Love Is on the Air? Maybe

Both participants and producers of the TV matchmaking programs have aims in common, but engineering real relationships is not one of them. Meanwhile, the contestants kiss on command

A few facts about looking for love on television: The recent programs that center on singles have thus far provided 88 filmed dates, 15 fellows who are trying to win the heart of one gal and 30 single men and women who have introduced themselves to the home audience. But until now only one formal success in the relationship area has been chalked up: The expected wedding of one of the participants on "Love Connection."

Long after the series that brought the single woman to the fore, like "Sex and the City" and "Ally MacBeal" and the wave of reality shows that has inundated the world, the broadcasting organizations in Israel have discovered that charm and amusement lie in a combination of the two trends. No less than four programs that have been produced here recently deal with the state of being single and the desire to leave it, starring "real live" singles: "Take Me Sharon," which began on Channel Two at the beginning of July and is one of the most watched programs on television; "Double Date," the second season of which is now being screened on the cable channel Beep and was also successfully broadcast on Channel Two; "The Guide to Falling in Love" on the YTV satellite channel and `Love Connection," which was broadcast on Channel Two and could go on to another season.

The first three of these programs have in common the double message that they consciously transmit: On "Take Me Sharon" the opening sequence promises that Sharon Eilon is going to select "the man of her life"; the opener of "Double Date" is the song "All we need is love" and on "The Guide to Falling in Love" the promise is that the secret code to falling in love will be cracked. However, the editors of these programs admit that they have no intention of really finding love for the participants.

At the editorial desk of "Take Me Sharon" they stress repeatedly that this is a reality show aimed at allowing a look at people in unusual situations. "Double Date" is defined at Beep as an entertainment show and "The Guide to Falling in Love" is defined by editor Aviram Buchris as a "human laboratory."

"Love Connection" is different from the rest; more about this later on.

Hot whispers

"Take Me Sharon," "Double Date" and "The Guide to Falling in Love" intentionally put the participants in situations that have the potential for momentary intimacy and embarrassment. In the third episode of "Take Me Sharon" - in which 15 men vie for the heart of Sharon Eilon, a pretty single woman of 30, and go through a winnowing out process from episode to episode - the previous girlfriend of one of the participants, Yoav, came in for filming and shared secrets with Sharon about her former lover's prowess in bed.

On "Double Date," hosted by Dana Modan and Roie Levy, every meeting between a couple undergoes a barbed, amusing and merciless analysis, through subtitles that are added to document the date after the fact and a short conversation between the moderators in the studio. The makers of the program take care not to leave the making of the match to chance: A fellow who confessed that he would not go further than a kiss on the first date was matched up with a girl who wants sex straightaway on the first date, is taken with her on a visit to a shop for sex accessories and has sarcastic arrows aimed at his new manliness.

On every show of "The Guide to Falling in Love," an erotic-comic format for teenagers, there is the documentation of a brief date between two people, one of them a regular "dater" on the program and one of them a different person each time, who receives instructions and advice whispered into an earphone by a celebrity who serves as the advisor. Thanks to the whispered instructions the date usually advances rapidly and is afterward given a joking analysis by a team of "love experts" and a psychologist in the studio, moderated by Noa Tishbi or Yermi Kaplan. Thus, for example, in the second episode the fellow got an instruction through his earphone to French kiss the "dater" Michal Carmi about six minutes after he met her. The two kissed heatedly and licked each other's lips, but parted as just friends. In another episode the girl participating in the date received an instruction from Meni Pe'er: "Now exchange shirts." This time the request was refused.

No room for love

It is hard to avoid the question of what motivates people to participate in these shows. Nitzan Shushan, the research director for Keshet (the franchisee that produces "Take Me Sharon," "Double Date" and "Love Connection"), suggests three reasons: the hope of finding love, the desire to undergo an exciting experience and the desire for publicity. Shushan acknowledges that the participants in "Take Me Sharon" and "Double Date" do not put emphasis on the first of these reasons.

This analysis gets confirmation from Roderigo Gonzales, who was rejected from "Take Me Sharon" but claims to have won enthusiastic reactions from girls on the street (see box). According to him, participating in the show was "a fantastic experience." Yigal Altstetter, who succeeded in making it to an advanced stage of the program, agrees.

The editors of the show admit that as far as they are concerned the ideal participants are not necessarily looking for love. "We are not the place for anyone who is just looking for love," says Sigal Shavit, the editor of "Double Date." "Every date on the program has to keep the viewers' attention for a quarter of an hour. It has to be interesting and full of incident. Therefore I need people who will come across well on screen and who are interesting, instinctual, spontaneous and of course sexy and good-looking. People who can surprise me, so that the reality we are creating will be excellent."

Buchris, the editor of "The Guide to Falling in Love," admits quite simply: "We dropped from the list the ones who wanted to be on television in order to find love."

But the editors' efforts to create an "excellent reality" do not end with finding the desired participants. The editorial desk of "Double Date" pairs candidates according to the story they hope will emerge from the date. "I need 30 different stories each season," says Shavit. "A story of love at first sight and a story of tension and the absence of suitability. We matched up two people who had returned from Los Angeles - she after a year and a half, he after 12 years - and both of them are quick to anger. She said to him, `Anyone who succeeds there never comes back. Never mind after two years, but after 12?' This hurt him and created an explosion between them." (The date ended when he told her: "I don't give a fuck for you," and she stalked out.)

The chief editor of "Take Me Sharon," Elad Kuperman, also admits that the casting of the participants is weighed and well-planned: "We put together a team of anonymous people that has to love and hate. The kind that Sharon will also love and hate."

No regrets

It turns out that locating participants who are good-looking and sexy, come across well on screen, are spontaneous and open and also seek adventure and publicity - even if it involves slight humiliation or terrible embarrassment - is not an especially difficult task. Locating participants is done in two ways: people who applied to the program after having watched it or seen a notice in newspapers or on dating sites, and those who are discovered on "hunting trips" by the researchers.

The researchers for "Take Me Sharon," for example, turned to agencies for actors and models, beaches, universities and colleges, and applied to passersby. They met about 100 women and hundreds of men, most of whom had never appeared on television. The heroine of the series, Sharon Eilon, had appeared in advertisements and had signed up with an actors' agency, but came on the program through an acquaintanceship with one of the researchers.

The researcher for "Double Date" spends time at fitness centers, festivals and clubs in Tel Aviv and brings about half of the participants from these places, while at "The Guide to Falling in Love" they say: "We combed every big social event for three months."

Many agree to the offer to participate on the programs. They go through a winnowing out process and quite a few change their mind at the last minute and sometimes even later.

About 15 men who were accepted for "Take Me Sharon" in the end refused to participate in the program. On "Double Date," relates Shavit, there were three participants who changed their mind after the date was filmed, but then there is already no way back: The participants sign an agreement form in advance and the show is broadcast even if they prefer that it not be.

Roie Frei, a male model and television production director, who was the "dater" on 11 episodes of "The Guide to Falling in Love," relates that he underwent an experience that was not easy. "At the end of every program there is a dice game. On faces of one of the die are the names of body parts, and on the other actions like "licking," "kissing" and "sucking." This was hard for me and I kept asking that it be stopped. It obligated me to be intimate with a girl even if I wasn't attracted to her. In one episode I got "suck-foot." I did it simply because I was there, out of discomfort. On the show, I got to the situation of a kiss several times, and in reality it really isn't easy for me to get to that. The program destroyed a lot for me. Since the shoots I haven't gone out on a single date with a girl. I've become too self-conscious; I can't do it.

"It's clear to me that if I were to fall in love with someone I wouldn't show it on television and I wouldn't fall all over her with kisses. It seems to me that on the show they give too much significance to sexual intimacy because it is expressed visually, but it's off the mark. This isn't the point in love."

They'd rather manage without

"Love Connection," a low-budget show that is unusual in its simplicity in the Channel Two television landscape, is almost the antithesis of the programs that present images that are romantic but very far from romance. The presenter, Tal Kahane, was also the researcher, and according to her she gave the stage to anyone who was interested, no matter how he looked. This program is effectively in the format of a "video date"; that is, each of the candidates introduces himself briefly and then a telephone number for leaving messages for him.

"This isn't a comic show," says Kahane. "We don't give people any tasks and we don't follow them. On other programs, the participants dream of being on television; on our program they'd be happy to manage without it. Most of the people we gave a stage to would not have been accepted on the other programs - single women over 40, divorced men with children, things that on the other programs are considered bizarre."

"Love Connection" earned a respectable rating (5.8 percent) relative to the late broadcast hour (11:30 P.M.) and as a result of it some of the participants were able to meet partners. Some of these meetings developed into momentary love stories and others developed into more stable relationships.

Kahane: "The program had a documentary quality about it, because we were a small team and people spoke with touching sincerity. A single woman of over 40 said, for example, that she lacked self-confidence and when people say good things to her she does not believe them."

In Kahane's opinion, the other programs - and along with them "Ally MacBeal" and "Sex and the City" - are not revolutionary but on the contrary perpetuate the preconceptions. "On those programs," she says, "the single state becomes more legitimate and sexy, but they all stress that it is a temporary state. The single women are all 30-plus, but they look like they're 22. They wouldn't make an `Ally MacBeal' about women of 40.

"We have not made very much progress. Our program gave a stage to a great many Israelis, not only to people who look like Yair Lapid. All around me I see single mothers and various kinds of relationships. Tell Aviv is bursting with this, but all of this hardly has a chance of making it to the screen."

Found wanting

Many of the participants on the singles shows describe the experience as a positive and amusing adventure, one that makes them hanker for further appearances. But it is doubtful that any of them underwent as dramatic a change as Roderigo Gonzales, who competed on "Take Me Sharon." He was eliminated in the third episode but since then has been overwhelmed by masses of enthusiastic fans.

After he was eliminated, the Keshet Internet site was inundated by numerous letters to Roderigo, 22, and criticisms of Sharon for her foolish step. Gonzales relates that when he went out he would get a lot of invitations to dates with girls, but refused them all.

A few days ago, he relates, he went with some friends to the pub where he had been found by the program's researchers. "Every girl who walked past me tried to kiss me, without even asking," he says. "One of them ran her hand over my chest and said: `See that table over there? There are five girls sitting there. Choose one of them.'

"Girls have always started with me, but until now a girl never called me up and said to me that she has tattooed `R' on her arm because of me.

The researchers for the program, incidentally, wondered whether to invite him for tests for the program after they found out how young he is, and were convinced only after Gonzales promised them that he would "be the underdog that would surprise them in the end."