The pursuit of love is synonymous with the human condition. We all want it, need it, and at some point, face rejection over it. But time after time, we try again for love.
That’s what Matt Sharp of Sharp Entertainment did with one sizzle reel years ago; a promo for a show about people willing to search for love across countries and continents. Some had met online, some on vacation, and all were trying to bring their partner to the United States. But just like many of his subjects, Sharp was turned down time and time again. Then, in 2013, TLC exec Howard Lee saw the footage at Realscreen, an annual conference on unscripted entertainment. There was a spark.
"At that time TLC [was] really not in the love and relationship space," Lee tells ET exclusively. "I always thought that was a void … and I told Matt, ‘You’re going to stop showing it. We are going to greenlight this, we want it!’”
That footage would become 90 Day Fiance, an unscripted reality show that debuted on TLC in January 2014. It follows people bringing their fiances to the U.S. from other countries via a K-1 visa. Once together stateside, the pair must marry within 90 days or the visa expires.
Lee poses that while executives from other networks may have worried about a "mail-order bride" vibe when being pitched the series, what he spotted was love in the 21st century. Thanks to social media and dating apps, love across oceans and importantly between cultures, has become more prevalent.
"I saw this whole brave new world of how you find love," he says of taking on the show. This new world also had a built-in deadline; the stuff of reality TV production dreams.
“It was not just regular courtship, there was also a massive ticking clock to it. I could see how the finale of the show would be," Lee says. "Every series has to end in a certain way … [this had] a deadline. You’ve got 90 days to bring your significant other from overseas and see if you both really are in love in that try out period, and you make a decision: do you carry on this journey to marriage, or does [someone] go back home?"
Back then, Lee was Senior Vice President of Production and Development. Today, he's risen to President and General Manager of TLC and Discovery Life. Now, going on the premiere of season seven, 90 Day Fiance has spawned six spinoff series and helped make TLC the No. 1 primetime ad-supported cable network for key women demos in the third quarter of 2019, the network’s first time ever winning the entire quarter. TLC also helped push Discovery to becoming the top portfolio of channels for women ages 25-54 in 2019 (per Nielsen.)
Lee’s reaction to seeing that in his inbox? "Jubilation!" he admits with a laugh. “We’re thrilled because it means to me, personally, that we have done something to really speak to primarily the women of America. [It’s] something that they want to see every week; that’s very important."
Since metaphorically asking 90 Day Fiance out on that first date years ago, Lee has stayed intimately involved with its production. “No one is allowed on the show unless I condone or support the casting,” he says. “It all has to be run by me.” Casting, Lee says, is the most critical component to the franchise’s success.
“Everyone from Sharp Entertainment, and our incredible production team at TLC -- everybody evaluates this casting closely.” he explains. “We take a half day to all-day sessions, and it’s nonstop. We take sometimes up to a year and a half to begin casting just for a franchise. I’m looking at casting right now that doesn’t even air until the end of 2020 or until the beginning of 2021.”
As 90 Day has risen in popularity, cast members are almost guaranteed to gain a significant Instagram following from appearing, but Lee says fame-seekers are filtered out as potential pairs are “screened heavily.” Sharp Entertainment works in part with immigration attorneys to find legitimate couples, and Lee says it’s paramount to find people who scream from the rooftops about their relationship. “If you don’t see somebody who forgets about the cameras and truly has a desire, need and longing to express the potential of what could blossom out of the relationship ... we can’t cast them,” he says.
Inherent in the franchise’s concept is drama created from differences in background. Take season five couple David and Annie Toborwosky, a duo Lee admits he’s surprised has stayed together. They met at a bar in Thailand, where Annie is from. David lived in Louisville, Kentucky, at the time, and they battled cultural differences including the requirement that David purchase a water buffalo for Annie’s family in exchange for her hand in marriage. David was also in financial disarray and in his late 40s, while Annie was in her early 20s.
But the Toborowskys celebrated two years of marriage on Nov. 1, and now the success-story pair comments on other franchise couples on the spinoff 90 Day Fiance: Pillow Talk. “We love each other and I appreciate him every day,” Annie tells ET of her husband. David echoes that sentiment: “Annie is the best thing in my life.” Annie says her family back in Thailand has no idea that she’s found some fame in the U.S. There’s also an update on the water buffalo: it’s pregnant! “It’s paying for itself,” David jokes.
Lee knows these cultural differences, wide age gaps and separations in class are part of the fascination. Motive and sincerity on the parts of both participants in the couple are also major points of interest for the audience. “I think the most important part of the storytelling that we’ve learned here is to really try to, at the very beginning when you’re introduced to a character, understand who they are and what’s going on in their minds,” he shares.
Fans speculate: is one character really in love, or simply trying to get into the United States? Is another really in love, or just wanting an attractive partner?
One couple that infamously didn’t stay together is Danielle Mullins and Mohamed Jbali. Lee cites the airing of their story, told both on season two of 90 Day Fiance and season two of 90 Day Fiance: Happily Ever After?, as a major turning point for the show. Forty-one-year-old Danielle of Ohio met 26-year-old Mohamed of Tunisia online. Their relationship was fraught with accusations of lying and secret-keeping, and while they ultimately married, Mohamed shockingly admitted on camera that he refused to have sex with his wife until months after their wedding night. Danielle tried to annul their union and alleged Mohamed had used her to get to America. Viewers watched it all unfold from the edge of their seats.
Lee says honesty like Mohamed’s startling reveal is also key to the franchise’s popularity. He assures that though couples are interviewed at length before filming begins, even producers are sometimes blown away by what is exposed. A new spinoff in 2019, 90 Day Fiance: The Other Way, reversed the 90 Day model and followed Americans heading to live in other countries for their loved ones. Just like fans, Lee was astonished to learn that Sumit, a 30-year-old Indian man in love with Jenny, a 60-year-old from California, had been secretly married to someone else during their years-long relationship.
“[The secrets and lies] usually surface when the two partners start to get to know each other better,” Lee says. “This information begins to surface, even for [production.]”
At one point, numerous people in Sumit’s family allegedly came to his apartment to confront him and Jenny about their love. Crews weren’t on hand to capture the apparently dramatic incident, but did film Jenny telling the emotional story to a producer later. “I have never seen someone tell a story so candidly," Lee marvels. “I was quite moved and touched watching her, and that was from commercial to commercial a single interview of Jenny, on camera, baring her soul to all of us. That is the mark of a TLC show; we won’t move or flinch. We will let somebody completely convey everything that's on their mind.”
He continues: “Some of the best stories are … very West Side Story or Romeo and Juliet. Often, the family members and friends don't condone this relationship ... That’s a big part of the friction that goes on, and we look for that too. We want to know what type of journey each person is on to get that acceptance.”
Again, when Lee first said “yes” to 90 Day Fiance, it was in part to get TLC into the love and relationship space. The network had largely grown on family-focused reality shows and wedding genre series, but not specifically on a journey to love. Relationship-based franchises like The Bachelor had been thriving for years by that point, but Lee notes this franchise is more docuseries than social experiment.
“There isn’t a premise such as x amount of people coming into a house together,” he says. “We have to follow as it is, tell the stories and reflect things accurately. That is our number one job … We don’t embellish that much with too much music, we don’t try to change a mood and manipulate.”
Lee also attributes the stories’ transportive elements to 90 Day’s rise in popularity; the episodes literally show American audiences other parts of the globe.
“We are careful that we have many variations and varieties of stories,” Lee says. “A broad variety of countries globally that we are casting from and a lot of different varieties of even the American people. I think that all of this adds up to seeing people that you normally don’t see on television right now.”
In the U.S., political tensions over immigration are high, to say the least. But Lee says politics aren’t allowed into the programming. “We can’t,” he says. “We focus on the love … Love is the constant theme that is pervasive in every single 90 Day franchise. As long as we are always successful in telling those stories, I hope that there can never be an end.”
Endless love could mean endless opportunities, though Lee acknowledges he has passed on some spinoff ideas because there “wasn’t enough story” surrounding, for example, particular couples. Still, he has more plans for the 90 Day world, including the goal to showcase a same-sex couple on the franchise.
The TLC team regularly looks at what viewers are saying on social media, and the fan base has become rabid. “Twitter is out of control on Sunday nights,” he says. Sunday evenings have been a major focus for Lee; he likens TLC’s programming to “the NFL for women.” The strategy paid off, with the latest season of spinoff 90 Day Fiance: Before the 90 Days hitting no. 1 in cable ratings on Sunday nights, and becoming the highest-rated season in 90 Day franchise history.
“This was a tremendous year for us because … it was the first time we expanded [Sunday nights] to 51 weeks a year, not including the Super Bowl,” he says.
In 2019 there are 90 Day fan Instagram accounts, regular recap write-ups and even a few aftershow podcasts. Tim Malcolm, a standout on Before the 90 Days, felt the brunt of the fervent fandom when many took to social media to question his sexual orientation and gender identity. Tim took the commentary in stride. "I'm very thrilled that people are that passionate about the show,” he tells ET. “I'm a part of it, I'm proud to be on it and for people to get that emotional and excited about it is like, wow. You'd hate to be on a show that nobody's talking about!”
“I wanted to be filmed being myself and I think that was accomplished,” he continues. “What you see is me.” Tim does advise that future cast members “are true to yourself and have thick skin.”
David and Annie Toborowsky agree, and say they don’t mind when viewers come at them with any hate, they just want people watching. “The fans have made the show,” David says. “It’s humbling. Because we’re not anybody, so it’s such a privilege and honor to share our story.”
The new season of 90 Day Fiance, its seventh, premieres Sunday, Nov. 3, on TLC. Lee won’t say whether more new shows are in the works for the franchise, but hints that The Other Way will return for additional seasons. “I keep gauging and looking at the audience reaction,” he says. “As much as they keep wanting more, I will give that to them … As long as we can keep finding the volume [of couples] and there are powerful stories we can tell, we’ll make more … That's the biggest priority: the stories.”