A new series of Love Island is upon us and, at this point in the programme’s life, we know what to expect: a group of beautiful young people will spend the summer looking for love – or at least something resembling love – and imagining how many more Instagram followers they will have when they return to the UK.
The tabloid newspapers will give the stars of the programme top billing, with the usual galleries of beefcake and bikini shots. Non-viewers, meanwhile, will be mystified by Twitter trends referring to what’s happening on Love Island – and there will be a fair amount of hand-wringing from critics about why people go on the programme and why other people watch it.
In 2018, Love Island’s popularity among television audiences was echoed by Bafta voters, with the programme winning the Bafta for Reality and Constructed Factual. Although it’s a Bafta category that often raises eyebrows, the win reflected the programme’s presence in the cultural zeitgeist.
Of course, what would have made the Islanders different to us 20 years ago – their willingness to expose themselves on television – is what makes them similar to us now. Most of us live some of our lives on screens – whether that be television, YouTube, or on social media. So why does reality television continue to concern us – and what do we get out of television participation?
Ordinary people have been appearing regularly on television since the 1940s, when hidden camera shows, talent shows and game shows were added to the US television schedule. The gameshow Queen For A Day, which was broadcast nationally from 1956, is viewed as an antecedent for the displays of emotion central to reality television’s appeal: women competed for prizes by tearfully revealing hardships they faced. Like Love Island, it attracted large audiences as well as harsh critiques.
The format of Love Island, where participants are filmed around the clock while they live together, has its roots in programmes such as MTV’s The Real World (first aired in the US in 1992), which documented the lives of seven strangers living together, and the globally successful Big Brother (first aired in 1999 in the Netherlands).
These early examples of reality television were praised for providing visibility and voice to populations often excluded from televisual representation, including members of the LGBT community and – in the case of The Real World – people living with HIV: its 1994 series featured openly gay and openly HIV-positive AIDS educator Pedro Zamora.
While the format in its many variations has become a normal and standard part of factual entertainment offerings, it still holds the potential to concern us. There is, for example, a recurring charge that reality programmes exploit vulnerable participants, an accusation that retains a classed dimension (nobody seems concerned about the toffs of Made In Chelsea). And when tragedy strikes, as it has recently for some former reality and talk show participants, we question the support and aftercare provided.
The death in May of Jeremy Kyle Show guest Steve Dymond led to the cancellation of the long-running show and to an inquiry by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee. The deaths of Love Island participants Mike Thalassitis in March 2019 and Sophie Gradon in June 2018 resulted in updated “duty of care” measures for the programme.
So what is it about baring their souls – and often their bodies – before a mass television audience that attracts people? The lazy answer is that participants are all fame-hungry narcissists, worryingly typical products of a culture dominated by vacuous celebrity. From self-made YouTube films to appearances on designed television sets, willingness to appear before others and have the authenticity of one’s identity and depth of one’s feelings judged by others is a way of participating in the world.
It contrasts starkly with the dullness of conventional forms of civic participation – the best known of which is the anonymous act of expressing one’s beliefs in the privacy of a polling booth. It is an irony of contemporary politics that democracy has come to be associated with the invisibility of citizens, many of whom believe that nothing they do or say in or out of the polling booth can impact public affairs.
The popularity of self-exposure through media is a move in the direction of visibility. It is a way of saying “I am here”. Philosopher Hannah Arendt’s definition of the public domain as a space “where I appear to others as others appear to me, where [people] exist not merely like other living or inanimate things, but to make their appearance explicitly” points to an understanding of public participation that is conspicuously absent in contemporary politics, while increasingly prevalent in popular culture.
People want to see other people who are faced with the kind of challenges and dilemmas that they face themselves. For all of its exotic setting, Love Island is just a place full of individuals trying to relate to one another. It is tracking how that happens that fascinates viewers and makes participants feel that they are engaging in something meaningful.
Appearing on television has managed to become normal while continuing to fascinate, compelling us to grapple with questions of what participants hope to get out of participating, what they actually get out of participating – and how we can better understand the gap between their experiences and what we see on screen. Dismissing participants as merely driven by their hunger for fame is overly simplistic (just as it would be to label all political activists as power-hungry would-be leaders or crazed fanatics). People put themselves before their fellow human beings for complex reasons.
Making sense of such reasons is best conducted by talking to them and working to understand how current programmes relate to the longer history of public participation in television formats, and by exploring (and potentially tightening) the production rules that guide participation.
As long as there are willing participants, there will be interested audiences: to paraphrase a 2018 islander: “We’re loyal viewers, babe.”
This blog first appeared on The Conversation UK, and can be read here