What the myth of Love Island’s popularity tells us about the media

Why is the eighteenth most popular show on TV considered headline news?

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Last week, on the day Boris Johnson entered Downing Street, the top section of the BBC News website was dedicated almost entirely to stories about the new Prime Minister and his cabinet. But one story from the business section was considered sufficiently important to occupy the top of the front page: the news that ITV plans to run two series of Love Island next year rather than just one. 

This piece of news appears to have been powerful enough to move markets. At the same time, ITV announced that its profits fell by 16 per cent last year. Advertising revenue and total viewing figures had also slumped. And yet the broadcaster’s share price jumped by nearly seven per cent on the morning of the announcement.  

The reason for this seems obvious — Love Island is a cultural phenomenon, the most talked-about TV series in Britain. But is it as big as it seems?

Despite its media prominence, the latest series of Love Island has not made it into the ten most popular shows of 2019 so far — a list dominated by drama series, including ITV’s own Cleaning Up and Cheat. Emmerdale and Coronation Street (both also ITV) beat it by millions of viewers each. It’s not even the most popular entertainment show on ITV this year — Britain’s Got Talent peaked at nearly eleven million viewers in April. More than twice as many people settle themselves in front of Countryfile at 8pm on a Sunday than sit down to watch Love Island at 9pm on a Wednesday.          

The combined social media presence of the show and its contestants appears huge, but these numbers should be viewed with caution; according to marketing experts Takumi, more than half of those followers — almost four million accounts — are fake. 

So why is the 18th most popular show on TV considered headline news? For broadcasters, it’s because Love Island is the most popular show in the millennial age group (16-34). It is one of the few programmes this age group will actually watch on broadcast TV, a medium that now finds itself firmly on one side of a demographic divide. More than half of all broadcast TV is watched by people aged over 54. The average age of a BBC1 broadcast viewer is 61. Any programme that can persuade younger generations to tune in looks like a life raft to networks.

For advertisers, the show’s young audience means it offers access to their most important market. Millennials are globally the largest consumer group, with the biggest forecast spending power. For brands that base their growth on this demographic, such as Uber Eats — which spent a reported £5m sponsoring this year’s series — this makes it uniquely valuable. 

For the show’s producers, ITV Studios, this commercial value is combined with lower production costs. Programme-making budgets at the UK’s main networks have dropped by almost a third in the last 15 years, and ITV’s production budget has fallen most sharply, losing 10 per cent from 2015-18. The actors in Coronation Street command six-figure salaries; the Love Island contestants receive £250 a week.     

For the wider media industry, the reasons for covering Love Island include the chance to discuss relationships while featuring many pictures of good-looking people in swimwear. But there may also be an element of what behavioural economists call the availability bias — the tendency to overestimate the importance or relevance of something due to its familiarity — involved in the show’s media prominence.

According to the IPA, the average age of employees at ad agencies in the UK is just under 34. More than 80 per cent of the UK TV industry, according to Ofcom, is aged under 50. A recent survey by City University found that 65 per cent of UK journalists who entered the industry within the last two years are, in common with 58 per cent of Love Island’s audience, female. It’s not a huge leap to suggest that most of the editorial and commercial decisions made about Love Island are made by people who watch the show.

As part of last week’s announcement, ITV chief executive Carolyn McCall said that her network was “accelerating” its “digital and data capabilities”. Broadcasters and publishers know the importance of appearing innovative, of their decisions been seen to be driven by data. But the relationship the media has formed with Love Island suggests that there is still plenty of room for assumptions. 

Will Dunn is managing editor of the New Statesman.