Domestic assault allegations against “The Bachelor” producer Mike Fleiss, the latest in a string of controversies surrounding his reality television franchise, are raising questions this week about the future of ABC’s juggernaut series — and about the Walt Disney Co.-owned network’s willingness to stand behind its creator.
On Tuesday, a Los Angeles County judge ordered Fleiss to stay 100 yards away from his estranged wife after she filed a complaint alleging that he’d verbally and physically abused her during an altercation between the two that was caught on security cameras at the couple’s Hawaii home July 6.
The Kauai Police Department confirmed to The Times that the incident “remains under police investigation.” A representative for Fleiss declined to comment, though he denied the charges in a court declaration.
While the current season of “The Bachelorette” has received high praise from viewers who have rallied behind sex-positive lead Hannah Brown, the franchise has weathered controversy in recent years. Production on the raunchy summer spinoff “Bachelor in Paradise” came to a halt in 2017 when on-set allegations of sexual assault arose, and a “Bachelorette” contestant charged with indecent assault and battery made it through the casting process a year later. Now, Fleiss is coming under fire.
“The Bachelor,” which Fleiss created in 2002, is along with “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” one of the longest-running reality series on television. Since its inception the show — which follows more than two dozen women as they compete for an eligible suitor — has completed 23 seasons, while “The Bachelorette,” which began in 2003, has had 15. The “Bachelor” franchise has also launched three spinoffs: the now-defunct “Bachelor Pad,” one-season-wonder “The Bachelor Winter Games” and “Bachelor in Paradise,” which is set to start its sixth season Aug. 5.
The “Bachelor” franchise has been a pillar of ABC’s prime-time schedule, pulling in young female viewers that advertisers are desperate to reach. According to ABC, “The Bachelor” is the second most popular broadcast program with women ages 18-34, a hair behind NBC’s “This Is Us.” Its viewers also have spending power, with an average annual median income of $94,200 . The most recent season finale of “The Bachelor” attracted more than 8 million viewers in March.
All of which makes the show a lucrative business for the Walt Disney Co.-owned network and Warner Bros. Television, which produces the series. “The Bachelor,” the flagship show, generated $96.8 million in advertising revenue last year, according to Kantar Media, which tracks advertising spending. That was a 12% increase from the $86 million in ad revenue collected in 2017, Kantar found.
ABC declined to comment on the allegations against Fleiss, but Warner Bros. said production would move forward as usual.
“We are aware of these serious allegations, and are looking into them,” Warner Bros. said in a statement.
ABC has dealt with unseemly behavior by a top producer before. Last year, the Disney-owned network canceled its top-rated sitcom “Roseanne,” after its star and series producer, Roseanne Barr, made a racist comment in a late-night tweet. “In the end, it came down to doing what’s right and upholding our values of inclusion, tolerance and civility,” then-President of Disney ABC Television Ben Sherwood said. ABC eventually negotiated a settlement with Barr and launched a spinoff called “The Connors.”
But while Barr was on screen, Fleiss’ role — though important — is behind the camera.
The dispute between the 55-year old Fleiss and his wife is a sordid one, especially for a producer who’s made his name peddling televised romance. In her declaration, Fleiss’ wife, Laura, 31, alleged that a recent pregnancy — she claims she is now 10 weeks along with the couple’s second child — has been the cause of strife in the marriage, leading her husband to file for divorce on July 10. Laura Fleiss claimed that when they got married, her husband agreed to have only one child. When he learned she was pregnant for a second time, she claimed in her legal filing, he “demanded” she get an abortion. On July 4, she claimed, he threatened to divorce her and cut her off financially if she did not terminate her pregnancy, and she said he told her: “Next time I see you, I don’t want to see your stomach.”
The following day, Fleiss claimed, her husband called her a profanity and a “$50,000 whore.” Then, on July 6, at one of their three homes in Hawaii, Laura Fleiss claimed in the filing, her husband became physical: He “forcibly grabbed” her cellphone from her, and as she tried to get it back, he threatened to “shove [her] down the stairs.” At the bottom of the staircase, she claimed, he grabbed her body, pinned her up against a wall and held her there. She said she broke free, but he “aggressively” pushed her — a claim she said is backed up by photos of bruises and security camera images she submitted to the court.
Fleiss claims her husband then got in his pickup truck while yelling “I’m going to punch your face in”; as she stepped on the footboard trying to get her phone from him through the truck’s open door, she claimed, he started to reverse and “forcefully shoved” her off the vehicle.
She said she subsequently went to the Hanalei district of the Kauai Police Department to file a report; the local authorities told The Times that the report was “not publicly available at this time” due to the ongoing investigation.
Fleiss, in court documents, denied that he assaulted his wife and insisted that she was the one who lashed out.
“I have not hurt, attacked or attempted to physically harm Laura or our child” Fleiss said in a declaration filed Tuesday. He also submitted text exchanges with his wife and offered to supply video footage of the incident for the court to review.
In the court documents Fleiss claims his wife had lied to him about whether she was on birth control when she conceived; that he’d taken his wife’s phone to see if she was hiding anything else; and that she’d attacked him as she tried to retrieve her phone.
“The entire time I was running out of the house and to the car, she was pounding on me with her fists, jumping on my back, and attacking me trying to get the phone back.” Fleiss said. “I kept telling her to get away from me.”
In one of the text exchanges Mike Fleiss submitted to the court, a person identified as “Laura” writes: “I love you, Mike. I know saying I’m sorry won’t do much but please know that I know this was the worst decision of my life. And I know I’ll pay for it in the most painful way.”
Fleiss’ representatives declined repeated requests to comment on the situation. His attorney, celebrity divorce attorney Laura Wasser, wasn’t available for comment. A representative for Laura Fleiss declined to comment on her husband’s version of events.
“The Bachelor” is by far the most significant achievement of Fleiss’ Hollywood career, which began in the early 1990s when he ditched a short-lived stint as a sports journalist and went into television to work on hidden-camera prank shows. His first hit was 1998’s “Shocking Behavior Caught on Tape,” which in 2003 he told Vanity Fair he was “proud” of “even though it was a sleazy, disgusting little show, with a bartender stirring a drink with his penis.”
But he became a name brand after producing “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” the 2000 Fox special that saw 50 women compete in a pageant to become the bride of a wealthy suitor. The stunt attracted a whopping 23 million viewers, but devolved into controversy when it emerged that the show’s star, Rick Rockwell, was not actually a millionaire and had allegedly hit an ex-girlfriend.
While Fleiss’ production company took heat for not properly vetting Rockwell, he clung to the fact that the show had attracted so many eyeballs. It wasn’t long before he decided to reboot the conceit of the show — stretching it out over six episodes and making it more romantic — and call it “The Bachelor.”
Fleiss’ other forays into television have not been so fruitful. Last summer, he created another reality series for ABC called “The Proposal,” in which contestants tried to find someone to propose to within one hour. But the series, which ran for 10 episodes, never managed to attract more than 3.7 million viewers. In 2016, he produced TLC’s “Love at First Kiss,” on which two strangers kissed to see if they had chemistry before speaking; that show also lasted only one season.
Fleiss, who grew up in Fullerton and is a first cousin of the so-called “Hollywood Madam” Heidi Fleiss, has been divorced before. He was married to Alexandra Vorbeck — his high-school sweetheart at Fullerton’s Sunny Hills High School — for 24 years until they split in 2012.
He has also had a previous run-in with the law. In 2014, the L.A. County district attorney charged Mike Fleiss with disturbing the peace after he got into a dispute with his neighbors, then-married Brooke Burke and David Charvet. The “Baywatch” actor claimed that Fleiss — objecting to the behavior of the couple’s dogs — put a speaker on his Malibu property that blared the sound of barking canines in the direction of the Burke-Charvet household. A judge dismissed the charge against Fleiss in March 2015.
Fleiss met his current wife in 2012, when he was a judge for the Miss America pageant. Laura — then Laura Kaeppeler, and Miss Wisconsin — won the competition that year, and the two wed in 2014. The ceremony was officiated by “Bachelor” host Chris Harrison.