Published on 24 July 2019
As the latest series of Love Island comes to a close, a university expert on reality TV is putting the show under the microscope.
Angela Smith, a Professor of Language and Culture at the University of Sunderland, has played a key role in scrutinising the popular ITV show, along with other shows including Top Gear and the Jeremy Kyle Show.
Now, as ITV announce plans to add a winter series of the programme onto their schedule, Professor Smith looks back at the latest series and asks whether the makers of the show have fulfilled their promise to look after the mental wellbeing of contestants.
For anyone who does not know, Love Island follows a group of singletons living in isolation in a Mallorca villa, constantly under video surveillance. To survive in the villa the contestants must be coupled up, with the overall aim of winning £50,000.
Professor Smith said: “Love Island arrived on our screens in the wake of the cancellation of the Jeremy Kyle Show, and producers went to great lengths to assure the audience that this series would be paying very careful attention to the mental health and wellbeing of the participants.
“This appeared to have been borne out by the testimony of Amy Hart, whose departure in week four of the series came about after she and Curtis Pitchard had been coupled up from the start and had proved so popular that they had been seen as probable winners from that time.
“Curtis’s change of heart during Amy’s time in Casa Amour came as a huge shock to her, and she left the show on her own accord, testifying that it was for the sake of her mental wellbeing, and at the off-screen producers had been on hand to help her make this decision.
“Viewers took to twitter to condemn Curtis but mostly to hail Amy as a hero who had reduced them to tears for her eloquent departure speech on the theme of unrequited love.
“But how surprised should we be that Amy and Curtis didn’t stay the course? Careful viewing could show that Curtis had not been quite the perfect gentleman he had largely been framed as embodying.
“The editing of the show requires very careful consideration to be made as to just what is broadcast: there is often 48 hours of recorded data to edit down to around 50 minutes of broadcast time.
“Some episodes have so little screen time devoted to certain couples that it is often unclear that they are still in the villa.
“The widespread public dissatisfaction with this is problematised in certain “challenges”, when the tweets or newspaper headlines are read out to the participants, often casting doubt on the relationships that are in evidence in the villa.
“For some couples, this is explicitly shown to strengthen a relationship, as with Curtis and his second girlfriend, Maura, who used this as the basis of a long-running joke that is shown to play out on screen.
“However, for others, where there is a lack of self-confidence in relationships (Amy being a case in point), the effect of seeing their name linked to a headline or tweet that belittles that relationship can be very damaging. Seeds of doubt are sown, and in the pressure-cooker confines of the villa, this often boils over into confrontation and argument.
“In this way, the production of the show appears to be careful to manage the mental health of participants off-screen, but this is often in response to the deliberate provocation of disharmony on screen.
“Thus we see the surviving couples head out of the villa, with Tommy and Molly-Mae favourites to win, although Curtis and Maura now a close second (Maura herself has been the victim of negative framing, through her arrival showing her as predatory and sexually assertive, whilst in the course of the next few weeks she was shown to be very self-effacing, funny and loyal to her friends).
“The necessary editing of the show still leaves us with a blinkered view of the participants, whilst the challenges provoke argument and insecurities that reflect the views of these blinkered viewers.
“Love Island may indeed have a more robust psychology team in attendance, but that the format of the show is deliberately provoking mental ill health is still not being addressed.”