One hundred years ago this week, the company that would become known as the British Broadcasting Corporation was founded in London. Transmitting news and entertainment across radio and television, the BBC would go on to have a far-reaching impact on not only the United Kingdom, but also audiences worldwide. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is celebrating one of the BBC’s chief exports to the United States: British TV. From Masterpiece Theatre to Love Island, join us as we look back on some of the iconic shows that have crossed the pond in the past century.
Everything I know about Love Island UK, I’ve absorbed through social media osmosis. I cannot tell you a single winning couple, but I can tell you that they got there through banter and cracking on. I can’t tell you what said banter was, but I know that it came either because of, or more likely, in spite of being a good match on paper (pronounced “pay-pa”). In my heart, I know that Amber is a sweetheart, Ekin-Su is mother, and almost all of the lads can kick rocks. I could replicate the font of the islanders’ famous water bottles by hand; I’ve surmised that they all sleep in the same room like it’s a polyamorous boarding school, and that someone named Casa Amor keeps entering the villa to be a messy bitch who loves drama. I know all of these things, and yet I have not watched a single episode of Love Island UK. Such is the cultural prevalence of a series that is watched by millions and millions of people six nights a week for two months straight.
The premise of Love Island is simple: Pretty young things are dropped off at a Mallorca villa each summer, tasked with playing hottie-musical-chairs to earn the votes of the British viewing public who are tuning in live—again, I say—six nights a week, for a chance at winning £50,000 and maybe a significant other. Traditionally, a Love Island UK season—excuse me, series—runs for eight weeks each summer, airing a new episode Sunday through Friday of each week. The most recent season of Love Island UK aired 49 episodes in 57 days, averaging close to 3 million viewers per episode.
The runaway popularity of Love Island stands in direct opposition to every think piece I’ve ever read about how prestige British TV is better for its brevity; that this country has perfected the miniseries and knows how to leave a good thing alone and keep an audience wanting more. But Love Island isn’t prestige, and there is nothing mini about it. As one Brit tells me while I attempt to make sense of how so much of of an entire sovereign state tunes in to watch the same television series each night, when here in the United States Bachelor in Paradise is begging to get that many viewers two nights a week: “Love Island is a gas-station hot dog. We know we are trash, and we are proud of it.”
And as far as engaging, prolific heartburn-inducing entertainment is concerned, there’s plenty for Love Island UK to be proud of. Since it landed on ITV in 2015, the series and its rotating cast has become ubiquitous not only to the British TV landscape, but to the British media cycle, British fashion trends, and, of course, Americans’ obsession with enigmatic British culture as represented on its most popular reality TV exports. But it’s easy enough to figure out why Americans would be obsessed with the extravagant makeup, tans verging on CGI, Newcastle accents, the career path of a stationary salesman, and using context clues to figure out what a bellend is or what it means to be a tuna melt (double no thanks from me). What’s more challenging to translate, as a born-and-bred American reality TV obsessive, is why British people are so invested in the prolific Love Island summer lifestyle. And why Love Island USA’s arrival on CBS shores in 2019 has received such a lackluster response by comparison. So I asked some Love Island experts to have a bit of a chat, learned what Fiat 500 Twitter is, and found out why the U.K. is made for Love Island, and Love Island is made for the U.K.
British people know: Love Island is not the first of its kind. It is the continuation of a well-established U.K. culture of nightly appointment viewing. Named after a character in George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984, Big Brother was first broadcast in the Netherlands in 1999 before franchising into the U.K., where it quickly became a national entertainment phenomenon in 2000. The show followed a group of housemates living in a camera-rigged home, filmed 24 hours a day, and broadcast—you guessed it—six nights a week. Liam, a cohost of the transatlantic Love Island podcast Across the Pod (along with fellow Brit Rory and American Emily, all of whom use only their first names on the pod for job-related anonymity), says that years of English families sitting down to watch Big Brother during the summers—when kids were out of school and bedtimes were later—primed a future Love Island audience to adhere to its demanding summer schedule. “This was long before reality TV became reality TV,” Liam says of the early Big Brother years. “It was like this incredible human experiment, and almost the whole country gave up their time and dedicated themselves for this short period of time, this intense five or six weeks to watch Big Brother.”
There was no greater objective to Big Brother UK than showing people behaving in everyday ways, in everyday circumstances, under the guise of a slightly heightened premise of being filmed and aired in real time. There was entertainment in merely watching the cards of humanity fall as they may—entertainment enough to fill an hour of broadcasting time six nights a week each summer. That nightly hour didn’t need to make the British viewing public smarter, or more curious, or better people for having watched; it simply needed to give them something to talk about around the watercooler the next morning.
Big Brother US was certainly popular during a similarly foundational time in American reality TV, but it was nothing compared to the U.K.’s version. And on a cultural level, it never swept the nation quite like a certain other U.S. franchise. Orlaith Condon, presenter of the popular Love Island podcast My Pod on Paper, points out that a likely reason the U.S. can’t seem to replicate the popularity of Love Island UK, despite our viewing public’s clear interest in it, is that where British reality TV was predominantly forged from the trash can fires of Big Brother, American reality still exists under the twinkling candlelight of The Bachelor. Like The Bachelor, Love Island is a dating show, but that’s where the similarities end. However, the comparisons are important in understanding why Love Island USA—with a third of the viewers and maybe a 10th of the cultural impact—doesn’t translate as must-see TV in the States, despite Americans still going to great (sometimes illegal) lengths to watch the U.K. version. “I think the fundamental difference between the U.S. and the U.K. versions is this idea of love,” Condon says. “Because we all kind of snicker at the love part on Love Island. … It’s really just Date Island, it’s just Have-a-Bit-of-Fun Island, whereas I think in the U.S. there’s more focus put on that ‘I’m here to find my forever match.’”
Liam has a similar feeling about America’s overly earnest relationship with reality TV: “The Bachelor tries to make itself glossy with its Vaseline lens, it tries to be aspirational … but Love Island wears its trashy heart on its sleeve.” There’s no self-deprecating voice-over on The Bachelor acknowledging that the absurdities we’re watching are, indeed, the point; no Iain Stirling, the Love Island narrator, nicknaming an offensive contestant the Travel Agent “because when people hang around him, they always wind up heading to the airport.” “We don’t do self-awareness,” Emily says of America’s inability to replicate the easy tone of Love Island UK. And our attempts to be self-aware and poke a little fun—like The Bachelor’s much more entertaining spinoff, Bachelor in Paradise—still push the ultimate idea of an engagement, which Condon notes is, behaviorally speaking, much wilder than “Love Islanders cursing and fighting in bikinis.”
For decades, the U.S. has battled with the idea that televising the human reality experiment is worthwhile only if it’s working toward some more noble goal. But what if the goal is just entertaining the hell out of 4 percent of a country six nights a week for eight weeks straight?
For those eight weeks a year, Condon says Love Island UK has surpassed appointment viewing and landed squarely in compulsive viewing territory: “If you’re not watching it, I have nothing to talk to you about for the next two months, I just don’t.” Because, while Love Island may have copped Big Brother UK’s broadcasting format, there’s a new and necessary element to consuming Love Island that Big Brother did not have: Twitter (and also Instagram, TikTok, and Reddit). The conversation around Love Island, and the fact that the show is airing in real time in the U.K., is the reason that Americans simply cannot wait to stream for the episodes to arrive on Hulu two weeks after they drop in the U.K., and the reason Brits make sure to finish their after-dinner drinks by 8:30. “If you’re not there at 9:00 p.m. to see the start of that episode and watch it through, you’ve kind of missed the spark,” Condon says.
That spark is the conversation around whatever it is that’s happening that night on Love Island. Half the fun of watching the show is seeing what Irish Twitter is picking up on, what Black Twitter has to say, what terrible-take Fiat 500 Twitter—apparently a U.K.-only online realm as adorable and basic as the titular car—has come up with about that night’s most toxic couple. And you can only get in on that running commentary if you’re seated at 9 p.m. GMT every Sunday through Friday, phone in hand, soaking up the algorithm. It’s why an industrious chunk of the American reality-TV-consuming public have invested in VPNs or gotten their PhDs in illegal 1 p.m. PT summer Twitch streams (but you didn’t hear it from me). “It demands you be there,” Condon says. “It exacerbates this FOMO culture of people being like, ‘I cannot be the only one in work tomorrow, or in my WhatsApp tonight that doesn’t know what Ekin-Su did. I cannot be the only one who’s like, “Girls, what happened?’” It’s awful!”
As with most reality TV, it’s just plain fun to form opinions on something that doesn’t personally affect you; and with Love Island, it’s even more fun to exchange that opinion on Twitter with millions of people who can also weigh in. But despite the series’ best efforts to keep the stakes low and the drama high, the constant conversation around each Love Island season is bound to go deeper than just recoupling from time to time.
And that’s part of the passion too. “The original plot for TV execs was likely: Let’s get young, fit singles in bikinis all summer along, make them dance in stupid costumes, spray them with slime, and all this cheap, sexualized shit,” Condon says. “But what I love about Love Island that I think has sparked such fandom, is the actual conversations that come out of people’s behaviors, and why people act the way they do.” Every season is dotted with examples of the sort of healthy honesty and confrontation that’s necessary in a lasting relationship (to date, eight seasons of Love Island UK has produced three marriages, one more than the 26 seasons of The Bachelor), while the villa’s close quarters force the contestants into surprisingly complex scenarios. In between the silliness, and the slime, and the attempts at dating, “There are these moments that cause actual big conversations about misogyny, race, gender dynamics,” Emily says. And because Love Island airs hours after actual events have been filmed—not to mention, because watching it is, technically, democracy—it also provides the unique opportunity to fight back against whatever injustices in real time.
In Series 3, there was Jonny, who swiftly outed himself as anti-feminist and was subsequently doomed to be dumped from the Island. And Condon specifically shouts out Dami and Indiyah, two of Series 8’s fan-favorite Black contestants who ITV seemed to have no interest in airing until the viewing public made it known they had a great interest in seeing them coupled up. “It was really the fandom being like, ‘Sorry, we can see something happening here. Why are we not seeing more air time for these guys?’” And suddenly, Condon says, there was a change in focus that can only be attributed to all the Dami and Indiyah chatter happening online. Because Love Island doesn’t have a specific structure it has to stick to, and its production team can be responsive to fan demands, and it’s not, say, crafting story arcs four months in advance of airing, “[production] has the freedom to say, ‘Let’s give them a re-coupling now and get those two together.’ … So you kind of feel like you have more of a hand than just the vote.”
Dami and Indiyah are still together, and they still look gorgeous. But it’s that power to participate that makes Love Island’s six-nights-a-week schedule seem more like an opportunity than an unimaginable barrier to entry.
The Love Island Ecosystem
Plus, as Emily points out, Love Island actually gives you the chance to long for it. In order to watch Love Island UK as it was intended to be seen, you have to tune in six times a week, so you may be a little sick of it by Week 8 … but by the time Week 1 rolls around again 10 months later, the new season is all a Love Island fan can think about. Compare that to The Bachelor franchise, which, at most, gives fans a two-month break from its many iterations. In fact, when Condon tells me about the constant drip of content the Love Island marketing team keeps up during its eight-week runs, I think they may, in fact, be evil geniuses. “Schedule is everything during Love Island season,” Condon says. If she hasn’t released new episode details from the midday press release on the podcast’s Instagram by lunchtime, she has an inbox full of DMs demanding to know what’s going on. “Because people know that is coming into my inbox at that time; they know that around 4:00 p.m., the teaser for tonight’s episode is going to be going up on YouTube, and then on Instagram … and it’s that kind of regimented schedule that’s almost necessary to get people in the rhythm together, because then you’re creating these bursts of conversation throughout the day. So at midday, everyone’s like, ‘Oh my God, who’s going to go? How’s it going to work? Is it going to be a them vote or a we vote, or what’s going to happen?’”
Love Island itself is just one hour in what seems to be a 24-hour Love Island day, and it’s all part of the British media cycle itself. Publications like The Daily Mail have entire verticals devoted to Love Island. “Honestly, if Meghan Markle announced she was pregnant with triplets, and Ekin-Su threw a drink in Davide’s face, there could be a conversation about, ‘Where are we placing these?’ At the right moment in the series, [Love Island] genuinely might get more traffic.”
Emily rightly points out that we simply don’t have an outlet for this kind of reality TV coverage in the U.S., and we also don’t have this kind of public focus on just one cast. A Bachelor in Paradise contestant may become a mid-level Instagram influencer if they play their cards right, but for a Love Islander who sticks around just a few weeks, the cards have been played for them. Condon calls the U.K.’s most popular reality show “a sausage factory for celebrities,” and says the tandem growth of Love Island and fast fashion in the U.K. cannot be ignored: A young woman who goes into the season working reception at her local dentist could walk out with 1.2 million Instagram followers and the ink still wet on a PrettyLittleThing contract
because Love Island UK isn’t simply a British TV show—it’s fashion, it’s influence, it’s news, and for millions and millions of people, it quite literally defines an entire season in the U.K. For all its past faults, that sounds fun. Liam mentions growing up and having to wrap up summer dinner in time for Big Brother, and now it’s the same with Love Island: “It grabs the attention of a whole nation essentially. … We’re all going to care about this one thing for this one, really intense time.” Of the upcoming Series 9 reattempt at a winter season, Condon says she’s intrigued because, by all means, it should be nice to stay inside and watch bikini-clad singles during a season when you want to stay inside …
But there’s just something about Love Island in the summer. “Even the music, those pop-y Ibiza anthems …10 months out of the year, I hate that kind of music,” Condon says. “But during the summer, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, give me a bit of Ella Eyre!’” She says those Sunday-through-Friday nights spent watching Love Island each summer aren’t wasted time, they’re building to something: “I can’t wait to turn on the music on Saturday, get a bit glam and go out, you almost feel like you’re slowly revving yourself up all week for that one Saturday night out.”
A reality show that actually shifts a vibe? One that makes life a little more fun, not just on your couch, but off of it? That might just be worth six hours a week, a VPN, and finally finding out who Molly-Mae is and why she has 6.7 million followers.