Audiences can't get enough of reality dating TV shows, including First Dates and Married at First Sight. But few programmes have been able to drum up the same level of excitement as Love Island, which returned this week after an 18-month break.
With viewing figures usually in the millions, Love Island, in particular, has become ubiquitous in British pop culture since its arrival in 2015. But beyond the apparent appeal of watching people go through the up and downs of finding love, what is the enduring attraction of this genre of reality TV?
The gimmicks of shows like Love is Blind and the upcoming Netflix dating show Sexy Beasts, (in which participants wear animal prosthetics to mask their true appearance) may certainly explain why viewers tune in. But dating competitions like Love Island remain immensely popular despite introducing relatively little change in format from one year to the next.
For some, the apparent authenticity of reality TV is a key part of its appeal, particularly when watching "real" people seemingly fall in love. But there are different views within academic research on this particular appeal of reality.
Some have argued that the more viewers perceive a show to be authentic, the more their enjoyment increases (and vice versa). Others, however, propose that authenticity has become less important for viewers who are increasingly savvy to the fact that many reality TV shows are engineered to provoke dramatic moments. Instead, audiences are said to deliberately suspend disbelief to indulge in their favourite shows, accepting that realism is a fluid and ambiguous concept.
Indeed, scholars have argued that audiences enjoy trying to distinguish the real from the false in reality TV. This may explain the popularity of shows such as Keeping up with the Kardashians and others billed as reality TV despite widespread acknowledgement that scenes are scripted and key events choreographed. So if realism and authenticity aren't key attractions, what is?
The social media strategy
Audience engagement is a critical part of why these shows have remained so popular in the past two decades. Ever since the introduction of Big Brother and Pop Idol in the early 21st century, reality TV has offered viewers a chance to be part of the story. For the first time, audiences moved beyond passive viewers watching content unfold and became active participants, shaping outcomes and voting on the success and failure of contestants. In this sense, audiences were no longer just consumers but recast in a dual role of viewer-producer in a new participatory relationship.
However, audience engagement and participation are only part of the story. In fact, my research has found that for shows as popular as Love Island, social media is the key to success. Love Island's producers have made little secret that generating audience engagement via social media is central to their strategy. This approach seeks to elicit a loop whereby television and social media content feed back onto each other in a cycle, driving audiences to engage with the show across many platforms, including on TV, via the show's official mobile app and on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram.
Perhaps, more importantly, social media allows audiences to watch and engage with shows together, as the show is aired. In the past few years, fans of Love Island have congregated online every summer, creating a vibrant fan community mediated largely via Twitter and Instagram. They provide real-time commentary on the show, creating memes and gifs, predicting outcomes, and generally sharing their thoughts.
A sense of community
Though this form of multi-platform consumption is now common practice for many TV shows, for Love Island viewers, consuming the show across many platforms has become not only normalised but also a central part of their enjoyment.
In 2018, Sarah Manavis argued in New Statesman that "for an hour a day, Love Island made Twitter a kind place to be", explaining that the show's friendly virtual community overcame the usually confrontational and toxic nature of social media.
She claims that Love Island has gone so far as having "transformed the way we treat each other online" with open and supportive discussions among fans. Twitter posts at the end of one of the show's runs often capture this positivity:
Collective consumption of the show has even prompted fans to group together online to challenge perceived injustice and subterfuge by the show's own producers. One example of this was the infamous #kissgate in 2018 when Twitter users banded together to reveal that an apparently unscripted and impromptu kiss had actually been filmed in two separate takes, misleading viewers as to its authenticity.
However, it should be noted that alongside this positivity comes some negativity. For some viewers, part of the attraction of consuming the show online with others is the opportunity for trolling. This type of behaviour has even prompted Love Island to post a trolling warning ahead of the show's 2021 run.
Love Island has achieved the perfect blend of creating ways to engage audiences across multiple platforms and leading its audience towards largely friendly and vibrant online fan communities. With a default model like that (and a hungry fan base to contend with after a pandemic-related hiatus), it's no wonder Love Island remains immensely popular.