Great Expectations, which existed into the ’90s, was the original dating technology.
Starting in February 1976, lonely people across Los Angeles drove to a windowless, one-room office on the 18th floor of a building in Century City — the first outpost in what would soon become a national dating franchise called Great Expectations. There, in a room crammed with two TVs, a set of chairs for interviewing, and a stack of cassette tapes, they stepped into the future of dating.
The company’s founder, a 26-year-old named Jeff Ullman, ushered members over to a video camera, where he recorded a three-minute conversation introducing each person to the world. Ullman cycled through questions like, “Do you work hard? What makes you angry? What really motivates you? What are you looking for in a man/woman?” Then he added each videotape to the Great Expectations library and let members peruse the rest of the tapes. Appended to each was a one-page résumé outlining the person’s height, location, job, and so on, so that members could filter out candidates before popping in a tape. This was “videotape dating,” or “video dating” for short.
Great Expectations members were an eclectic set: Among other things, members announced in their videos that they were seeking out “someone who believes in 85 percent of women’s lib,” someone who craved “an innocuous transcendental experience” or who lived “the combined lifestyles of Henry II, Sir Thomas More, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Monsieur Rick.” Another declared that all he really wanted was to “stare into a woman’s eyes, get drunk with friends, and have high times.”
But the ability to watch — and then select — potential dates from a series of videos was fundamentally new. Ullman’s central idea was that a video recording could showcase a more honest version of a person. As one reporter for a New Jersey home magazine put it at the time, the beauty of video dating was “the impact of seeing someone ‘alive’ on the screen, talking about himself honestly and openly.” Plenty of people had “marvelous” personalities that would not typically show up on a written questionnaire — only in a video profile could those personalities shine.
People loved the richness of the medium, according to Dawn Shepherd, an English professor at Boise State University who has researched the origins of online dating. “You get many of the benefits of meeting someone in person without having to, well, meet them in person,” she said.
In the past 12 months, in the name of pandemic safety and of highlighting a different side of users’ personalities, modern dating apps have stumbled on that same thesis all over again. Most of them now encourage users to add videos into their profiles; Hinge and Bumble are making video chats a central part of their apps; and the newest crop of dating app startups are largely video-first. The dating app Lolly, for instance, is being pitched as TikTok meets Tinder. As Tinder put it in a press release introducing its two-second video feature Loops, adding in video helps people “show more personality, which is the best way to get more right swipes.” The video dating that started in the 1970s is a mostly forgotten innovation, but as modern dating apps increasingly remake themselves to center video elements, they are unknowingly borrowing from early companies like Great Expectations.
Shepherd said that while developers might not have created modern dating apps explicitly with video dating in mind, “I think in some cases, you can draw a direct line from video dating to contemporary online dating and contemporary dating apps.”
That parallel runs deeper than just an increased emphasis on video. The fundamental structures of modern dating apps were first perfected in the 1970s. Video dating offered a way for people to sift through potential dates remotely, and it was the first truly intimate example of, as Shepherd put it, the “browsing people” model of dating that we know today.
Great Expectations was not the earliest video-dating service. The idea gained ground a year earlier, when a New York-based company called Videomate launched with the ad: “Now, you can see and hear your date on closed-circuit TV before you date. It’s fun! It’s riskless! It’s new!” For $60, members received a 90-day membership that covered the cost of a video recording and access to the company’s cassette library. The early reviews, like one September 1975 article from the Associated Press, compared video dating to “window shopping.” “You can look but you don’t have to buy,” one customer told the wire service.
According to Shepherd, video dating arrived thanks to the convergence of two separate trends: On one hand, these services sprang up right as VCR technology was entering the mainstream, which meant that making and sharing videos was easier than ever. At the same time, the cultural revolutions of the 1960s had cleared the way for a new openness to relationships and dating.
A few other dating businesses had sprouted up beforehand, namely a late-19th-century service called the Wedding Ring Circle, which sold photobooks that listed out singles in the area and their hobbies. But the pace of innovation accelerated in the middle of the 20th century, and “in the ’70s and ’80s, all of these dating services pop up,” said Shepherd. “There was a company called Dinner Work that would arrange dinner parties where people would meet. There were travel agencies that would do singles travel.” Some computer dating services were also cropping up, although they were extremely limited in scope.
Most video-dating companies — which had names like Visual Dates Ltd., Teledate, Introvision, Date-a-Max, and VideoDate — flamed out within a few years, unable to convince people to spend hundreds of dollars a year on their services. But Great Expectations blossomed. By the end of 1976, it had traded in that one-room office for a fancy space in Westwood.
On a video call, Ullman — who now runs a CBD company called GoodFOR — told me that even before his company had taken off, he knew he was onto something big. “We’d go to bars, and we’d hand out these little cards, and the big headline said ‘bars hate us,’” Ullman said. Bar owners, needless to say, did not take kindly to the suggestion that video dating rendered them irrelevant. “They’d throw us out even though we were in the parking lots,” he said.
Buoying the company’s growth was its intensive mailer campaign: Great Expectations blanketed households across the US with ads that proclaimed, “No more wasted time in singles bars. No more losers.” In total, Ullman told me he sent out close to 1 billion mailers.
Ullman spread his company across the country on a franchise model. The new Great Expectations locations — called “Member Centers” — were mostly found on the bottom floors of office buildings, and they featured big tables where people could sort through written profiles (black binders indicated men, red binders indicated women) and about a dozen private booths for viewing videotapes. (“Our Member Profile binders were made of leather, and not vinyl or plastic,” said Ullman. “Why? Members aspired to quality.”)
As the service ballooned, it became a small pop culture hit. The central romance in the 1979 film A Perfect Couple, written and directed by Oscar winner Robert Altman, takes place thanks to Great Expectations. Video dating also made a cameo in Cameron Crowe’s 1992 movie Singles (where Tim Burton played the video-dating employee who filmed each interview). Ullman became a regular on the talk-show circuit, and he was always a bit of an eccentric figure. When one of his competitors, VideoDate, went under, the LA Times reported that he ripped the company’s sign off of the front door and brought it home with him as a “trophy.”
MADtv — a ’90s-era competitor to Saturday Night Live — regularly parodied the company as “Lowered Expectations.” One representative sketch featured a fictional employee pitching the service: “Would you describe yourself as shy? Old-fashioned? Not on anyone’s A-list?” he said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t find … somebody. And that’s why Lowered Expectations may be for you.”
As the company grew, so did the price of membership. By 1986, customers were paying $625 for the lower tier — a six-month plan where people could only submit their own cassette tape but not browse through the others — and $2,000 to both submit a tape and browse other people’s. (By the end of the company’s life, prices had gone as high as $3,790 in some cases for a multi-year subscription.)
At one point in the early 1990s, Great Expectations had 49 franchises and was earning $65 million a year in revenue. But Great Expectations never escaped the stereotype that people who signed up for video dating were inherently desperate.
In its orientation videos to new members, the company tried to address that stigma head on. “The users are saying things like, after I signed up, am I a loser? What am I doing?” Shepherd said. Then a Great Expectations employee cut in to say that what they were feeling was normal. “There’s a lot of members who feel the same way you feel, who have come here and joined Great Expectations because they don’t want to be alone,” a member services manager at the company said in one orientation video. But it never seemed to convince enough people. “It’s because of stigma that video dating never became the dominant way of facilitating relationships,” she said.
The rhythms of video dating, though, have lived on. When a member watched a video they liked, they would indicate it on a written form, which they turned over to Great Expectations. As on Hinge, the recipient was alerted when someone liked them, and only if the feeling was mutual could either person see the other’s full name or swap contact information. A Great Expectations employee called members to say that they’d found a match; Ullman called this a “mutual consent.”
There are other parallels. Just as Hinge is now monetizing itself by allowing users to pay $3.99 to send a rose, Great Expectations let customers send a “membergram” — a personalized note — for $2. Normally, selecting a date was impersonal; buying a membergram was the only way for a member to explain why they were interested.
And much like Raya, the exclusive celebrity data app used by Channing Tatum, Great Expectations figured out how to cater to famous members. Ullman launched “For Your Eyes Only,” a program where elite members could browse through other people’s tapes but keep their own hidden behind the front desk. Only if the celebrity found someone they liked would Great Expectations release the tape to that person; otherwise, no one would know that the celebrity was a member.
But the people who dated with Great Expectations also risked a level of awkwardness that modern dating app users are spared. After all, to browse matches, people had to show up in person to the Great Expectations’ offices. And running into an unrequited match — or a former date — was not uncommon. In 1996, one member recounted how a woman had opted to send him a membergram after seeing his video, a move he found “aggressive.” Then, while he was flipping through her profile and deciding whether to say yes to her, she walked into the building. “I had just watched her video five minutes before,” he told the LA Times.
Scott Soehrmann, a manager at an Illinois-based food manufacturer who joined Great Expectations in the ’90s, told me in an email that, soon after signing up for the service, he realized that his previous girlfriend was also a member. “That was kind of weird,” he said. “There were a couple of girls from high school in there too.”
But after a few dates, Soehrmann received a request from a nurse named Terri. When they met up, they hit it off. The pair are still married today. “My wife always likes to say she paid good money for me,” he said.
Video-dating services may have stumbled into a model of courtship that reflects the online dating world today, but by the 1990s, when the first set of dating sites popped up — starting with Kiss.com in 1994, then Match.com in 1995 — video dating didn’t really stand a chance. Online dating was far cheaper, and it could all be done remotely. (A revolt from Great Expectations franchisees, plus an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission for overbilling, also did not help.) Ullman sold his company to a financial services firm in 1995; it shut down several years later.
Yet as dating apps revamp themselves around video, the strands of that experiment linger. And Ullman, at least, isn’t afraid to take credit. On the video call, he told me, “We created every good thing that is on any dating service now.”
Author: Michael Waters