‘The Real Love Boat’ Producers on Turning the Series Into a Dating Competition Show — Without Charo (Yet)

Paolo Arrigo was giving the producers behind CBS’ “The Real Love Boat” a tour of the Princess Cruises ship he oversees when the creative team fell in love with the captain. They then asked Princess if they could borrow Arrigo for a few weeks — and that’s how, in addition to being a real-life ship captain, he now plays one on TV.

“We were scouting the ship and met Captain Paolo, who was the designated captain of the ship at that time,” executive producer Jay Bienstock tells Variety. “When we met him, we thought, ‘Wow, you are so charming and so interesting. We’d love to have you be on the show, as opposed to being the captain while we’re filming.’ And then Princess graciously gave him to us.”

Love, exciting and new. CBS is hoping you’ll come aboard. They’re expecting you. “The Love Boat” soon will be making another run, but this time as “The Real Love Boat” — a competition reality take on the classic TV franchise. The show, which premieres Wednesday, Oct. 5, features real-life singles looking for love on deck, along with a legit trio of supporting players, there to help in the matchmaking efforts.

Your Captain, Arrigo, who has been with Princess Cruises since 1996, eventually worked his way up to ship captain for the liner. Ezra Freeman, Your Bartender, joined Princess in 2019. And Matt Mitcham, Your Cruise Director, has held that job for 14 years (and apparently met his own wife on a cruise in 2016).

“We didn’t want actors, we wanted people that really did this for a living,” Bienstock says. “A real ship’s captain, real bartender, a real cruise director. And just like the original series, these people, besides doing their day jobs, their roles are to find singles and bring them together in the hopes of a match.”

Adding even more camp to the proceedings: Married couple Rebecca Romijn and Jerry O’Connell not only host the show, but they sing the iconic opening theme (made famous, of course, by singer Jack Jones).

“You cannot underestimate the value of the nostalgia of ‘The Love Boat,’” Bienstock says. “And then add in that theme song.” (Below, the opening to “The Real Love Boat,” sung by Romijn and O’Connell.)


“The Real Love Boat” first came about when Eureka Productions — which, coincidentally, is also behind a new version of “The Mole,” premiering this week on Netflix — started looking around for classic IP that might work as a dating show (a genre that is definitely on the upswing at the moment, thanks to breakout hits like “Love Is Blind”).

“With ‘The Love Boat,’ there was such a fantastic brand, and what would it be like if we took it to the unscripted space,” says Eureka CEO Chris Culvenor. “We worked closely with CBS, who were the rights holders of the show, and also with Princess Cruises, who were involved in the original show. It was a long development process because all the stakeholders involved really wanted to nail the tone, and make sure that we were building upon this brand as opposed to exploiting it in any way.”

Eureka, which is based in both the U.S. and Australia, was also then able to produce two versions of the show for two different territories (and for outlets both owned by Paramount Global). Before the CBS series was shot, Eureka produced an edition for Australia’s Network 10.

“That was hugely valuable,” Culvenor says. “We effectively did one lap around the Mediterranean shooting the Network 10 version, and then we did another around the same path shooting the U.S. version. By the time the CBS version came around, we had a really finely tuned machine going in terms of producing it. There were things that we did on the Australian version that worked really, really well that we obviously incorporated in the CBS version. And even now in post, there are things that we might be doing in the U.S. version that we look at and go, ‘Oh my god, that’s fantastic, we have to do that for the Network 10 version.”

The shows are slightly different in format — the Network 10 show will air several times a week, requiring more episodes versus CBS’ weekly release pattern, which means the Australian edition is paced a bit more like a soap opera, while the U.S. version focuses more on challenges. Both utilized much of the same Australian-based production crew. (Below, the Network 10 promo for their version, hosted by Darren McMullen, which also features Arrigo as captain.)


“The Aussies are rock stars,” Bienstock says. “Having done one trip around the Mediterranean, they would say, ‘You know what, just as you leave, say, Santorini right around 7 p.m., the sun on part of Deck Nine is perfect.’”

There was only one day for a switchover, as the Australian cast and producers left and the American team came aboard, which Bienstock called a “coordinated dance.”

Of course, the scripted 1970s-era “Love Boat” was mostly shot on a soundstage that re-created a Princess Cruise. In this case, Eureka wanted to shoot “The Real Love Boat” on a real ship — and that took a logistical feat.

“It took place over the summer in the Mediterranean,” Culvenor says. “It was about literally circling a cruise in the diary and planning everything to hit that timeline, because that boat was going on that cruise whether we were on it or not. It gave the show’s prep some momentum, and everyone a real focus.”

Bienstock says that meant shooting “The Real Love Boat” as 3,200 paying customers were enjoying their vacations at the same time.

“How do we as a production, shoot our show in the middle of all that without affecting anybody’s experience on the ship? And that’s where the Princess crew was invaluable,” Bienstock notes. “When can we use Lido Deck? The Fiesta deck. We want to use the basketball court. We want to use the club; we want to use multiple pools. To navigate around the ship, which is a floating city, you just can’t run around and go do stuff, or you’ll get lost. We were shooting a reality show in the middle of everything, and customers embraced it.”

Adds Culvenor: “When you shoot in a mansion or a villa, you generally have full control of everything. But when you’re shooting on a ship, there’s so much that is out of your control. There are certain spaces that we had purely cordoned off for production. But there were other spaces that quite rightly we shared with the guests. We were obviously very aware that people really were on holiday. I feel like we struck that balance really well.”

In some cases, the show was so embraced by vacationers so that the show developed “crew groupies,” as passengers kept popping up in and around the production. But Bienstock and his team embraced the background “extras.”

“It gave the show a real sense of authenticity,” he says.

Contestants were kept near each other on the floors, with production crew nearby in order to keep tabs. Meanwhile, two familiar faces also make an appearance in Season 1: Ted Lange, the show’s original bartender, and Jill Whelan, who played Vicki Stubing, the captain’s daughter.

“It’s really fun when you see the fictitious world and the real worlds collide,” Bienstock says. “Here comes Jill, meeting with Captain Paolo. Now you’ve got the TV scripted show version of the captain’s daughter meeting the real-life Captain.”

Bienstock said he reached out to a number of “Love Boat” stars, but scheduling was difficult to pull off for most. “For those two, everything just happened to line up. We were thrilled to have them.”

But one “Love Boat” staple that producers didn’t contact just yet was Charo. “In subsequent seasons, we can look at having some fun with people that appeared as guest stars on the original show,” Bienstock says.

The series opens with 12 singles, between 24 and 36 years old, hailing from across the country and Canada. They go on dates and compete in challenges to test their compatibility; as the show progresses and the boat stops in new ports, new singles are added while others must return to shore. Ultimately, one couple will win a cash prize and another trip.

“The idea that love is around the corner, and the corner happens to be somewhere in the Mediterranean, is really intoxicating,” Bienstock says. “And you have a married couple leading all this.”

Indeed, Romijn and O’Connell were cast to lean into the humor that was a part of the original “Love Boat” (which, although an hour-long series, was considered enough of a comedy that it utilized a laugh track).

“Jerry and Rebecca are naturally funny, and they have this great dynamic that obviously is 15 years of marriage in the making,” Culvenor says. “And you see that play out. You can almost imagine some of the discussions they must have when they’re driving in the car together or having dinner together, because they are so honest and open.”

To prepare for “The Real Love Boat,” Culvenor and Bienstock both went back and watched plenty of the original series for inspiration.

“I watched a ton of them. Oh my gosh, I watched a ton,” Bienstock says. “What struck me about the show that I loved is its innocence. Nothing works too hard. It’s a very natural, free flowing, fun show.” Added Culvenor: “I grew up in Australia, and the repeats of the show were on every afternoon when I’d get home from school. What I loved about that original was the adventure, the comedy and the world that it took you to. It felt so exotic. So that original was probably just sitting in my subconscious for years.”

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