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Pop CultureMarch 3, 2019

Love Island NZ is Three betting its house on epic reality TV

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Love Island has smashed streaming records all over the world and Three’s purchase of the global rights, along with a pricey local franchise, will complete a radical transformation of the channel.

This week The Spinoff learned that Mediaworks, parent company of Three, plans on launching a New Zealand version of ITV’s megahit Love Island. The show features young and conventionally attractive hardbodies coupling and recoupling on a luxury island under constant video surveillance, with their place on the island dependent on both staying in a couple, and a public vote.

Love Island has become a true phenomenon, smashing ITV2 ratings records in the UK and streaming records in multiple locations (including NZ). It has been seen as something of a saviour for embattled linear channels, providing appointment viewing, younger audiences and explosive digital growth – three things traditional television prizes very highly as it tries to battle Netflix and other subscription video platforms.

TVNZ will be hurting out the back of this. Love Island has been central to the growth of TVNZ OnDemand as a bonafide channel for the state broadcaster, with over eight million streams attributed to the series, and more than three million attributed to the first season of Love Island Australia alone. That’s a huge chunk of the 100m total streams they trumpeted at their new season launch last year (this acquisition also explains the conspicuous hole at Three’s own new season launch).

“This move is going to cause serious problems for TVNZ,” said a source familiar with Mediaworks’ thinking. “Not least because they will have viewers switching both on air channels and on demand.” The latter has been a major weakness for Three – Love Island alone will go some way to correcting that.

Scene from the Love Island NZ launch video

Three has also purchased the rights to all the international franchises, including the monster that is the UK, last year’s smash from Australia and an impending debut from the US. Additionally, because it plays anywhere up to five times per week, Love Island in all its iterations has the potential to dominate Three’s schedule even more than The Block and Married at First Sight do already.

Listen to The Spinoff’s reality TV podcast The Real Pod here

It’s the ultimate expression of now-departed board member Julie Christie and former CEO Mark Weldon’s reality TV-centric strategy, one which will see the network awash in bikinis and boardies for huge tracts of its schedule. It’s also a blow for rival TVNZ2, which loses a franchise which had been a reliable part of its programming, and dovetailed well with its local version / blatant ripoff, Heartbreak Island.

The move comes as Three is feeling more confident in its ratings position against TVNZ than it has in some time. In the most recent week for which ratings have been publicly released (ending February 16), Married at First Sight Australia had overtaken the normally unsinkable Shortland St atop the 25-54 demographic. Our source also claimed that Three had tied TVNZ1 in 25-54 for the first time in our television history, likely due to the rampant ratings for Married, which plays for over six hours each week.

This is the business case for the Love Island deal. Nonetheless, the move is not without risk for Three, with the combination of the rights and the local production likely to represent one of its biggest purchases in recent years. Three is betting that the multi-night format is still in its ascendancy, and likely to stick around.

This is by no means a sure thing. Television tends to run cyclically, and there is a chance audiences tire of the huge commitment required to engage with these shows, or that the youth of the contestants leaves the older portion of Three’s 25-54 audience cold.

The format puts partner swapping and very casual sex front and centre, and is thus edgier than anything else the network has run in primetime before. The response to Heartbreak Island season one was so vitriolic that host Matilda Rice quit rather than endure a second season. This season of MAFS AU has featured gaslighting, serial infidelity and multiple spouses displaying extreme indifference to the emotional pain of the fellow contestants. The line between talkably scandalising and commercially produced human suffering has seemed very thin at times. Love Island might be worse, and its premise is beloved by fans but instinctively loathed by many people who will never watch an episode.

Perhaps a bigger worry for the network will be casting. New Zealand is a small country, with only a limited number of quality reality TV participants. Over the past few years we’ve had three seasons of The Bachelor and two seasons apiece of Married at First Sight and Heartbreak Island. Love Island is an incredibly human resource-intensive production, with up to 40 participants and intruders rolling through. Getting enough watchable personalities on screen will be a huge challenge.

Love Island promotional boarding pass

Still, for all the potential peril, it’s refreshing to see a media company making such a big wager. With TVNZ able to deliver artificially low profits to the government and having the benefit of a huge legacy audience, the fight between it and Mediaworks is always an unfair one. In this era, that imbalance can make Mediaworks seem doomed to a slow decline.

This go big or go home acquisition suggests it’s not resigned to such a fate internally. And that it’s willing to radically transform itself. Mediaworks was until recently centred around its local talent in news and current affairs. Its identity was shaped by the personalities of the likes of John Campbell, Hilary Barry and Paul Henry. Now it’s largely ceded that ground – and those broadcasters – to TVNZ. And in their place, summer is coming: a thousand bronzed bodies march remorselessly toward us. What we make of them will likely define Three’s fate.

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