Standing in the Fijian sunshine alongside seven other beauties, she heard the host announce: "The least popular girl on Heartbreak Island is ... Ella."

The 20-year-old Auckland commerce student, the youngest on TVNZ's brutal reality show, was understandably distraught.

The 16 contestants, vying for $100,000 in prize money, had based their decisions on three photos and a brief bio.

The scene left many wondering: has reality TV reached peak nastiness?

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There were complaints to the state broadcaster and co-host Matilda Rice was left reeling from the flak she copped online. Even the other contestants said they felt sick about the process.

And in an open letter to the network, an Auckland woman with two young daughters called for Heartbreak Island to be taken off air, saying it depicted an unrealistic view of love and dating.

But don't expect drama levels on our screens to be dialled back, say experts.

"I think it makes for fantastic television," Rice tells the Herald on Sunday when asked about the drama level on the show.

She says things settled down after viewers "got an idea [of] what the show was about past that first episode".

"I haven't had one nasty message since then, really."

Contestants didn't need prompting. "They really got into the show and ... they had a positive experience as well."

Co-host Matilda Rice copped online flak after a gritty episode of Heartbreak Island. Photo / Supplied
Co-host Matilda Rice copped online flak after a gritty episode of Heartbreak Island. Photo / Supplied

Rice is already a reality TV star after appearing on season one of The Bachelor NZ, where she found love with bachelor Art Green.

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She says Heartbreak Island contestants can find love on the show. "If you ... go into it for genuine reasons and if you are actually open to meeting someone it's absolutely possible."

The battle for ratings has never been higher.

Traditional TV channels are now vying for viewers with competitors that include Netflix and Lightbox.

In January it was reported latest research showed 1.2 million New Zealanders have access to a Netflix subscription – about 434,000 households.

Lightbox was said to reach 810,000 Kiwis via 300,000 nationwide subscriptions.

"With the amount of reality television on our screens these days, it's not surprising that the boundaries are pushed when it comes to programme makers seeking high ratings," says Dr Philippa Smith, senior lecturer in English and new media at AUT's school of language and culture.

"Television is a highly competitive market and every year we see programmes that up the ante to attract the audience.

"So yes, they may become too harsh and brutal for New Zealand audiences, as we have seen with some of the responses on social media and the mainstream media to Married at First Sight and more recently Heartbreak Island.

"But that's publicity for the programme – and potentially increases the audience."

TVNZ has defended the show, which airs three times a week in a 7.30pm time slot, with an "uncut" episode airing at 9.30pm on Fridays, It says it "reflected the realities of dating in a Tinder age".

Otago University media and communications lecturer Dr Rosemary Overell thinks the appeal of these types of shows is people can relate to situations to their lives.

Rosemary Overell. Photo / File
Rosemary Overell. Photo / File

"These programmes, no matter how harsh or cruel, are continually popular with [viewers].

"I would suggest everyday life for many Kiwis is relatively harsh or cruel – people living in cars, huge student loans - so a programme which might offer a view of something more brutal may appeal."

Smith says audiences respond so strongly because: "I guess this relates to whether people are perceived to be treated fairly on these shows.

"So for example in the case of Heartbreak Island when people are told in front of everyone else that they are the 'least popular' – we can all identify with how awful that must feel."

Overell says reality TV picks related character types and relatively relatable situations: sexual jealousy; issues over the division of labour at work and home, to appeal to the audience.

"There is also an encouragement in these programmes to be 'team whoever' … which plays out on Twitter and social media."

It was unsurprising some parents might be upset about the effect shows might have on their children, Smith says.

"I really worry about how young people might perceive love and relationships based on these shows seeking romance."

Drama levels on reality shows can be high.

Married at First Sight NZ, returning to Three later this year, has pairs of strangers, matched by experts, meet for the first time on their wedding day.

Ben and Aaron stand at the altar on married on Married At First Sight NZ. Photo / Supplied
Ben and Aaron stand at the altar on married on Married At First Sight NZ. Photo / Supplied

In an episode in the first series, a TV executive intervened at a reunion dinner for contestants when an argument broke out among a number of them about past behaviour and personal grievances.

And some viewers were left cringing during contestant Ben Blackwell's comments over husband Christchurch ambulance driver Aaron Chisholm. Blackwell said he fielded threats of violence daily as the show aired.

Self-described "bichelorette" from season one of The Bachelor, Chrystal Chenery, was also labelled the villain, as was season two's Nazanin Khanjani.

And last year's The Block NZ portrayed twins Julia and Ali the same way.

They drank alcohol on-site and escaped punishment, and were caught on camera spying on the other teams and mocking their designs.

A social media backlash ensued and they were sent home for three days, angering fellow contestants.

Smith says some shows overstep the mark with the drama at times.

"Even I have sat on the sofa and cringed at times, thinking, 'Do these participants really know what they are in for when they sign up for these programmes?'

"There is likely to be a threshold for some audiences when the drama level becomes too high and who will switch off particularly if they identify with a person and put themselves in their shoes.

"But there is also the schadenfreude effect, where some people find enjoyment in watching others in certain predicaments and regard these programmes as entertainment.

"It's important to remember that reality television programmes are constructed, however, and hardly reality in the strict sense of the word."

TVNZ's director of content, Cate Slater, says reality TV formats can be high stakes.

Cate Slater is TVNZ's director of content. Photo / Michael Craig
Cate Slater is TVNZ's director of content. Photo / Michael Craig

"Contestants are highly invested in their show's outcome - they're in it to win it. With that comes a lot of very real emotion.

"Viewers get to see that tension play out. It's one of the reasons these sorts of programmes resonate so strongly with audiences."
 
She says TVNZ takes the mental and physical health of contestants seriously.

"We're cognisant of the fact that appearing on TV brings profile and we also understand that social media feedback can be immediate and that trolling can be an issue.

"It's for that reason we have a range of health care professionals involved throughout production and after filming has wrapped."

Rice says TVNZ offered the Heartbreak Island contestants and co-hosts confidential access to a counsellor or psychologist.

MediaWorks chief content officer, Andrew Szusterman, says reality TV on Three is real.

"Having said that, the nature of TV is that it's always evolving and within that, some people will always find certain content challenging.

Andrew Szusterman. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Andrew Szusterman. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

"At Three our goal is to entertain the audience - we genuinely want moments that resonate with Kiwis while always ensuring that we portray our characters fairly.

"When it comes to reality TV, we can't put words in their mouth - nor do we want to. The things they say, they say."

Although some local reality TV shows have been criticised, in the UK, The Great British Bake Off - described by a critic as the nicest show on television - was the most-watched show on UK TV in 2015 and 2016.

The show was also a strong performer for Prime here, which has screened all eight series, says Sky head of entertainment content Karen Bieleski.

TVNZ's set to screen The Great Kiwi Bake Off later this year.

Smith says there have long been gentler reality TV series, such as fishing and house transformations shows.

Reality TV is important to Kiwi audiences because New Zealanders do like to see themselves on television.

"That's partly because that reinforces our sense of national identity, particularly if the programme is set in New Zealand with familiar locations, our culture and personalities/celebrities," Smith says.

"With New Zealand being a small country, too, it's often we know a contestant, or someone else who knows them – so it makes us feel connected.

"And then, of course, there are both the social media and the mainstream media that get caught up in these programmes so they become part of a national conversation. David Seymour's experience on DWTS is an example of that."

David Seymour, with partner Amelia McGregor, put his dignity on the line in Dancing with the Stars. Photo / Supplied
David Seymour, with partner Amelia McGregor, put his dignity on the line in Dancing with the Stars. Photo / Supplied

Despite controversy surrounding reality TV, the Herald on Sunday last year revealed tens of thousands of would-be contestants lined up for a shot at fame in the 2018 Kiwi season.

Smith says some may want to go on the shows to further their careers or gain a greater public profile. "It's worked for some but that's a risk, particularly when the social media comments can be harrowing."

Contestants definitely need to be thick-skinned.

"These competitive reality TV shows are a game -  some will be good at it and others won't. There are winners and losers."

Asked if there is too much pressure on contestants to play along during the making of reality TV shows, Smith says: "Contestants sign agreements with production companies when becoming contestants and presumably understand what the show is about.

"But it's often the 'surprise' factors in these shows that elevates the drama for both the contestants and the audience – so you would expect people to have learned by now that they should expect the unexpected. It's all part of the game."

Smith says she does not know if reality TV makers and the networks that screen them have any legal duty of care. "That will be down to lawyers and the contracts."

"But you might expect there should be a moral obligation by the makers in selecting contestants that meet certain criteria when it comes to their suitability for a show."

Overell says "TV is an industry – it is a workplace".

"The producers have a duty of care that any other employer has. I would encourage anybody involved in the TV industry to unionise collectively for better conditions."

Slater says reality will continue to be a staple for TVNZ.

"Reality formats will continue to play a key role in our diverse local line-up. Coming up this year we have The Great Kiwi Bake Off, Project Runway New Zealand and My Kitchen Rules New Zealand.

Nazanin Khanjani and Tim Mullayanov on Dancing with the Stars this season. Photo / Supplied
Nazanin Khanjani and Tim Mullayanov on Dancing with the Stars this season. Photo / Supplied

"Reality formats are big performers for us on air and OnDemand," she says. "Not only do they result in huge audience numbers, they also create talkability and traction on social media."

Bieleski says some of Prime's most popular programmes, such as Storage Wars and Pawn Stars, are based around "transactional reality".

"And we specialise in local observational series such as The Loggers and Demolition NZ [on later this year]. Our viewers like a broad range of factual content: Prime's recent documentary series Forensics NZ is our top-rating series for the year to date."

Szusterman says Married at First Sight NZ was a great success for Three.

"The final episode was the first choice with viewers and for the season, the show averaged an 8.3 rating and 24.9 per cent audience share in the commercially important 25-54 demographic - results we are confident will continue this year with season two.

"We have also seen huge success in the latest season of the Australian version, which is the highest-rating reality series in New Zealand so far this year."

"Reality TV is only one part of what we do, albeit a very noisy part," he says.

"Within the wider line-up on Three we have a huge array of timeslot winning shows covering news and current affairs, comedy, factual, drama and general entertainment, and all of these genres play a large part in our overall mix.

"The real trick is to curate the right mix of content at the right time and if you really get it right, capture the zeitgeist.

"The return of Dancing with the Stars NZ is a great example of that - watching people dance is enjoyable, and we wanted to get the family back into the lounge leading into winter.

"We've purposely made the show an uplifting shared viewer experience, because we could feel our audience looking for that."

Reality TV is not a new phenomenon, Szusterman says.

"It's been around for close to 30 years now in some way, shape or form.

"There is one thing for certain, it will continue to evolve, it will continue to be popular and it will continue to be written about."