Nudity, sex and lots of debauchery: Why the U.K. is hooked on its risqué reality TV

Viewers can’t seem to get enough of the raunchy reality television that fills the small screen in the United Kingdom, offering them entertainment that is often much more risqué than anything shown in North America.

Viewers just want to find out who’s sleeping with whom on their favourite shows

Love Island, the most popular reality television show in the U.K. this summer, put together couples and had them compete for a £50,000 prize with the hopes of finding true love. (Twitter/ITV2)

Every night at 9 p.m., Zoe Middleton-Lyons made sure she was home in London for the start of Love Island, this summer's smuttiest reality television program where sex, nudity and racy behavior were encouraged and viewers couldn't seem to get enough.

"It's the kind of show you run home to watch," she said.  

Middleton-Lyons was so captivated with the program that she organized her own party to watch the season finale.

The U.K. reality television show portrayed female contestants strutting around in little more than thong bikinis and couples in one massive bedroom with a bed-share policy.

Middleton-Lyons had to take matters into her own hands when she found out all the events in the city to mark the show's finale last month sold out instantly.

Stephanie Newman, left, and Zoe Middleton-Lyons hosted a Love Island finale viewing party at The Hare & Hounds pub in London. All proceeds from the event went to the Alzheimer’s Society. (Haley Lewis/CBC)

"Myself and my best friend were like, you know what, we can make it happen. So we gave ourselves five days to put on the event. We love the show and thought if we were going to enjoy it we might as well do it ourselves."

Love Island, the most popular reality television show in the U.K. this summer, put together couples and had them compete for a £50,000 prize with the hopes of finding true love.

What appeared on screen this summer wouldn't be something you'd find channel surfing in Canada, but it's standard fare in the U.K..

Looking for relationships

Daran Little, who has decades of experience producing constructed reality television in the U.K., says viewers want what they want, there's nothing wrong with that and that's what will keep being made.

"When you hone down into what a younger audience wants to see, they're not looking for a family, they want a show to be about relationships."

Love Island aired every night from Sunday to Friday for almost two months, inspiring a clothing line at European fast fashion chain Primark, sales in water bottles and rap collaborations. Betting websites even offered odds on which couple was going to win.

Proceeds from a Love Island viewing party at the Bethnal Green Working Mens Club in London were donated to Age U.K. (Josh Doyley Photography)

Pubs across the U.K. shut down their nightly activities on July 24, the evening of the finale, to host reality television fans for quizzes, themed drinks and a screening.

Middleton-Lyons thinks events like these are successful because the shows are something everyone wants to be part of.

"You want to be seen doing these things — I know places that are having events like these just so people can say: 'Yeah, I've been to one,' I can talk about it myself and I can be seen in the middle of it all doing things."

Love Islandviewers' preferences reflect the anything-goes nature of reality television in the U.K. that is very different from what airs in North America.

More than half of the complaints made to Ofcom, the U.K.'s broadcasting authority, about the show have been about contestants smoking. While Love Island focuses on love lives and what happens beneath the sheets, the non-stop scenes of contestants smoking cigarettes really had people bothered.

Trending on Twitter

This year's Love Island viewership exceeded last year's, with 2.43 million viewers tuning in for the finale. That made it ITV 2's most-watched program ever and represented an increase of one million viewers from 2016.

Middleton-Lyons got into the show because of all the tweets she was seeing about it.

"It's totally a social media kind of program because you see everyone else commenting about it and you're like: 'I need to see what's happening.'

"It seems to be the thing that everyone's talking about, if you go on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, everywhere, everyone's talking about it, it's just so weird. I don't know where it's come from," she said.

Love Islandoften held two of the 10 trending Twitter topics in London, with fans eager to chime in about the show's latest controversy.

Sara De Benedictis, a lecturer in media and communications at Brunel University London, sees social media as playing an integral role in reality television.

"It's almost like you've got someone there who you can watch it with," she said.

"Social media can bring viewers together, so it becomes much more social and it's also a place where some of the problematic representations you get in reality television are magnified, but it's also a place where people disagree."

Lots to choose from

Of course it's not just Love Island. Reality television in the U.K. is a phenomenon that sees millions of viewers tune in nightly to watch the plethora of shows at their disposal.

Big Brother was the most popular reality television program in the U.K. for years, garnering 9.9 million viewers during the Season 3 finale in 2002. But 2017 hasn't proved to be quite as fruitful for the program as it slumped to an all-time low of just 650,000 viewers for one episode.

Other reality programs like Gogglebox, in which viewers see real, everyday people watch and react to television, reached 5.8 million viewers for one episode. Naked Attraction, where one singleton chooses a suitor based on their naked body being revealed one body part at a time, drew an audience of 1.2 million viewers for its launch this season.

According to De Benedictis, the 1990s were the key decade in the U.K. for deregulation and commercialization of television, a move that is likely to blame for the sensationalistic elements seen in reality television today.

"We situate this idea of getting the next hit show within the context of an increasingly unstable U.K. television industry, [the workforce is unstable] potentially, television workers have to make television that is often considered sensationalist as this is perceived to be profitable and bring in audiences," she said.

Level of morality

Such salacious reality television just isn't as popular in North America, where newsstands aren't so littered with tabloids blaring about which reality television personality slept with whom.

"I can't imagine many front page newspapers in the States and Canada featuring people from Big Brother," said Little.

He thinks television rules in the U.K. are less prudish — concern seems to be with protecting the under 18s and the rest is a bit of a grey area — and says this lack of rules isn't necessarily a good thing. He likes to watch American and Canadian reality television shows because he sees a certain level of morality in them.

Here we very much want to lie on the sofa and watch TV.- Daran Little

"The focus is more on the competitive rather than who's going to shag who first."

But it's not just television-watching preferences that are different on both sides of the Atlantic. It may even extend to how people are raised. Little doesn't think British people are brought up to be competitive or sporty.

"We're more observers than participants compared to America and Canada, which seems to be very focused on activity and the great outdoors and stuff. Here we very much want to lie on the sofa and watch TV."

'Where the interest is'

Little acknowledges that shows may cross the Atlantic with ease and share the same title, but they don't necessarily share the same ideas with regards to what appears on screen.

"In the current season of Big Brother U.S., three showmances started and it was just a case of 'so and so is with so and so' and then there was this little clip of them kissing and laughing and that was it," said Little. "In England that is a full month's worth of screen time — that's where the interest is."

Daran Little, a BAFTA award-winning and Emmy-nominated TV drama writer, has written episodes for shows like Eastenders and been an executive producer on The Real Housewives of Cheshire. (Haley Lewis/CBC)

According to Little, casting in North America also differs greatly from the U.K. because there is a greater variety in choice of whom to cast in the United States and Canada and more thought and care are put into the people who appear on screen.

"Here [in England], it's basically people who go to clubs we put on shows. You've got a good rig [physique], you're on the show. You look great in a bikini, you're on the show. And they know why they're there."

While some may consider reality television a rather lowbrow form of entertainment, De Benedictis says there are actually many reasons people watch it.

She thinks it isn't a question of being dumb or intelligent, and the fact that many assume that the audience is a cultural dupe is problematic.

"People use reality television in order to make meaning in their lives and I don't think that is a stupid process at all and we need to think and listen to that."

About the Author

Haley Lewis

Haley Lewis is a 2018 CBC Joan Donaldson Scholar. She is from the Maritimes and recently completed a Master of Journalism at UBC. She writes about arts, culture and politics. Connect with her on twitter: @haleylewis_