It’s the biggest gamble a network has made on a new reality show in years: Starting July 9, CBS will air a U.S. version of the sexy British dating sensation Love Island that will run a whopping five nights a week. The goal is nothing less than to create an inescapable pop culture sensation just like its overseas counterpart.
“We want to feel like the World Cup of reality TV,” says ITV executive and Love Island executive producer David Eilenberg (Hell’s Kitchen, Shark Tank), giving an exclusive first interview about the CBS series.
For the uninitiated, Love Island plays a bit like Big Brother crossed with Temptation Island, yet is more addictive that description makes it sound. The show begins with roughly five single men and women (dubbed “Islanders”) dropped in a tropical Fiji villa. The singles are paired up in a selection ceremony (“the coupling,” see clip below) where partners are chosen based on little more than their looks. These newly formed couples compete together in bawdy games and challenges, and sleep in the same bed. Their overall goal is to remain part of a committed couple as tempting new singles are gradually added to the villa, Islanders are given opportunities to break up and change partners, and fans vote out couples who aren’t considered worthy.
Oh, and there are twists, lots of evil twists. If The Bachelor is like a dating show version of Cinderella, then Love Island is direct from the age of Tinder. Partners are routinely quickly selected and then agonizingly discarded, except on Love Island there’s no such thing as ghosting as everybody is trapped together for weeks on end.
“I think it resonates with young people and the way the dating world is,” Eilenberg says. “One thing we hear about dating apps is you’re constantly contending with FOMO and that some hotter better person might be right around the corner — so when do you actually commit? The mechanics of this show bring that conundrum to life.”
News that CBS was creating a U.S. version last year was initially met with some skepticism among fans. The original series is more visually and sexually explicit than what’s seen in shows in the U.S. Yet Eilenberg says the idea is to stay as faithful as possible to a proven formula. “CBS very much supports the show that’s been a hit elsewhere,” he says. “We want to make sure the show is the show. It’s an aspirational, sexy, fun summer show. And the U.K. show has become less provocative and more broad appeal over time.”
Still, some elements will invariably be toned down. The U.K. version’s omnipresent thong swimwear, rougher language, and some of the content (games where Islanders demonstrate their favorite sex positions on one another, for instance) probably won’t pass muster on the home of NCIS and Blue Bloods. “We have to conform to broadcast standards, so what happens with language and — to some extent — what we see visually will be a little different because of the platform we’re on,” Eilenberg says.
Other risqué aspects, however, are expected to make it on the air — such as make-out games where Islanders are encouraged to kiss pretty much every one of their potential partners (see clip below). “There’s going to be a mix [of games] just as there is on the U.K. show,” Eilenberg says. “There are games that are meant to bond, games that are meant to spark attraction, and games that are just hilarious… The U.S. Islanders have seen the U.K. show, for the most part. They know what they’re walking into and are excited to do it.”
One aspect that also won’t change is controversial in a rather different way: The U.K. version has been criticized for its lack of gay and lesbian inclusiveness. The show’s U.K. producer has suggested Love Island’s male-vs.-female format makes it difficult to add a wider array of sexual preferences and voiced support for creating a gay spin-off. Eilenberg notes that the U.S. show’s casting will be quite diverse in other respects. “We’re open to seeing how the show can evolve over time, and I think when you see the U.S. show that there’s been real thought put into the diversity of our casting,” he says.
CBS is betting heavily on the show. The network’s commitment to run Love Island Monday through Friday for five weeks is perhaps the largest weekly dedication to a new reality format in modern memory (even Fox’s American Idol at its peak only aired three nights a week, though Love Island episodes are only an hour long).
“Is it terrifying? Yes, of course,” the producer says of the five-night format, yet he also contends it’s safer to go big with Love Island than it is to scale it back. “With Love Island, if you’re doing it the right way you almost have to do it this way. You’re generating so much content so fast, and you don’t want to stop the flow of action inside the house.”
The high-wire act gets even higher given that the series unfolds at the same time it’s being aired, a la Big Brother, but is less strictly formatted than other reality competitions. With a show like Survivor, challenges and eliminations and twists are largely planned in advance. Producing Love Island is more like being a Gamemaker in The Hunger Games — the producing team is watching the action and improvising key twists to heighten the drama.
“In many reality shows we’ve grown up with, [a producer plans a series of events] and those beats are a ritual to be adhered to, and you hope for your story to happen within that,” Eilenberg says. “This is different. The story is what’s happening, and the format beats are an arsenal of tools that can be deployed at any time. That lends an unpredictably to the narrative that keeps people coming back and makes them feel like they have to watch the show every night instead of just getting a recap.”
Describing Love Island like a modern dating reality TV dystopia isn’t a full or fair picture, though. Several Love Island U.K. couples are still together after just four seasons, and many more dated for a significant amount of time after their respective season ended — evidence the show’s brutal relationship bootcamp method can actually work for some people, and perhaps even more so than with ABC’s dating show kingpin The Bachelor, a series Eilenberg contends occupies a very different space even though the two are destined to be compared.
“People love [The Bachelor] and are never going to stop loving that show,” he says. “I believe the formats do something entirely different. Fundamentally, The Bachelor is a romantic-dramatic soap and Love Island is an ensemble romantic comedy… Love Island is like Clueless — it’s a bunch of people trying to find their way to love, and you’re rooting for each of them. The Bachelor is a pure competition show. I think The Bachelor and Love Island do emotionally different things for their audiences.”
Friendships are heavily emphasized on the CBS show too, and it’s that sense of unexpected camaraderie among the cast that’s arguably a secret weapon to Love Island’s U.K. popularity.
“Having produced in this genre for a long time is, as you know, one of the reality show tropes is, ‘I’m not here to make friends,’” Eilenberg says. “But one of the lovely things about Love Island is they’re also there to make friends. You can see it in the show as they’re all rooting for each other. And even though the road is windy toward finding a connection, there is a sense that anybody could win if they found the right match. It’s really sweet.”
Here’s a couple clips from the UK version. The first coupling:
One of the games: