Escaping Reality Through Reality TV

12 July 2021. Published by Ela Broderick-Basar, Associate

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I have run-around the upper East side of New York City with a bunch of wacky housewives, stayed in a luxury villa in Mexico and sashayed down the runway with 12 other queens. And this summer I will be returning to Majorca for a long, hot summer!

During lockdowns 1, 2 and 3, these were the kind of adventures that I needed – an escape from the boredom and the never-ending uncertainty. Unfortunately, I didn't actually board a plane or yacht. Instead, I binged my way through countless reality shows such as the Real Housewives, Too Hot to Handle and Ru Paul's Drag Race UK. In addition, like a large amount of the British public, I have eagerly been awaiting the return of Love Island to our screens.

The easy-to-digest and largely predictable nature of reality TV makes it ideal lockdown viewing – especially at a time when the British public are watching more television than ever. According to the ratings analyst, Barb, viewing across broadcast TV is up by more than 30% in the UK. Further, the number of subscriptions to video streaming services, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+, reached 1.1 billion globally in 2020.
And it's not hard to see why. Reality TV provided a much-desired escape from the reality of the pandemic. Wild concepts and scenarios for shows felt more normal than the current situation the world was facing. Unable to continue life as we knew it, we found refuge in drama and fiction. 

Who else is desperately waiting to hear 'I got a text'? ITV definitely is!

Arguably one of the most successful reality TV series right now is that of ITV's Love Island. The show sees single 'Islanders' enter a luxury villa (in some exotic location) in search of love. Over a six – eight week run, the Islanders either 'couple up' or face being dumped from the villa, whilst facing obstacles such as 'Casa Amor' (a rival villa filled with new Islanders ready to tempt and break even the strongest couples) and dumpings decided by the British public. The winning couple will then face a final twist at the end whereby they must each pick a random envelope; one envelope holds the £50,000 prize money, whilst the other contains nothing. The Islander who picks the envelope with the prize money then has the choice of picking love (and subsequently splitting the prize money with their partner) or taking the entire £50,000 for themselves. 

To understand the phenomenon that Love Island UK has become, Season 1 aired in 2015 and attracted an average of 570,000 viewers an episode, whereas Season 5 reached 5.61 million viewers on average per episode. From the water bottles to the outfits worn by the Islanders (sponsored by brands such as I Saw It First and Missguided), Love Island has become a lucrative revenue stream for ITV. It is also now an international franchise, with fifteen versions being produced so far, including in Australia, USA and Germany.

However, due to the pandemic, Love Island was unable to air their summer series in the UK in 2020. Whilst lockdown saw streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ reach new subscriber heights, ITV saw its shares hit a nine-year low in April 2020. Even with the broadcaster’s attempt to join the streaming market with Britbox (in collaboration with the BBC), it is now only with the return of the postponed Euro 2020 tournament and Love Island (where ITV2 is charging brands up to £100,000 an advert) that ITV is seeing advertising revenue rebound and a subsequent return to the FTSE 100.

It's time to shed the 'guilt' around reality TV

Despite shows like Strictly Come Dancing, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and The Great British Bake Off drawing in their “best audiences in years” in the UK and the obvious success of Love Island, there is still a sense of shame and stigma that lingers around reality TV and such shows are still often described as "guilty pleasures", "unchallenging" or "low brow".  

According to theorist, Paddy Scannell, reality TV is, 'purposeless entertainment', which is “relaxed and sociable, shareable and accessible, non-exclusive, equally talkable about in principle and practice by everyone”. In short, the importance of reality TV lies in its very purposelessness; it exists to confirm our common humanity. We are drawn in by the potential romance and conflict, as well as a host of other relatable situations such as body and relationship insecurities, friendships, rivalries and raw, genuine (well, sometimes) human emotion. 

In the same manner, football could also be classed as 'purposeless entertainment': it serves the same purpose of asserting sociality and providing excitement around an essentially purposeless activity. However, unlike football, reality TV still hasn't shaken off its moral condemnation. This may be because not all reality TV can be light-hearted and reassuring. There is no denying the appeal of watching the 'funny' (i.e. the truly awful) X Factor auditions or that some Islanders during their stint on Love Island suffer humiliation and backlash. 

However, overall, the importance of reality TV lies in its affirmation of social connection and togetherness and it has become an important resource for many people during the pandemic. This is the true purpose behind this genre of TV’s seemingly 'purposelessness' nature and we shouldn't be made to feel guilty for our love of it any longer. 

So, whatever you are watching this summer, enjoy it, gossip about it, get a little obsessed with it, but most of all, be PROUD of it!

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