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ABC’s ‘Conveyor Belt': Love(d), Actually

The Endemol USA dating series could’ve been a disaster. It wasn’t. Plus: Big numbers for “The Bachelor”

ABC’s December-long wooing of female viewers paid off Monday with solid numbers for the return of "The Bachelor" and an encouraging start for the awesomely different "Conveyor Belt of Love."

More on the future of the latter project in a minute, but first, the numbers:

The new cycle of "The Bachelor" — cheesily dubbed "On the Wings of Love" — notched a 3.3/8 in adults 18-49 from 8-10 p.m. Monday, averaging 9.5 million viewers overall. That’s up six percent in the demo from last winter and the best premiere number for the series since September 2007. Not bad for a show that was written off for dead just a couple years ago.

Against college football on Fox, repeats on CBS and the barely breathing NBC drama "Heroes," "The Bachelor" easy dominated all key female demos.

Even better news for ABC came at 10 p.m., where Endemol USA’s backdoor pilot "Conveyor Belt of Love" showed some spark.

The wacky dating show, in which male contestants are paraded in front of single ladies via a, yes, conveyor belt, averaged a 2.7/7 with adults 18-49. That number could change slightly since it includes a minute of "The Bachelor," but the fact that a totally new show held up so well behind an existing hit has to be encouraging.

What’s more, "Conveyor" didn’t collapse at the half-hour and actually held on to its 7 share throughout its hour. That indicates viewers were intrigued by what they saw.

ABC didn’t make the show available for preview before its broadcast, no doubt because it figured (rightly) that most critics would either dismiss it as a silly one-off, or worse, attack it as yet another sign of reality TV’s corrosive impact on American culture.

Whatever.

TV MoJoe has never been able to get through an entire episode of "The Bachelor," but "Conveyor Belt of Love"? We’d be on board for more episodes.

Fact is, what could have been a mean, sordid hour was actually a fun, kinda campy, but surprisingly well-done hour of TV.

The conveyor belt really is just a harmless gimmick. This show is really a spiritual successor to the now-defunct syndicated dating shows "Blind Date" and "Elimidate," in which contestants went through an entire courtship process in 30 minutes or less.

"Conveyor" speeds things up even more. The first 3/4ths of the show is basically the audititon rounds of "American Idol," but for dating, with the guys scrambling to catch the attention of the "judges" (and "win" an actual date with one of the women). You could also compare it to happy hour at any bar in America.

While most of the contestants and the ladies who’re looking take things semi-seriously, producers cleverly added in some comic relief via guys who know they don’t have a chance of getting a full date. Ergo, the male ballerina.

Nobody here is expecting to find true love, and producers don’t pretend that’s what the show is about. Did anyone ever think "The Dating Game" would lead to love and marriage?

It was slightly disappointing that the actual dates were given such short shrift in the pilot. If ABC decides to take this to series, it might be a good idea to give viewers more time with a bit fewer contestants, expanding the dating segments and even doing some follow-up to see if couples decide to continue their relationships. Also: It would be nice if the dates were a bit more exciting than getting an ice cream cone (clearly, TV’s budget crunch is no myth if that’s all producers can afford).

Anyway, breezy and fun is one thing, but there’s no reason "Conveyor" has to be completely shallow.

The other possibility is that ABC might well decide that, as fun as "Conveyor" is, it might not work as a weekly series on primetime TV. It’s not hard to see the gimmick getting old after a while.

Two possible solutions:

One, why not keep the same group of bachelorettes each week? It took the gals on "Sex and the City" an entire series to find happiness; why not continue to follow the core cast as they attempt to navigate the meat market of the dating world over several months?

The other idea: Keep the show as is, but move it to syndication. "Conveyor" is a spiritual success to shows such as "Blind Date" and "Elimidate" — it shares some producers with those series, in fact — and the syndie marketplace could use something other than court shows right now.

"Conveyor" could’ve been a train wreck but actually turned out to be harmless fun, no matter what some tsk-tsking critics will no doubt say. Endemol should do all it can to keep this concept alive.