Has Reality TV Lost Its Bite?

Audiences want drama and heartbreak, but they want them without the cruelty and nastines. Can television shows keep up?
Millie and Liam, the winners of Love Island series 7
Millie and Liam, the winners of Love Island series 7. Photo: ITV

Something strange happened to the general public during the last season of Love Island. After so many  seasons of grandiose declarations of love beside flickering fire pits, and the slanging matches shouted across patio decking, we lost interest. The premiere of season seven only pulled in 3.3 million viewers, making it the lowest-rated launch episode of the flagship ITV show since 2017. 


What viewers did tune in did so with expectations perhaps unmatched in any other season of the hit reality show. They wanted drama, heartbreak, twists and turns, but they wanted them fair-trade and cruelty free. As the season wore on, we saw an intense backlash to the show’s producers online, with contestant Faye’s outburst towards boyfriend Teddy prompting the most public complaints to Ofcom in the show’s history. 

It wasn’t hard to see what was going on. Love Island – a reality TV show that relies on producer machinations, heartbreak, and emotional manipulation to pull in viewers – was colliding with the duty of care ethics required from socially conscious, modern audiences. Put simply, for the most part, viewers had lost their taste for blood.

Love Island’s travails marked a paradigm shift in the ongoing evolution of reality TV. Whereas viewers once delighted in gory spectacles of humiliation and occasionally violence (like the now-legendary Fight Night in Big Brother 5), more recently, viewers had become cognisant of the impact of reality TV fame on audiences, and they expected more of producers, requiring them to consider the duty of care for participants like never before. 


It was a reasonable reaction, given the heartbreaking string of suicides associated with the show. Two former Love Island contestants, one partner of a Love Island contestant and host Caroline Flack, had all died by suicide in recent years. But it meant that reality TV producers faced a seemingly irreconcilable tension: between making a show entertaining, and making it ethical. After all, who wants to see people sit around all day, being nice to each other?

But if Love Island’s days were numbered, what would become of lesser reality TV shows? It’s this question that prompted the journalist and author Pandora Sykes and I to investigate the past, present and future of reality TV for our ten-part BBC Radio 4 audio documentary series Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV. We both grew up watching, and loving, reality TV, but we also felt increasingly conflicted about a genre that has historically ground up its competitors and spat them out like sunflower shells. Would the genre survive into the 2020s? Or would we eventually come to see reality TV like bear-baiting: a benighted diversion for depraved audiences, and a relic of the past?

Initial omens were not good. For all that Love Island producers spoke of welfare packages put in place to protect contestants from the harmful effects of social media trolling and overnight celebrity, commentators and contestants alike were sceptical of how much they could do. Speaking in Unreal, Love Island’s Jake Cornish said that trolls had threatened to murder him in front of his infant niece. He insisted he was unaffected by the criticism, saying he had a thick skin — but would he have felt comfortable admitting differently, given the cultural norms we impose upon heterosexual men? 


Even leaving aside the ethical issues with reality TV, another fundamental problem remained: across the genre, we’ve lost the authenticity that once made reality TV shows sing. Contestants know what audiences expect of them, from the high-camp wardrobes beloved of Selling Sunset’s army of glamazon realtors to the pithy one liners uttered by the show’s villain, Christine Quinn, with an eye to what will go viral on social media.

“The Selling Sunset cast came versed in the language of high end reality TV,” notes the author and broadcaster Elizabeth Day in Unreal. “So they come to it ready to play, ready to bring out all the most designer absurd elements of their wardrobe, to pretend they walk around in those sky high heels every single day as they’re showing properties.” 

Meanwhile, aspiring influencers swamp Love Island producers each year, hoping for the turbocharged boost to their Instagram followers a stint in the villa will bring them. As author Symeon Brown explains in Unreal, people saw the success of former Islander Molly-Mae Hague, now a PrettyLittleThing creative director, and wanted a piece. “Hustle culture,” says Brown, “is the dominant orthodoxy of our time. This is where a lot of the younger generation see the image that they should be pursuing: the ultimate hustler, being an entrepreneur, being so-called self made. “

But when all the contestants are so visibly auditioning for their Instagram endorsement deals, they blur into one. Plus there's only one Molly-Mae: for every six figure Boohoo deal for an ex-Love Island contestant, there are dozens more people unable to go back to their normal lives and jobs, but not making enough money from influencing to make a living. “The show can make you a villain,” says the writer and historian Paula Akpan in Unreal, “it can make you a hero, but it can also just make you a nobody.”

But despite all of this, despite the uniformity and the social media backlash and the image control and the exploitation, it’s unlikely we’ll see the end of reality TV. It’s too profitable, too sprawling, too entrenched. What we’ll see instead is an evolution of the genre into something kinder, less exploitative, and more resonant with our progressive, mental-health aware times. It’s already happening: shows like The Masked Singer and The Great British Sewing Bee have won legions of devoted fans, and there’s nary a tear in sight. “I don't think the ‘nasty’ approach is going to come back for a long time,” says The Masked Singer executive producer Claire Horton, a veteran of entertainment TV.

Reality shows rise and fall, and many would say that Love Island has had its day. The current crop of reality TV producers have to square audience demands for entertaining content while treating contestants fairly, and preparing them for life outside the show. It’s 4D chess, played blindfolded, while Twitter watches for every misstep. But reality TV is a genre filled with remarkable talent, so if anyone can square this circle, its the producers working in the format today. And besides, the reality TV genie is out of the bottle now anyway. There’s no way we’re putting it back. 

Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV, is out now as a boxset on BBC Sounds.