Reality Romance: From Dating Games to Heartbreak Island

By Ashley Hekkens (Account Director – Media), Holly Eden (Account Manager – Media) and Hanna Grant (Media Account Executive)

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Reality shows centered around the search for love have been around for more than 50 years, and in that time have evolved dramatically. The beginnings of the genre can be traced back to 1965 and the popular show The Dating Game, in which an individual decided which of three eligible contestants they wanted to date. The catch, however, was that all three contestants were hidden behind a screen, and the final decision was based solely on their answers to a series of questions, rather than first appearances.

In the last fifty years, love reality TV has evolved from innocent matchmaking shows to series that foreground sex and drama, as exemplified by Temptation Island (2001) – a show that tested the commitment of several couples’ relationships, as each lived with a group of high-spirited singles of the opposite sex on a tropical island. The show was highly controversial when it aired, testing public boundaries around romance, lust and commitment. Other highly popular and long-running shows in this genre include The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, which have perfected a cyclical model that offers previous contestants another chance at love. More than sixteen years after The Bachelor first premiered, this formula continues to prove highly successful among audiences, motivating more spin-offs that promise the franchise’s unique brand of fantasy romance, such as Bachelor Pad and Bachelor in Paradise.

During the mid ’00s, MTV tried its hand at making love reality TV for a younger generation, creating several trashy but entertaining shows such as Date My Mom (2004), Next (2005) and Parental Control (2006). A decade later, MTV continues to produce shows in this genre, promoting shows such as Ex on the Beach, which injects drama by inviting ex-lovers to interrupt budding romances, and Are You The One, which bring science into the mix to scientifically match singles with their ‘perfect match’. Love and reality TV is a combination that has proven extremely successful – and the latest craze in this genre, Love Island, is no exception, with its popularity growing season by season!

From Celebrities to Heartbreak: A Brief History of Love Island

The first series of Love Island aired in the summer of 2005, and was initially called Celebrity Love Island. Twelve single celebrities spent five weeks on an island in Fiji to find love, and were voted off the island weekly, until the final couple standing won £50,000. The second series began in July 2006, and dropped ‘Celebrity’ from its name, inviting non-famous contestants onto the island. In 2015, the format was rebooted in the UK, and four seasons later is proving more popular than ever.

In the local market, following immense interest in Love Island UK in 2017, TVNZ have continued to own this genre, bringing a closer-to-home expansion of Love Island Australia, starring celebrity host Sophie Monk, to Kiwi screens. When TVNZ launched Love Island UK in 2017, its fast momentum took them by surprise; within the show’s first four weeks, Love Island UK overtook the number of Shortland Street streams by almost 20%. The show continued to dominate as the top-streaming show on TVNZ On Demand for the remainder of the season – making it a no-brainer to not only bring it back, but also expand the portfolio this year, running the UK and Australian iterations side-by-side. TVNZ have also created their own spin on the format, producing an original local format titled Heartbreak Island, which is less about love and more about challenges, hosted by The Bachelor NZ season one winner Matilda Rice and radio presenter Mark Dye.

The Demand for On Demand

In addition to the genre’s enduring popularity, we believe that the success of the Love Island format among New Zealand audiences is telling of recent shifts in media consumption habits.

Binge-watching culture has skyrocketed in recent years, and is becoming the norm for how younger generation consume content. Many Kiwis love nothing better than lying in bed on a rainy Sunday afternoon watching episode after episode. The fact that Love Island is only playing On Demand in NZ means viewers can watch it on their own terms, whenever and wherever they want, rather than being restricted to sitting in front of the TV for four nights a week at a scheduled time. Love Island episodes are released on a near daily basis, so serious commitment is required to keep up with all of the content available. The seasons aren’t short, either – totaling approx. 50 episodes – but fans have no qualms with this level of time or dedication.

On Demand viewing caters to the two types of millennial content viewers – binge watchers, who are able to devour the entire backlogged season without an expiry date to worry about, and the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) watchers, who need content as soon as it becomes available so they can participate in watercooler chats with their colleagues, friends, and online fan communities. By fast-tracking episodes from the UK, our local On Demand offering is able to compete with other SVOD platforms that boast international watercooler series, like Lightbox with Suits and Netflix with Riverdale.

The next step will be owning the social chatter around these watercooler moments locally and fueling these conversations in New Zealand. In regards to total On Demand streams, the third (and current) season of Love Island UK appear set to overtake the popularity of the preceding season. There have been 2.4 million streams to date, with the show only halfway completed, compared to a total of 3.7 million streams for the previous season. Alternatively, Love Island Australia attracted a total of 3.2 million streams, which is pretty impressive given it was the first season of Love Island down under, and ran at the same time as its UK counterpart. The rise in streams and unique reach of Love Island may be attributed to its rise in popularity but also signals a rise in the popularity of On Demand platforms, not just as a place to catch up on shows you’ve missed, but rather as a unique online content source.

A Local Spin: Heartbreak Island

Love Island‘s popularity may also result from the fact that people like to see people like themselves on screen – this is why reality shows do well more generally, and is also why having a local flair/spin is important for a New Zealand audience. TVNZ attempted to capitalise on this with Heartbreak Island, however their airing time on linear TV was not quite right – a decision the network is well aware of. The season launched at the same time as the two Love Island series were running across TVNZ On Demand, which immediately invited comparisons between the two formats. Heartbreak Island looks set to come back for a second season, with casting call announcements already made, so it will be interesting to see what amendments (be that scheduling or content) TVNZ make to the show going forward.

The Love Island format represents a signifcant evolution in reality romance content. The show isn’t just about finding a love connection, but also understanding that your romance needs to be consumable for the audience, whose support in the form of weekly votes are required to keep them in the show. A step beyond even the Bachelor franchise, Love Island draws in the audience, making them feel like they are responsible for the outcome as a way of keeping them invested in the show. It certainly leaves us wondering – what will they think of next in the reality romance evolution?

Date: August 02, 2018