'Love Island' Boss Compares U.S. Version to 'Game of Thrones': "You Don't Want to Wait for a Recap"

Executive producer David Eilenberg speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about adapting the international reality TV hit for American audiences with the "biggest first season commitment a broadcaster has given to a new reality format."
Courtesy of CBS
Cast of CBS' 'Love Island'

Love Island is ready to make waves in America.

Nearly a year after CBS announced a U.S. version of the international reality TV phenomenon, the network will see if Love Island can have the same impact on this side of the pond when it debuts Tuesday night.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the series launch, ITV America chief creative officer and executive producer David Eilenberg (Shark Tank, Hell's Kitchen) details Love Island's voyage to America and making a concerted effort not to veer away from the original U.K. show's tried-and-true format, which is marked by a five-night-a-week broadcast schedule.

"People are craving points of difference in a highly saturated TV landscape — and particularly in today's unscripted TV landscape. Love Island is a viewing experience that's not available to you elsewhere," he tells THR by phone from the show's set in Fiji, where 11 young, sexy singles — called "Islanders" — are currently trapped together inside a sprawling seaside villa in hopes of finding love, having fun and creating drama along the way. "That's exactly why I believe it will work in America. There's nothing quite like it."

On the surface, the premise of the show seems simple. Couples are initially paired up in a selection ceremony before competing together in a variety of games and challenges. While under 24-hour camera surveillance, the goal is to remain part of a committed couple as new Islanders infiltrate the villa, tempting singles away from their original partners. Uncoupled contestants are sent home by their housemates. One glance at Love Island might seem like a triple hybrid of Big Brother, Temptation Island and Bachelor in Paradise.

But, aside from its consecutive rollout each week, Love Island has stood out overseas due to its distinct tone and execution. The U.K. edition — along with more franchises in countries such as Australia, Germany and Denmark — includes biting commentary from a show narrator; favors a fluid structure; airs close to real time, with most episodes edited within the span of a day; and allows for viewer participation with fans voting, via an official app, for their favorite couple to win the cash prize at the end.

Love Island's American counterpart is also taking the same all-encompassing approach. It's a massive commitment from a Big Three network with a non-scripted project, but Eilenberg says there was no talk about adjusting the proven formula — pointing out that CBS ordered the show to series in 2018 after the U.K.'s fifth season became the most-watched show ever on ITV2. "CBS took a gamble, but they knew that this type of frequency is an integral part of the format. The network recognized that from the beginning," he says. "With this show, you either have to swing big or not swing at all."  

The latest iteration of Love Island, hosted by comedian and social media personality Arielle Vandenberg, will, of course, conform to American broadcast standards, but the TV vet promises that "the show is the show is the show." Below, Eilenberg talks more with THR about Love Island's U.S. crossover, its place in the era of Peak TV and reveals how he thinks the series will fare against its unscripted competition this summer.

What makes Love Island appealing for American audiences?

Because it's a communal experience. At its best, the sense that you want to create is that the show is on five nights a week — but Love Island is happening 24/7. And that can only take place if you have a motivated core audience that drives dialogue. You have to reach people. But then, between all the strategies — digital, marketing — they all have to cover the show in the way that sports get covered, which is 24/7, even when an episode of the show isn't technically on.

The nice thing about Love Island is it really is happening 24/7 during the airing window. A big differentiator from other U.S. reality shows is that each episode has not been in the can for six months. People want to feel that sense of urgency and immediacy. Younger viewers, especially, can smell it if a show has been in the can for a long time. So as much as it's an incredibly exhausting undertaking from the production side, it's worth it to get that sense that the show is happening in real life as you're watching it. 

We recently reported a 30 percent increase in original programming across all broadcast networks. How has this era of Peak TV influenced Love Island's place in CBS' summer lineup?

What's interesting about Love Island, in relation to how it interfaces with the sheer volume of Peak TV, is that, especially in the U.K., it's spoken to that very evident desire to have mass experiences that people can have collective dialogue around. It's funny: If you take the mass of Peak TV at face value, experiences like Love Island or Game of Thrones should not be able to exist because the notion is that audiences have become so niche and so segregated from one another that communal experiences almost become impossible to engender. But, actually, what shows like Love Island prove is that when you are able to gather people in that way, the experience is more potent than ever. So it's a very high bar for us to set for ourselves in the U.S. in a first season of a show. But that really is what it has become in the U.K. and part of what's made it an appealing format.

How do you anticipate Love Island will fare against its unscripted competition? CBS already has a three-night-a-week commitment with Big Brother, NBC has America's Got Talent and there is a one-week overlap with ABC's Bachelor in Paradise.

Our hope is actually that the Big Brother audience — because it's on the same network and because we're going to find various ways to reach them — will come to love Love Island as well. We will overlap with Bachelor in Paradise for a week for what I believe will be our last week and their first week. Hopefully, we have a fair amount of runway before that happens. Look, the summer is a really busy time for broadcast reality, and while that may have its drawbacks from a competitive standpoint, it's also indicative of how viewers behave. During the summer, you want a new reality show to fall in love with. You're certainly not competing with some of the big scripted shows. We're really hopeful that people will find the time and space to include us in their summer viewing as we get into it.

Summer can be a good time to binge shows from earlier in the year. Why should people make the commitment to Love Island instead?

Bingeing can happen on one's own schedule, but the experience of Love Island is fast and experienced in real time. You want to be part of the dialogue. Also, the way the show is produced and cut, it has a degree of genuine unpredictability and that's by design. As much as there is a format and as much as there are rules, there is a looseness to the way that the show is produced. And that means you can't exactly predict what's going to happen in any given episode or even in any given moment. Shows like that are best watched in real time and communally. You don't want to wait for a recap. You want to experience the twists and turns as they are happening. That's not to say we won't take catch-up viewing. [Laughs.] But with so many of the bigger hit shows nowadays, people want to experience them in real time because that's when the intensity of the second-screen experience kicks in the highest and that's through the apps, social and digital. 

The show is five nights a week and spans about one month, a major commitment for broadcast reality in the U.S. What discussions did you have about spreading it out instead?

We never really had serious conversations about trying to do the show that way. Because of the quick-turn nature of the show, because of the interactivity with the home audience and because you're generating so much content during the experience, a version that was highly post-produced and spread out across 13 weeks once a week, we believe would be a really diluted version of what the format is supposed to be. CBS took a gamble, but they knew that this type of frequency is an integral part of the format. The network recognized that from the beginning. Love Island just happens to be one show where the frequency and the intensity — and, in some respects, the brevity — of the experience is part of what the show is about. From a thematic standpoint, summer love should feel like a rush that's happening extremely fast and in an overwhelming way. The way people experience first love over a summer in real life is not spread out over the course of four months with cliffhangers once a week. It's all at once and you can barely keep track of it happening to yourself emotionally. Part of the reason why the show works is that we're able to capture that.

What are your ratings hopes?

I'm hoping for whatever makes CBS happy.

How will you measure success?

One of the things that's been so interesting is that Love Island is consumed through alternate pathways, on other screens and what we've done with the show app. We haven't been made privy to how much CBS is going to prize ancillary data or not. That's been part of the show's story territory to territory, but our job is to just produce a great show.

Past seasons of the U.K. series are available to stream on Hulu. Are you able to quantify Love Island's viewership on Hulu, and did its performance inform the approach to the U.S. version?

Like so many of the SVODs, Hulu is not going to release specific numbers. We do know that there is a very active community of people who love Love Island and have watched the U.K. show on Hulu. We are making real efforts to reach those people and also get them to the CBS version and to talk about it. We have some responsibility to them because they've fallen in love with the show and if we're going to give them a new version of it, it better be up to snuff in terms of what it is that they've fallen in love with. That is just based on what we've been able to ascertain not least from social data and mentions, a real core audience that we would like to enroll for the CBS version of the show.

If Love Island USA does get picked up for future seasons, would you like to expand it for a longer run similar to the U.K.'s version?

Yeah, it's interesting. The U.K. show is pushing something like 60 hours of content over the course of the summer, and that's not counting ancillary. That's just every night. Will we ever get to that place in the U.S.? I don't know. You look at other territories of the show and some of them are more similar to what we're doing, which is about 20-something hours of content. But still, in my career, that's the biggest first season commitment a broadcaster has given to a new reality format. So, if CBS just wants to do that once a year, then that would still be amazing.

The challenges — and even some of the swimwear — can be a bit risqué on the U.K. version. In what ways will the U.S. version of Love Island be toned down?

Of course, we're going to conform to broadcast standards. We're on at 8 o'clock on a major broadcaster. That said, even the way that the U.K. show has evolved, it has shifted more towards a mainstream general entertainment audience. Probably the biggest difference of all is likely to be around language because we'll have some bleeping obligations that the U.K. simply doesn't. I don't think that's going to make a huge difference in terms of the experience of it. But for superfans of the show, that will probably be notable because the U.K. version doesn't require censoring in the same way.

How else will Love Island USA differ from its U.K. counterpart? Are there format differences?

No, I'm delighted to say that the show is the show. We have a great host in Arielle Vandenberg. We are utilizing voiceover, which we were very happy that CBS was committed to, because we think that is an integral part of the U.K. show but not a device that gets used very frequently in the U.S. Obviously, the frequency is all you could ever hope for in terms of the way that U.S. networks would program. There will certainly be differences. Some of those differences won't just have to do with the type of platform it's on, but simply the cultural differences between American Islanders and U.K. Islanders. We don't know what those are yet until we actually put our Islanders into the villa but we're very excited to find out.

What were you looking for when assembling the cast? Was diversity paramount?

We have cast, most of all, on sincerity of intent. No matter what other attributes somebody has, they have to have some degree of really wanting love, a connection, an adventure and something that can be transformational for their lives. Once you see that the person is in it for the reasons that drive the show, then you're interested in the diversity of characters, their backgrounds and viewpoints. It makes it that much more interesting when you have a really wide range of people coming in from all over.

The show has received criticism for not featuring LGBTQ contestants in its other iterations. Were there any discussions about making the U.S. cast more inclusive?

We're consistently talking about how to include people with a range of experiences and being more inclusive. That's really the best I can give you on that front. We're really open to seeing how the show evolves, not just here but worldwide, in order to be as inclusive as we possibly can.

The U.K. show's fifth season became the most-watched show ever on ITV2. Does that add pressure?

Pressure, but also noise, momentum, and opportunity. In a cluttered landscape, we’ll take those 100 times out of 100.

Each episode is shot and mainly edited the day it airs, helped by a 19-hour Fiji time difference. How has that production schedule been challenging?

It’s a very ambitious production schedule that moves at a very fast pace. And that is all part of the fun and immediacy of the format, which is what the fans love.

Since this is the biggest swing CBS has ever taken, what makes you nervous leading up to the premiere? What will you be looking out for?

When you're given an opportunity of this magnitude, you want to do everything in your power as a company and as producers to make good on it and put all your effort into making the show great. We take that obligation very seriously. I do think that in making that big commitment, CBS has put themselves in a position to succeed with Love Island because we just know from watching the show from territory to territory that level of frequency, impressiveness and the build around dialogue that happens throughout the course of the season is part of what makes the show great. There's simply no way to do a six-episode test run of Love Island. With this show, you either have to swing big or not swing at all.

We're extremely grateful to CBS for understanding all of that and giving us the space to let the show be itself. It's not just about how viewers behave, it's also the creative of the show itself. And one of the things that's really important about the show is that if you're going to do it right, you have to leave enough room for it to breathe — so it can be funny, so that characters can legitimately get to know each other and so chats can occur. Some of the most memorable moments of Love Island are when contestants are just having conversations and that takes them in unexpected, sometimes touching and sometimes dramatic — and often really funny — directions. If you don't give the show enough space, you're not going to get any of those magic moments. 

Love Island premieres July 9 on CBS at 8 p.m. New episodes will continue every weeknight through Aug. 7. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.