Zoom Bachelorette, Minimum Viable Shows, and the nature of celebrity in quarantine

“The most Silicon Valley event of the lockdown”

On Saturday night, 12 contestants starred in a live reality show called Zoom Bachelorette, based on ABC’s popular reality TV show The Bachelorette. With contestants video conferencing on Zoom and broadcast live on Twitch, the show—which was paywalled through a $15 donation to Feeding America—reached over 1,000 unique viewers and raised over $40K for charity. After 3.5 hours of hilarity, the suitors were whittled down until the last remaining bachelor Ro Trivedi (founder of influencer e-commerce platform Pietra) proposed to SF-based bachelorette Katia Ameri (founder of DTC skincare company Mirra), who happily accepted.

On social media, viewers hailed it as “the future of reality TV,” “one of the highlights of my year so far,” “an iconic moment in quarantine culture”,  and “the most Silicon Valley event of the lockdown.”

“That was wild. I don’t even really know where to start processing. We raised $40K and I have a Zoom fiancé,” reflected Katia later that night on her Instagram Stories. “I don’t know what more I could ask for.”

For access to the full, recorded show, donate $15 or more by end of day Friday 5/8 to receive a link. For samplers, watch the bachelors cut their own hair on a group date and the trailer for the show.

What went down on Zoom Bachelorette (spoiler alert)

It all started with two women who were independently matchmaking their friends during quarantine over Zoom: Jean Yang, founder of Akita Software, and Maria Shen, investor at Electric Capital. They decided to join forces and create an event to raise money for COVID-19 relief; the two approached mutual friend Katia Ameri to be the bachelorette, and the group spent the next few weeks organizing the event.

Hosted by comedian Sam Clark, the 12 bachelors and bachelorette went live at 6pm PT Saturday, and distilled an entire season of The Bachelorette into a single evening. Each contestant leaned into his persona: Johnny was an environmentalist that loved being outdoors, Dino (Head of Security for Cash App) was a security hacker with a taste for Soylent and a traumatic past involving llamas, while Richard (PM at TikTok) was a serene thinker. After introductions, the show progressed through group and 1:1 dates, confessionals, and rose ceremonies. Highlights included the contestants giving themselves haircuts on live video, cooking a meal to win over the bachelorette, playing Pictionary, and consulting with relationship expert Dr. Emily Anhalt.

Sound bites from Zoom Bachelorette:

  • “Despite these antibody testing kits I’ve got, I’m definitely not anti- your body, if you know what I mean.” - Sheel, investor

  • “My hobbies include baking bread from scratch, laying under my weighted blanket, and chatting with customer support representatives on the phone.” - Andrew, unhinged

  • Sam Clark, host: “Is your Zoom background Guernica?” “Yes, to signify the fight that’s about to happen here soon.” - Yi-tong (artist)

  • “I’m looking for someone who can see beyond the protective equipment that keeps me alive and into the inner me: a guy who likes to wake up late and watch the Muppets with the earth in the distance.” - anonymous space man

The future of live, interactive entertainment

Beyond the romance and hilarity of the show itself, the format in many ways felt like the future of entertainment.

Here are 5 aspects I found fascinating:

1. The show seized on capabilities of new platforms and turned production constraints into strengths

Just as the transition from silent films to ‘talkies’ ended many silent film stars’ careers and TikTok gave rise to an entirely new set of talent who were native to its short-form video format, Zoom Bachelorette took advantage of a set of new remote tools and content formats to re-invent its original inspiration in a Zoom- and Twitch-first way. The show was produced entirely using off-the-shelf, free tools, consisting of Sketch (overlay graphics), OBS (stream and video effects), Google Sheets (tracking the minute-by-minute schedule), Slack (cast coordination), Twitch, and Zoom.

Many of the scenes could only have happened on Zoom: at one point, a cocktail party in gallery view devolves into chaos as bachelors try to steal each other away, people talk over each other, and Katia gets increasingly upset while “Dancing on My Own” plays in the background. Jean calls this scene, “artistically really good” and “peak Bachelorette and peak lockdown Zoom.” Changing Zoom backgrounds also figured prominently in the show, reflecting candidates’ personalities or plot points.

The grassroots show—with choppy Zoom backgrounds and untrained stars—succeeded perhaps because of, rather than in spite of—its low production value: it felt authentic to the current moment and offered real, unbridled entertainment in a world where frills (lighting, makeup, sets) are scarce.

2. It created a shared, live experience (in a time when such experiences are rare)

In contrast to our predominantly on-demand, asynchronous entertainment, the show was scheduled and promoted in advance, which meant appointment viewing and heightened anticipation. The live synchronous nature of the show meant that viewers wanted to experience it collectively because they were all invested in the outcome, and all reacted in real-time to the events playing out on Twitch.

3. Participants and producers drove their own distribution

The show saw extremely impressive activation, with 1,000+ viewers and 566 peak concurrent viewers, in spite of the friction of being a ticketed show. For context, this level of Twitch viewership is typical for established and well-known content creators on the platform who stream professionally, while this was Zoom Bachelorette’s debut stream.

The audience was activated through word-of-mouth, predominantly on social media. With 12 bachelors, 1 bachelorette, and a production team of 4, the show’s participants all raised awareness among their networks, which intensified viewers’ emotional investment in the show. Katia said, “I rallied everyone from my high school friends, college friends, to coworkers, to investors, and family. It was an easy sell: ‘Tune into me living out my reality TV fantasies, and raise money for a good cause in the process.’ My network jumped on it and started sharing the event unprompted.”

4. It monetized audience members directly

In order to tune in on Twitch, viewers had to make a $15 donation to Feeding America through GoFundMe, after which donors were emailed the link to the broadcast. Through this mechanism, the organizers raised over $40K for charity. Contrast that with standard primetime TV CPM rate of $36: with 1,093 unique viewers on Twitch, this means Zoom Bachelorette had an effective CPM of $36,597, or 1,000x higher than ad-based monetization. Granted, this was for charity, and perhaps viewers wouldn’t be willing to donate such high amounts for every show they watched. Nonetheless, it demonstrated the potential for new monetization paths beyond ads, which could be effective even for modest audience bases as long as creators offer differentiated content.

Several donors gave more than $1,000, and donors included Alex Stamos (former CSO of Facebook), Steven Sinofsky (former Microsoft exec), Michael Coates (CEO of Altitude Networks), and Jon Oberheide (CTO of Duo Security). There was also a donation of $10K outside of the GoFundMe. During the show, host Sam Clark also accepted tips through Venmo and Cash App, and said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the volume of tips. 

5. It re-invented the boundary between viewers and stars

In traditional reality TV shows, the relationship between stars and audiences is parasocial: audiences form one-sided relationships and become emotionally invested in influencers and celebrities, while stars conversely are unaware of fans’ existence.

In contrast, Zoom Bachelorette was interactive and participatory on multiple levels: given its bottoms-up origins, many audience members knew (or had even nominated) candidates on the show and felt invested in the cast. Thus the show felt co-created, versus broadcast at them. Friends of the contestants sent messages to them throughout the evening, and some messages made their way into the show. At one point, Katia confronted bachelor Ro Trivedi after a friend texted her that Ro was wearing a ring (he held up his hands to verify that he was not).

The Zoom “venue” made the show feel authentic and relatable, given the platform has become familiar to millions of users. “Being Zoom-first suggests that the show is made by everyday people, and viewers can easily relate to the person on the screen,” said Richard Huang, a contestant on the show and PM at TikTok.

Viewers also quickly gravitated towards their favorite contestants, and some even made logos, created hashtags, and changed their avatars on social media to demonstrate support in real-time. Aside from engagement on Twitch and Twitter, a side conversation between viewers and contestants also sprung up on Clubhouse before, during, and after the show—blurring the line between talent and audiences.

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If various aspects outlined above sound familiar, it’s because Zoom Bachelorette is one of a long lineage of experiments in participatory, internet-based entertainment, which includes the live trivia app HQ Trivia, Popshop Live (a live, scheduled shopping app), online shows like those hosted by Rajj Patel on Twitch and John Krazinski’s new Youtube channel SomeGoodNews, as well as Chinese social shopping platforms like Mogu and Taobao Live. And there’s a burgeoning landscape of tools that enable anyone to create a mini-“TV show”: Instagram Live, Zoom Webinars, and any number of Stories products.

COVID-19 has added new urgency and creativity to experimentation around entertainment. During this time, Zoom Bachelorette host Sam Clark has also produced shows on Facebook Live with multiple contestants called Ca$h Out Black Out, incorporating tropes from reality TV shows Survivor and Chopped.

Democratization of a “Minimum Viable Show,” and what even is a celebrity anymore?

This particular moment in history adds another level of democratization to media production: the coronavirus and ensuing quarantine have equalized everyone’s content creation abilities with those of traditional celebrities. We are all stuck at home, relegated to the same production equipment (our phones and laptops), and possess the same resources to produce a “Minimum Viable Show” (a phrase coined by Twitch’s Jason Hitchcock).

When the playing field is leveled such that the only content is what people are able to produce themselves, the major advantages that celebrities have disappear: access to professional production resources and distribution through traditional gatekeepers. The remaining differentiators are entertainment value and fun.

And on Saturday night, Zoom Bachelorette showed its audience that regular people are capable of producing a show that is as entertaining and fun as any “real” show: 

Katia also pointed out that user-produced shows can highlight diversity in ways lacking in traditional media: “I’m not a typical ‘bachelorette’ and wanted to play into the fact that women are multifaceted. It was a good way to spotlight women in a way that most reality TV never does.”

The show’s production itself also stretched the limits of democratized, user-generated, and interactive entertainment: the producers and contestants were all regular people with day jobs, doing this as a side project—and the production team has never even met in-person. Jean says, “Maria and I have only met on Zoom, we have only ever met Jen [the moderator] on Zoom, and we have only ever met Sam on Zoom.” The end result impressed even the production team, given that it was produced via cobbling together free tools. The entire show cost merely $40 to produce (the website domain, hosting, and music for the trailer). Contestant acquisition was entirely organic, as well.

Jen Aprahamian, a PM at Twitch who moderated the event, said “The show demonstrates that you can throw something like this together quickly with threadbare resources and still have an amazing turnout. It is testament to how accessible streaming is.”

In summary: Zoom Bachelorette tapped into everything I love about consumer tech. Every product that makes it easier for individuals to create gives rise to novel behaviors and ingenuity in applications. Breakthrough consumer apps—from Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitch, TikTok, and now Clubhouse—all satisfy a core user need and make it simpler to express oneself in novel ways. When traditional gatekeepers are removed and the barriers are lowered, there’s a creative explosion of what regular individuals can dream up. On Saturday, that was a virtual, live dating show in a pandemic which raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity, ending with the words, “I hope to be a great Zoom husband, and as soon as I can fly to you, will take this to the next level.” 💕


Interview with Jean Yang and Maria Shen, co-organizers of Zoom Bachelorette:

What inspired you guys to do this?

JY: I live on the internet and always have. I also love TV—it’s not just a great way to clear my head, but it also helps me feel like I’m part of society. Combining the internet with TV joins together all of my non-work interests. I will also say that Katia was critical: she has a charisma that translates to Zoom. If we didn't already have a star in mind, I wouldn't have done it.

I also feel like a lot of my friends were feeling lonely and isolated during the lockdown, so I’ve spent a lot of my free time figuring out ways to create content that would give people joy and hope.

MS: The conglomeration of the live audience engagement of Twitch, the absurdity of finding a soulmate over Zoom, and the stir-crazy that everyone was experiencing in quarantine made Zoom Bachelorette feel extremely timely and relevant. The world felt crazy and everyone needed some entertainment. This was a great way to give everyone a good laugh while giving back.

Can you give us the behind-the-scenes rundown of how it all came together?

JY: Maria and I spent a lot of time sourcing bachelors. It turns out that many extroverted single guys are shy about livestreaming their competition for a lady! Maria also found us multiple comedian leads for the host. Sam held the show together and was a big part of how we kept engagement consistently at 400+ viewers throughout.

In terms of fundraising and recruitment, the turning point was when we got Dino Dai Zovi on board. An OG hacker who is currently the head of security at Cash App, Dino keynoted BlackHat last year and has a massive Twitter following. Alex Stamos donated $1337 after Dino told him that’s what it would take to let Alex write Dino’s pick-up lines. Dino raised over $10k alone. The fact that we had raised so much, combined with the fact that such high-profile people were giving, gave us a legitimacy that helped us with future recruiting and publicity.

We had to learn so much about the streaming/fundraising stack to do this! We were up until 3am on Friday night testing how to stream Zoom through Twitch with OBS overlays.

MS: We had a very clear division of labor during the show. I ran the minute-to-minute schedule, feeding back to Sam how to direct the participants and what time to move on to the next segment. Jean handled the graphics, music, streaming, and also somehow managed to also live-tweet during the event and corral more people to join. Jen handled audience engagement and would feed back live audience sentiment.

Was it scripted? How much of it was real?

JY: We wanted to make sure the show was entertaining, but we also wanted to let things happen, so we thought of the show as the most experimental three-hour improv show to ever be streamed from Zoom to Twitch.

Leading up to the show, we had a Slack channel with the entire team where we brainstormed ideas. We got all the guys together to riff before the show, and they actually came up with the haircutting and cooking dates! We gave the guys personas and told them to lean into them for the first hour. But we also told everybody that about an hour and a half in, we wanted to start seeing everybody getting real. We wanted to capture real chemistry and real connection on Zoom! And I believe we succeeded.

How long did the whole thing take to put together?

JY: Both of us have intense jobs, so we worked nights and weekends on this. We came up with the idea about one month ago and started to work on it in earnest two weeks before the show. It didn’t get super time-intensive until the last few days.

What do you think this means for the future of entertainment?

JY: In a time when there are no sports and there are no parties, I think these Zoom-to-Twitch events are going to be the only way people can experience things synchronously.

Zoom Bachelorette felt novel because everybody was watching the same thing—and invested in different outcomes around the same situation—at the same time. This is something people seem to have missing since the beginning of the lockdown.

I think you’re spot on with the democratization of production. Many people told me their interest in the show was piqued by the fact that everybody is 1 to 2 degrees of separation away from them.

The combination of Zoom and Twitch is really interesting to me because it democratizes the creation of video content. I’m obsessed with Zoom backgrounds because you can have an instant set for any scene you’re trying to create. I’ve also been obsessed for a while with people streaming non-gaming things over Twitch because of the participation and feedback you can get.

MS: The live audience engagement during Zoom Bachelorette enabled two things:

1) It provided a feeling of “togetherness” for the audience to heatedly debate and advocate for their favorite contestants while the show was unfolding. A lot of people created their first Twitch accounts just to be able to chat.

2) It enabled the audience to contribute back to the show, such that the show felt collaboratively produced. For example, audience members would submit questions to the “Would you rather?” date and see the contestants then repeat their questions live. Another example was that the audience went wild after Katia said “Noted” and dismissed Austin’s excuses for making a subpar dish during the cooking competition. The word was repeated in the Twitch chat and Twitter and rapidly became a meme. To acknowledge the meme, we brought that word back to the Pictionary date, where Steve had to draw the word “Noted” for everyone to guess.

Can we expect another Zoom Bachelor(ette)?

JY: There have definitely been a lot of requests to do #zoombachelor. Sam [the host] has even said he’d be interested in organizing with us. We’ll see!