TVNZ is defending its controversial new reality show Heartbreak Island after a viewer slammed its portrayal of dating as a popularity contest.

The viewer took to Twitter to condemn the show as "disgusting" and "damaging" and called for TVNZ to air the show at a later time than the 7.30pm timeslot.

The show sees 16 singletons shacking up together in bures on a Fijian island, with regular opportunities to swap partners. The winning couple receives $100,000.

At issue was the moment in Heartbreak Island's opening episode in which two contestants were revealed to be "the least popular" on Heartbreak Island.

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Ella and Tavita were paired together after they received no votes from any of the show's other 14 contestants.

"The least popular girl on Heartbreak Island is ... Ella," declared Dye to the distraught cast member, who admitted the incident made her feel like an outcast and she wanted to cry.

One viewer said TVNZ should be "ashamed of yourself" for airing the show in a prime time slot where teenagers would see it.

"You've got this so wrong," she said.

But TVNZ defended the show, saying the first pairings "reflected the realities of dating in a Tinder age".

"As the series unfolds the heart breakers re-evaluate their rankings and learn popularity doesn't keep you safe."

That wasn't enough for the viewer, who said Tinder was rated R18 and the 7.30pm show should air in a time slot after 9pm.

A TVNZ spokesperson told the Herald Heartbreak Island "is a bold programme - it's meant to be flirty and a bit racy".

"It is also scheduled for a 7.30pm PGR timeslot and so the content in the show is appropriate to meet that rating standard," the spokesperson said.

Herald critic Anna Murray called the scene "savage" and "cruel" and called out another scene in which a contestant was labelled a "catfish" for using flattering photos. She labelled it "essentially a live-action Tinder sequence".

The backlash has already reached co-host Matilda Rice, who took to Instagram to ask viewers to stop sending her angry messages.

"Filming that was obviously quite difficult. Telling Ella and Tavita that they were the least popular there, it was hard to film and it was hard to watch," she said.

"People need to understand that I was doing a job ... I was there contracted and paid to do a job, and I did that job."

She defended the scene as being "exactly what Tinder is but obviously it's a lot more confronting when it's face to face and not behind your phone or a laptop or whatever".

"Please don't DM me anymore messages telling me I've done the wrong thing because I've had enough," she wrote.

Read more: Matilda Rice to trolls: 'I've had enough'

Tonight's episode is set to feature the show's first duo being eliminated.