Pleasures don’t come guiltier than my annual the island of love to fix. There’s something coyly addictive about watching absurdly beautiful 20-somethings fight over £50,000 in making and breaking relationships, while living on top of each other in a claustrophobic luxury villa.
It takes reality TV voyeurism to a whole new level, with claims of attraction, flirtation and rejection in front of millions. The series has also been rightly criticized for its uniform promotion of idealized body types that require obsessive levels of diet, exercise, and surgical enhancement, a lack of racial diversity, and its fast fashion sponsorship deals.
Its saving grace is that it hasn’t been entirely unresponsive to criticism (this year’s contestants are the most diverse yet and embrace the “pre-loved” fashion for the first time). After two former candidates took their own lives in 2018 and 2019, ITV says it has embarked on a journey to improve the wellbeing of contestants since the early series which were plagued by heavy drinking, smoking and bullying.
The broadcaster says it takes its duty of care to participants seriously and has put in place a robust mental health assessment before the start, ongoing psychological support, counseling sessions after the end of the program and training on how to deal with abuse on social networks, of which there are bound to be plenty. Access to alcohol is strictly controlled in an environment where competitors are filmed 24/7.
A participant was repeatedly reduced to tears after being bullied with personal comments and asides
There have certainly been times in the past two or three series where bad behavior has gone unchallenged and the series has felt cruelly rigged to generate excessive conflict. But they’ve been tempered by the sweet positive — blossoming romantic relationships, lasting friendships characterized by caring and affection, joyful reunions with family members — which contrast favorably with some of the purely actionable reality formats promoted by services. unregulated streaming services like Netflix.
Take the American Series Love is blind, for example, in which groups of candidates date separated by a screen, with the aim of getting engaged without ever seeing each other. People with insecurities who clearly shouldn’t be near a reality TV show are sated with booze, which inevitably leads to tears and screaming matches. The first series made for horrible viewing; a participant in the second series has just announced that he is sue netflix over alleged violations of employment laws, claiming producers encouraged attendees to drink alcohol on an empty stomach, limited their access to food and water to the point of starvation, and underpaid them . Amazingly, none of that stopped him from being nominated for an Emmy.
But this last series of the island of love took on a much more obnoxious tone than those of past years, prompting thousands of viewers complaints to Ofcom. There was more toxic male behavior than usual, with contestants tricking each other into disrespecting their partners and adopting double standards when it came to their own behavior. For the second time in the show’s history, the charity Women’s Aid felt have to comment about the misogynistic and controlling behavior that some men have shown towards female candidates; one of the candidate’s sisters even posted a excuses for his behavior. A contestant was repeatedly reduced to tears after being bullied with personal comments and asides and, after another contestant walked off the show clearly distressed, citing concerns about her mental health, ITV inappropriately featured an interview with him on his spin-off Show After Sunreplaying excerpts from his stay at the villa.
Related: ‘Alcohol is a hand grenade’: How reality TV went from Big Brother booze to Love Island nosecco
All of this means that ITV cannot credibly claim that it meets its duty of care to all participants. Putting together 50 minutes of camera action over 24 hours of material gives producers enormous control over how their shows’ stars present themselves. The activities they are required to participate in bring the conflict up and down, and former contestants have shared how they are encouraged to hold particular conversations with each other. The producers apparently made a conscious decision to encourage negativity this year; for example, the games at which competitors were held predictably encouraged rather than defused bullying behavior. This comes at the expense of both the bullies and the bullied: some of the misbehaving contestants have received death threats directed at social media accounts run on their behalf by friends and family.
To some degree, reality TV will always be an ethical gray area. Encouraging contestants to get drunk and make a fool of themselves for the entertainment of others clearly crosses the line. But most of these TV programs use devices like annoying contestants to produce more interesting interactions with each other (there are no books, movies or music to be had in the villa, just hours nothing else for the company). Some would argue that consenting adults have signed on and potentially have a lot to gain from lucrative after-show contracts and sponsorship deals. The po-face might say that if you look at such garbage in the first place, you have no right to complain.
For 18-34 year olds, the launch of Love Island was the second most-watched TV show this year after Eurovision
I have a different point of view. Millions of people connect the island of love every year; for 18-34 year olds, its launch was on second most-watched tv show this year after eurovision. ITV is a public service broadcaster, regulated by the Ofcom Code, which was updated in 2020 to include a duty of care to program participants. He has a responsibility not to encourage or promote coercive controlling or intimidating behavior. I don’t accept the idea that there’s a trade-off between making the show more positive and more engaging; some of its most gratifying moments come from watching the contestants learn and grow during the series, and it has at times provided a great talking point about healthy relationships, boundaries, and consent.
Viewers’ reaction to the harmful behavior shows that many don’t like seeing it play out on their screens. But much of it has focused on individuals perceived to be at fault and in itself constitutes bullying on social media. responsibility for cleaning the island of love rests solely with ITV.
• Sonia Sodha is an Observer columnist