and Match Game glasses.

Back in the ‘70s, I don’t think you could actually show that.
Yes, it was just inferred. Now we are very blatant about the fact that these stars are able to imbibe.

You’re also doing another retro-y show this summer, Greatest Hits. Tell me about the origin of that show and how it came together and what it is.
That was another one, too, that I’ve been thinking about for years. Ken Ehrlich, who does the Grammys and is doing Greatest Hits for us, had pitched a show of people who had had hits back in the day, in the ’80s and ’90s, and it was a little more of a competition. There was just something that didn’t quite seem right. But I knew there was something there. People love seeing these artists and hearing these songs that you grew up with and broke up to and made out to and danced to. And the summer, especially, seems like a time when people really love them. It’s about as loose a competition as you can have.

Will there actually be a vote?
At the very end, there will be a vote. Each episode is a five-year period, and the show [spans] 25 years. At the end you’ll vote on, what was your favorite era? We’ll reveal that in the big finale. 

Were you intentionally going for an old-school feel to your summer lineup?
This wasn’t by design. This was more about, “Gosh, I just really love these shows and they entertain the hell out of me.” Part of the beauty of being in this job now is that I can do that. [Laughs.]

You have managed to sort of keep many of your franchises super-strong. You mentioned Dancing With the Stars, which continues to chug along. But The Bachelor has been on fire this year. The spring season did very well, and Bachelorette is actually doing better some weeks this summer than last year. That’s almost unheard of in TV these days.
If you didn’t look at ratings, and you just measured social media or magazine covers or coverage on different morning shows, you’d think The Bachelor is the biggest show on network television. Why it first took the country by storm when it premiered, back when these reality concepts were so fresh and novel, was because of [its one-line premise]: One guy who is sort of the ultimate James Bond–type bachelor is going to date 25 women. That was really, really fascinating. And then randomly, starting with this guy we had, Jason Mesnick, who was the runner-up on a season of Bachelorette — having that guy become the bachelor … it became like a movie. Instead of being a concept-driven show, it turned into a real, good old-fashioned ABC soap opera like you’d see back in the ‘80s.

The rise of social media, especially Twitter, also really seems to have helped. What else do you think has played a role in keeping the franchise strong?
When you’re talking about social media, there is a silent [executive producer] on this show, and it’s this hive mind of fans. We are very open about saying, “Tell us on Twitter who you like, who you don’t like, what you like that we’re doing, what you don’t like that we’re doing.” And then the other thing that has been [important] is, when we started doing Bachelor in Paradise, the stakes weren’t as high. It was really about rebound romances and being on a tropical island and just having fun, almost like an adults-only summer camp. We played around with making it funny, having them have conversations with animals. Seeing how people loved that, we realized that [the main Bachelor and Bachelorette shows] can sometimes be ridiculous, too. There’s a little bit of a wink and a smile there,  and we started to incorporate that in the big shows. You’ve still got to take this seriously. The leads have got to be in it for real stakes and real romance, or it’s not going to work. But you also need to entertain. And I think we’ve been doing a lot more of that in the show.

You embrace the meta.
You have to. That’s exactly right.

You’ve already brought back a couple of great shows people alive in the 1970s and 1980s recall fondly. So when are you doing Battle of the Network Stars?
There is no bigger fan of Battle of the Network Stars than me. We talk about it! The biggest problem is, there was a wonderful time when everybody let all their stars from all the networks do these shows. And now it feels like they really don’t want people to do that. You get the sense CBS is going to say, “You know what? I don’t want Kaley Cuoco doing an ABC show,” even though it’s promoting Big Bang Theory. It’s tough. We talk about it all the time, because there is nothing more entertaining than taking a group of celebrities down to Pepperdine and having them doing calisthenics. It would be a dream. We debate it all the time.

Any other classics you’d like to revive?
We had developed a redo of Circus of the Stars at one point, which I always enjoyed. I don’t know how many classic game shows are too many, but I could absolutely envision a new version of Press Your Luck. Could you imagine the things we could do with the Whammy today? If you had the Whammy with a bad Donald Trump comb-over saying [high-pitched voice], “I’m gonna build a wall around your money!”

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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