Can Brit Hit 'Love Island' Work in the U.S.?

Courtesy of ITV
'Love Island'

ITV's soapy reality format has been a huge hit in Britain and has domestic buyers circling, but will American viewers go for its trashy mix of sun, sand, sex and romance?

There's a new reality king in town.

Love Island, a trashy reality dating show involving hot singletons pairing up during an island holiday, has become a surprise smash for British network ITV2. The show's fourth season wrapped with record ratings — and U.S. networks are circling, eyeing a possible American remake.

ITV America, the company behind Netflix's Queer Eye reboot, has been tasked with shopping a U.S. version of Love Island and is reportedly close to a domestic deal. MTV had initially given a 20-episode order for a U.S. Love Island before dropping the show amid a management shakeup. Hulu has aired the original British show day-and-date in the U.S., and while the streamer does not disclose viewing figures, Love Island is thought to be a bingeing hit.

ITV CEO Carolyn McCall is understandably bullish about Love Island's prospects, saying the show made an “outstanding contribution” to ITV's revenue growth in the first half of this year and hinting that a new deal “in a really good market” is in the works. ITV's studio arm has started launching international versions of the format, kicking off last year with Love Island Germany, followed by Australia this year. Other international versions are set to launch this year in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland.

But can Love Island work in America?

For viewers unfamiliar with the show, imagine a mash-up of Big Brother and The Bachelor where everyone walks around half-naked. A group of ridiculously attractive contestants called Islanders shack up in a villa on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Under 24-hour video surveillance, they have to find a partner or be eliminated. Couples have to complete games and challenges to stay on the island and are constantly tested with a steady stream of new, invariably attractive, contestants being brought in to tempt them away from their current flame. Both Islanders and viewers at home get an opportunity to vote couples off the island, the latter voting via a Love Island app on their smartphone. In the final week, the public votes for their favorite couple to win the series and take home £50,000 (around $65,000) in prize money.

So far, so familiar. But what makes Love Island more than just another Temptation Island-style dating show on a beach is execution and tone. While the show has game and dating show elements, it is much more loosely structured than most reality series. Instead of following a tight script, the producers react to what's happening in the villa before deciding how to proceed. The games and competitions — including fireman stripteases and lie detector tests, among others — are window dressing for the main event, which are the conversations between the contestants. Love Island is as much soap as it is reality format. That's emphasized in the way ITV2 airs the show, running it on consecutive evenings — or "stripping" — which encourages viewers to see it as a daily indulgence.

Unlike intense, super-serious competition shows like Survivor, Love Island cultivates a very British sense of irony. A tongue-in-cheek narrator (British comedian Iain Stirling) provides biting commentary to keep anyone from taking the show too seriously.

Whether this trashy combination of sex, soap and silliness can translate stateside is an open question. ITV failed to land an American hit with its mega-format I'm A Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here! which also featured a lot of in-on-the-joke commentary. Both ABC and NBC tried U.S. versions of the show, but both dropped it after a weak ratings performance.

Even the British version of Love Island took a while to connect with viewers. The current incarnation of the show is a reboot of a failed, celebrity dating format launched in the mid-2000s. Relaunched in 2015 without the VIPs and with a few new elements, Love Island did moderately well for its first two seasons but really exploded in season three, thanks to word-of-mouth slowly growing an audience. It's unclear whether a U.S. network will give the show the time it may need to grow.

Love Island's stripped format could also prove a challenge. American networks have been reluctant to strip reality shows, preferring the tried-and-tested weekly structure. But much of Love Island's appeal comes from its daily dose, which, in Britain, creates the sense of an entire nation watching the same thing (at the same time). It's helped that Britain's tabloids have jumped on the Love Island phenomenon, printing daily updates of on-air shocks and scandals. America has no equivalent in the daily press. Remember Fox's Utopia? The network sunk $50 million in its version of the hit Dutch show — from Big Brother creator John de Mol — but turned the daily format into a weekly, with disastrous, and costly, results. Utopia was canceled after two months of consistently low ratings.

Casting will be another challenge. Critics have called out Love Island for its lack of ethnic diversity. The only black female contestant in season 4 walked off the show after repeatedly hearing she wasn't anyone's “type,” sparking a series of think pieces about race and romance. It's not hard to see how a U.S. version could trigger even greater outrage. The online hordes who descended on Netflix's Insatiable, accusing the show of fat-shaming, would have a field day with Love Island's endless stream of toned physiques and perfect abs. Not to mention the show's near-complete lack of LGBTQ representation. Aside from the occasional bisexual contestant, Love Island is exclusively heterosexual territory. The show's creator, Richard Cowles, has said he would like to see an LGBTQ version but admitted mixing gay and straight contestants on a single version would be “logistically difficult.”  

Another logistic challenge in exporting Love Island stateside will be time zones. The show's interactive components, including viewer voting and near-live broadcast schedule, may prove unworkable in a country with six time zones. Israel's live singing competition Rising Star famously failed to successfully adapt its format, designed for a single time-zone territory, to the sprawling reality that is the U.S.

But whatever the structural and cultural obstacles, Love Island has plenty of elements working in its favor. Love it, hate it or love-to-hate-it, Love Island is pure escapism, something arguably in even more demand in Trump-ruled America than in Brexit-stressed Britain. And while the show promotes romance, it also highlights the raw reality of modern-day dating on both sides of the Atlantic, with contestants called on to rank and choose potential partners much like they would on dating apps in the real world. In one of the show's many clever twists, Islanders each have their own phone but are only allowed to contact each other via text — leading to the kind of misunderstandings, anxieties and digital dumping all too familiar to singles everywhere these days.

As with dating itself, part of the challenge for U.S. networks, and for ITV, which is working with British co-producer Motion Content Group on possible international adaptations, may be managing expectations. The German and Australian versions of the show — on youth-skewing RTL 2 and Australia's 9Go!, respectively — have delivered decent, but hardly spectacular, ratings. Both networks are sticking with the show for now, however, hoping that Love Island fever will spread.

The success, or failure, of Love Island USA will depend on exactly where, and how, the show lands stateside.