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City Honors grad a key player in 'The Bachelor Winter Games'

LOS ANGELES -- Buffalo native Bennett Graebner is going to the Olympics.

The City Honors graduate is a key player in "The Bachelor Winter Games," which premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday on WKBW-TV.

Graebner already has won a ratings gold medal as one of three showrunners of "The Bachelor," which keeps humming on ABC after years of romance, hot tubs and controversy.

ABC is using the four, two-hour episodes of "The Winter Games" as counter-programming to NBC's Winter Olympics coverage in South Korea. The show also features a performance by Fredonia native Ruthie Collins, a singer and songwriter now based in Nashville.

Wearing a 1990 AFC title Buffalo Bills hat to an interview at a downtown Los Angeles restaurant, Graebner explained the idea behind the Winter Games and his role as the Dear Abby of the regular program in which people try to find a lifelong partner under fantasy conditions.

"There is always so much talk about what happens, not so much in the competition, but in the Olympic Village," said Graebner, a graduate of Vassar College who got his master's from USC film school. "What do the athletes do? They hook up with each other. Let's kind of do something with our participants and see what happens in the village."

Bennett Graebner, left, is a showrunner for "The Bachelor."

A dozen favorite American cast members were joined in December at a Vermont resort with 14 contestants from Sweden, Germany, Japan, China, New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain.

"It was great," said Graebner. "There were all kinds of issues that I found interesting that I didn't anticipate."

For instance, women from China don’t kiss on their version of the show.

"So you can imagine how different things are country to country," said Graebner. "The idea of fantasy suites to some of these people is totally foreign. No pun intended."

Viewers should expect more agony of defeat than the thrill of victory in athletic competition.

"These people are the world's worst athletes," said Graebner. "It is a comedy of errors."

Since joining the program a decade ago, the 46-year-old married father of two has been part of about 30 editions of "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," which feature "group dates, hot make-outs, hot tubs and fantasy suites."

Graebner's role has changed. Five years ago, he might have been the guy in the back of a limo doing interviews as someone cried.

"I rarely do that now," said Graebner. "Other people do that thankfully because that was very emotionally taxing."

He now spends more time on location with the series, making sure everything is going swimmingly. As he has aged, his relationship with the casts has changed.

"Ten years ago, I felt like the big brother to them," he said. "I'm very much the dad now… Often times, if someone is upset at something, they will ask for me."

Graebner offers Dear Abby-like advice.

"If they say, 'I'm thinking about talking about my favorite color and my love of Mexican food,' I'll say that is probably a bad idea. It is a bad idea for the TV show. It also is a bad idea for your relationship. If you are trying to get to know someone on what I would call almost a speed-dating pace, you have to accelerate that process."

Some of the contestants have become lifelong friends. He and his wife, Vanessa Aberman, have been to three of the weddings sparked by the show.

"If there is one thing I've been pleasantly surprised by, it is I never thought I'd have such strong relationships with people who are so different than me," said Graebner. "A lot of people are from the south, often deeply religious and I'm not. Yet we find common ground and I consider many of them my friends."

A Bachelor in that category is Benjamin Higgins, a Christian from Indiana. Higgins, who didn't get to the altar because the woman he picked broke his heart, praised Graebner.

In an email, Higgins wrote a patient Graebner was there to lean on for logic and wisdom while dealing with thousands of other issues.

"Bennett, even in all his years on the show, still shows a deep emotion for the situations that truly affect the contestants," wrote Higgins. "Some contestants may not get to know Bennett because he is quieter, more logical, and less fiery but his impact on each contestant and the show is irreplaceable."

Their relationship hit a brief speed bump when ABC ran a promo featuring Higgins' mother that upset The Bachelor.

Graebner said he kind of broke down and felt terrible when that happened.

His wife advised him to stop caring too much and to distance himself from what was going on.

"I kind of can't do that," said Graebner. "I don't know if I'd be good at my job if I did it. I do care about these people on the show and I do want them to find love, to be successful, to feel good and have an experience to feel good about and, if I feel like that hasn't happened, I feel like I've failed them on some level."

Graebner fixed the promo, which Higgins felt said "a ton about the man he is."

"Bennett is one of my greatest friends, supporters, mentors, and trustees," wrote Higgins. "Love that dude."

Graebner was named after his parents, retired Buffalo lawyer Dianne Bennett and retired professor and writer William Graebner. They frequently visit the program – and have been on it.

When a Bachelor named Sean took a date to the Guinness Book of World Records Museum to set the record for the world's longest kiss, a crowd waited outside.

"They kissed for 7 and half minutes, which is a little disgusting by the way," said Graebner. "At the end, with crowd around, there is an older couple standing next to them making out. That's my mom and dad. My dad was so excited when he went to the Buffalo Club gym and the guy at the parking lot said, 'I saw you on 'The Bachelor.' "

Graebner would prefer no controversies, but they are inevitable. Recently, Peter told Bachelorette Rachel after he was chosen that he didn't think he could commit to someone he met in a fantasy world for six weeks.

"I found that really interesting, "said Graebner. "I get invested in the people and I love Rachel and I love Peter… You saw both points of view. I understood why he was reluctant to get engaged and felt like he wasn't ready to get engaged. But I also understood why she felt like 'hey, you came on the show, you know what the show was about and I want to get engaged.' "

He hopes every season that someone from Buffalo will be cast, but the drought is within range of the playoff drought just broken by Graebner's favorite team.

"I would love to shoot a hometown episode in Buffalo," said Graebner. "It would be fantastic."

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