How TLC Built Its 90 Day Fiancé Empire

Despite the dramatic expansion of the franchise in recent years — more than 400 hours of 90 Day–related programming have been produced so far — ratings for the shows keep going up. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and TLC

A year ago this week, Chrissy Teigen turned to her 13 million Twitter followers for advice on how to jump into a long-running TV show she and husband John Legend had decided to binge-watch. “What’s a good season of 90 Day Fiancé for a beginner who has no idea what this show is? I’m guessing 1?,” the TV host and chef asked early that Monday morning. Two hours later it seemed clear the Teigen-Legend household was hooked: “John 10 minutes in: ‘I do … not regret watching this’,” she wrote. Plenty of viewers clearly agree with the duo: Six years after its debut, 90 Day Fiancé has evolved from a single modestly successful Sunday-night reality show on TLC into arguably the hottest unscripted franchise on television, one with no fewer than ten successful spinoff series. And it’s showing no signs of slowing down.

For the uninitiated, the original 90 Days series revolves around U.S. citizens who’ve fallen in love with residents of other countries (39 different nations so far and counting) and are on the verge of getting married. Under the terms of the U.S. government’s K-1 visa program, those nonresidents can live in the States for up to 90 days — but must leave if they don’t get married within that time frame. It’s a natural hook for reality-TV drama, one TLC has expanded into what network president Howard Lee calls “our version of a Marvel Comics Universe.”

He’s not exaggerating: In addition to the original series — which will be back for its eighth season this fall — TLC now airs at least one (and sometimes two) 90 Day offshoots Sunday and Monday nights nearly every week. There’s a show that follows couples after they get hitched (Happily Ever After?), one that tracks budding romances prior to couples committing (Before the 90 Days), and one centered on Americans who leave the U.S. to find their true love (The Other Way). There are spinoffs of the spinoffs, starring breakout couples and participants from previous series, including Darcey & Stacey (identical twins!) and last year’s The Family Chantel (it’s complicated.) There are even shows where people who appear on various 90 Day series watch already aired episodes of the show and then react to people on social media reacting to … the people in the franchise.

Despite the dramatic expansion of the franchise in recent years — more than 400 hours of 90 Day–related programming have been produced so far — ratings for the shows keep going up. This summer, Happily Ever After and The Other Way have been delivering monster Nielsen numbers, regularly outdrawing major broadcast- and cable-network shows in key demo groups, particularly younger women. Among adult women under 50 and adult women under 34, the TLC series stood as the top two shows on all of TV between June 1 and August 15, outdrawing staples such as America’s Got Talent, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and Below Deck. (CBS’s Big Brother, which had a delayed start because of the pandemic, may end up with the top spot once the summer season ends next month.) Various 90 Day shows have made TLC television’s No. 1 network on Sunday nights across all networks this summer among adults under 50 (and a slew of other demos). And in terms of overall audience, Ever After and Other Way (averaging 4 million and 3.9 million viewers, respectively) have more viewers than any other original cable entertainment series this summer other than Paramount Network’s blockbuster drama Yellowstone.

What makes the success of 90 Day Fiancé all the more extraordinary is that it has built an audience and expanded its footprint over a six-year time frame during which linear TV ratings have been cratering. Very few shows on broadcast or cable are adding viewers year-to-year; virtually none has a bigger audience than it did five years ago. To find out how TLC built its 90 Day empire, Vulture called up Lee to discuss the show’s early years, the formula for deciding when to add another spinoff, and how even the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been able to slow down production of new episodes.

Tell me the origin story of 90 Day Fiancé. How did the idea get on your radar and make it to TV? 
I was the head of development for TLC back in 2013. I was at a conference where all nonfiction producers gather annually. It’s called Realscreen. It was in January, freezing temperatures in Washington, D.C., and we were at a hotel. I remember being in this massive lounge with a lot of producers. You sit there for about 48 hours straight, listening to people pitch their ideas and projects over and over. They’re all carrying iPads or their computers with them, with extra headphones because they always want you to look at whatever tape they’ve made. It’s called a sizzle tape. Sometimes we pay for those or sometimes they make them on their own. In this scenario, the producer [Matt Sharp] had his own tape. He told me he had been shopping it around everywhere and nobody had wanted it.

He gave me a lot of caveats. He said, “You’re not really doing this area for TLC right now.” We had Jon & Kate Plus 8, which was seismic at that time, [and] a lot of family programming. We didn’t have something specifically geared to trying to find the love of your life. So he told me about this law in the USA, the K-1 visa. Anybody who’s an American citizen who falls in love with a foreigner from another country, if you decide to propose to them, after you become engaged, they first must live in the USA for 90 days. At the conclusion of those 90 days, you must make a proclamation—“I plan on now getting permanently married to this person.” But if both parties don’t agree to marry, that person who’s the foreigner must return to their home country. I found that intriguing.  And I could understand what the finale would be: They’re going to have to make a decision whether or not they’re getting married. I [told] Matt, “Please don’t show this tape to anybody else. I think I want to go to series on this, contingent on if we find a great cast.”

And I guess you did, because you ordered it to series pretty quickly after that. 
We ordered six episodes. I was a little bit concerned because at that time, Sharp Entertainment — this was not their forte … They were known for shows like Man v. Food. They had done a great show for me, which I adore, called Extreme Couponing. This just wasn’t part of their DNA at that time, so it was a risk.

Ratings were good for the show from the start, but the growth after season two is pretty amazing. I think the season-two premiere had 1.1 million same-day viewers, and by last fall, the original show was doing over 2 million same-day viewers. What do you think was key to the franchise breaking out?
We did not go for run-of-the-mill casting. [Couples] had to be brutally honest and transparent, able to express their feelings. A lot of couples were a study in contrast. They weren’t completely the type of couple you could imagine on television together, by their racial differences, their diversity, age difference. There were just so many different contrasts going on between two people who wanted to [find] love. The other part of this, why it started to pick up, I think is the audience didn’t know whether or not both sides of a couple had the best interests of the other person in mind. These couples just want to really believe that love is true and love is forever, yet everything around us is always preventing that from happening.

You can see that in the online discussion of the show. People have strong opinions.  
[When 90 Day launched], social media was starting to really go through the stratosphere, especially with Twitter. Everybody was chiming in while it was on, live. Not in a delayed fashion, not in a streaming fashion — they wanted to be there live when they could all comment. They were all comparing notes online, live. That’s what you see now, every Sunday and Monday night. When you go on social media, everybody is in for a viewing party and they really want to be there to outtalk each other or to comment on top of another person.

TLC doesn’t spend $50 million on marketing programs. So was social media your biggest tool in getting people into the show?
We definitely don’t have a $50 million marketing campaign behind 90 Day Fiancé. I think it’s a combination of a lot of factors. I think it’s social water cooler, everybody trying to find out, “What is this all about?” I think it’s about a lot of the female audience bringing their husbands, their children, their young-adult children, their friends, in on the discussion. It’s people stumbling upon it on our streaming platform and going over there to watch old episodes and delayed episodes. And the fact that we ended every episode on cliffhangers, with undivulged secrets, also made it a must-see, to come back the following week.

It’s a soap opera.
That’s a technique that’s been going on forever. You have to end every episode on a cliffhanger. We’re fortunate because they’re just naturally organic, all these cliffhangers … I think that that’s what the viewer really wants. This is what has created this engagement. They want to know. They have burning desires to know about everything, every week.

How do the producers get those cliffhanger moments?
We just have to gamble and go. Shoot and see what happens. Get as much footage as you can. We can’t map this out. Shooting happens about a year to nine months before something even hits air. That’s how far in advance we go now.

90 Day wasn’t the kind of show TLC did years ago, but even if it was out of your wheelhouse, the network still had a very loyal, core audience of female viewers. Was that brand identity part of building the audience? 
I do think that played a role. If you look at TLC, we are not one mode. Different nights have different offerings. In some ways, when you go to a streaming platform, it has such an eclectic mix of so many different genres. We do, too. Weddings are on one night. On another night, you’re going to get medical programming like Dr. Pimple Popper. On another night, I’m going to get programming that’s about a large family or different families. On another night, I’m going to see something about a psychic in Long Island Medium, or My Big Fat Fabulous Life, or I Am Jazz. But what they have in common is that we don’t judge.

What do you mean by that?
We discuss all the time, our entire team and myself, that we have a responsibility to make sure that we give justice to every person’s story here. Because in some ways, all the people that we have on air feel admonished or diminished in some ways because of what they believe in, possibly their religion, possibly their way of living. They do things a different way, many of them. Or even something like Dr. Pimple Popper, in which patients come in and they don’t know where else to turn to deal with their affliction. So even with all these different genres and this eclectic mix and all these varying personalities, [viewers] find that commonality among all of our storytelling. That especially holds true with 90 Day Fiancé.

How has the storytelling on 90 Day evolved since it launched in 2014? I watched some of the early episodes and the drama wasn’t quite so amplified. It was a bit more like a documentary. 
Well, I think that after the success of 90 Day Fiancé, we wanted to branch it out. I think in some ways, what it has become is our version of a Marvel Comics Universe. And so the storytelling began to change with [the introduction of] some of the other franchises. You have something such as Before The 90 Days, which is … about having a relationship with somebody through a screen, and sometimes you don’t even know if that person on the other side of the screen is real. When we branched out with Before the 90 Days, we found that the risks became bigger, the drama became bigger. Not everybody had even met yet.

Another franchise we have is 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way. Imagine if you fell in love with a foreigner and you said, “Okay, I’m dropping all my friends, my children. I might even get rid of my home here, my mortgage. I’m going to drop everything. I am completely moving over to that foreign country now.” So the stakes became bigger. All of this factored in to the heightened drama and storytelling that we started to do as it became very much an international [franchise].

You mentioned some of the spinoffs. You keep adding them! What goes into the decision to launch new additions to the franchise?
Casting. The whole conceit [of] the first franchise is following an American, looking for a foreigner and spending 90 days over here. But then there was a buildup of talent and couples that we were following over several seasons and we said, “Okay. Now it’s piling up and people keep asking us, “What else is going on with all of these people?” So we invented 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After? … Then we did Before the 90 because we also saw that a lot of casting coming in and [potential participants] said, “There’s no engagement, but I believe I’m really in love and I’m going over there, no matter what, to see if I even propose to this person.” We saw all this piling up and we said, “Okay. Wow. That’s got to be another series there. That’s interesting. This is fascinating.” Oddly, Before the 90 Days has now become our highest-rated series of them all.

Do you worry you’re getting close to a saturation point, that you could green-light one too many spinoffs?
I think we’ll know enough is enough when the ratings prove that we’ve done it too much now. We would only do this if the audience is saying they are interested — and they are saying they are. We have done the research on it because, I agree — you want to be careful. But if the audience demand is still there, you do it because, in the end, don’t they have ownership over all of this?

The demand definitely seems high. You haven’t just done spinoffs. You’re doing two-hour episodes for many of your shows, and then sometimes an after-show. 
I think that our audience clamors to really curl up and see what is happening week to week. It’s almost like watching other people’s diary entries and confessionals. I was once nervous about two-hour episodes. I’m not any longer. They are accustomed now to binging and that’s what we are essentially doing, too. We’re not just giving them dribs and drabs. We’re giving them as much as we can to satiate them.

Do you think the pandemic has played a role in getting new audiences to come to the show, especially during the spring lockdowns?
I think a lot of women were bringing men to watch a lot of our shows. Also, I think a lot of the younger audience was coming in during the quarantine time. We noticed a big uptick with the younger set. They discovered the show and they went back and started to watch all the old episodes. [But] we were on the rise years before the pandemic happened and it was growing and growing and growing. The pandemic pushed it even further.

The pandemic has shut down a lot of TV production, but you’ve managed to keep some of the spinoffs going by having participants film themselves. How much of a challenge has that been?
The moment the pandemic broke out, we gathered immediately and we said, “We can’t just sit here and wait for things to happen. What do we do? How quickly can we all move?” The good news is that [reality-show cast members] have become incredibly intimate with the camera. They’re very used to confessing, talking about their lives. In some ways, they use the cameras as therapy. They use it to understand themselves, where their head is at, where they are in their life. So we wanted to use that as an opportunity to turn around something very quickly and have them all self-shoot.

What we found fascinating was how quickly they adapted. Even when there was not a crew there, without an audio person, without a camera operator, without somebody running cables or lighting over there, they were able to move very nimbly. We were quite stunned. I was flabbergasted that we could make so much content out of people just in their homes. We turned something around in three weeks, which is a whole entire series of 90 Day: Self-Quarantined, and that worked out really well for us.

In the near term, since you shoot stuff in advance you probably have some stuff in the bank, but tell me what you have ready to go over the next six to nine months in terms of the big franchise. There is no immigration going on right now, so at some point in 2021, are you going to run out of episodes?
This is something that we’re all talking about heavily here because we know that the borders are closed in terms of travel right now. What’s really good news is that we’re okay well into 2021 — with our entire lineup, not just 90 Day Fiancé. But we do have to think about what happens if we still can’t send camera talent overseas and we can’t send a crew overseas. We have to look at what states are [giving] permission to shoot, which ones are not. Hopefully, we could strive for things that are a hybrid between self-shooting and professional shooting as we get into programming to air into the end of 2021 and 2022.

How 90 Day Fiancé Became a Reality-TV Empire