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The New Age of Reality TV

Summer 2016, Love Island is on its second season and the Anastasia Dip Brow was on the rise. Life is good and Love Island is the hot new show. Shows like Big Brother are well and truly on their way out, as they scramble in an attempt to compete with the new-found success of the ultra-glossy, highly produced heteronormativity of Love Island.  


Next year marks the ten-year anniversary of Love Islands reboot, but the show is neither made nor received in the same way— now "Big Brother" and "The Traitors" seem to be the hot shows tackling the limited representation and storylines seen in "Love Island”. 


It is rare that a reality TV show lasts more than ten years. The popularity behind the shows themselves is fuelled by the seemingly ‘relatable’ and ‘realistic’ representation of the general public and their behaviours. This naturally wears thin as the novelty wears off.  Shows like Big Brother last longer when they adapt their casting and production to the needs and trends of viewership. Most recently stripping back the reboot to its original ‘social experiment’ roots. This was a direct reflection of the recent rejection of Love Island and its hyper-superficial nature that was originally the draw in for audiences back in 2015. Seeing Miss-GB go to the hideaway and loose her title, two bisexual women (gasp!) get off with each other and someone’s ex-girlfriend enter the villa were huge moments of the highly popular second season and the viral nature of many of these moments make Love Island a cultural phenomenon whether you like it or not. It’s rare that many other reality TV shows make headlines so early on in series but Love Island  became one of the most divisive reality TV shows of all time.  


What then, makes Big Brother so engaging in its reboot? The people. In shows like Love Island or Ex On The Beach you very rarely see a plus-size Welsh gay bingo caller, or a trans 18-year-old youth worker from South London. The diversity in the social experiment’s 20th series did not feel forced or box-ticky, instead representative of the modern British public. And anyone who argues that it is trying to be ‘woke’ is clearly too used to seeing the glamourised, filtered perception of the British public that has been forced down our throats for so long on Love Island. The 20th series of Big Brother was on ITV2, the same channel as the most recent Love Island All Stars. Big Brother’s return drew in 3.39 million viewers compared to Love Island’s 2.41 million just months later. The audience is inarguably bigger for ‘real’ reality TV in 2024. But what has caused this shift? Just 5 years ago it was the complete opposite, with Love Island often named as the reason behind Big Brother’s eventual cancellation and plummeting audience figures between 2015-2018. Even in 2022, Love Island would bring in up to 5 million viewers per episode. What’s changed in less than two years? 


Celebrity Big Brother recently opened to 3.7 million viewers and a huge online presence, once again proving how the format can work in the 2020s. I think what makes Big Brother so timeless, when they stick to their original format, is the classic TV that it gives us. The soundbites, clips, memes and general TV gold that the celebrity version provides makes people want to tune in, inform themselves in the pop culture moment that is the series. Love Island has always tried to replicate this, sometimes successfully, but recently to little noise. This is just one of the differences between the shows, but the online success of the show seems linked to the recent interest seeing real people live real lives. This makes REAL moments. And that is what people want to see. Not to mention how Love Island avoids all controversy within its characters whereas Big Brother (especially pre-ITV) have always embraced the uncomfortable, creating real, honest TV.  


As a Big Brother superfan I will always argue in favour of the iconic show, but what I’ve recently seen is thousands more also taking this side of real, honest socially experimental television- and for once, it shows in the ratings. 


Words: Henry Clarke he/him 

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