Plunkett on TV: The Love Island phenomenon

To the misconception that young people don't watch TV anymore there's a whole load of evidence and statistics that prove otherwise. I should know, I wrote about it for Thinkbox a few months ago.

All those numbers can take a while to trawl through, though, and if you're worried about losing people's attention then there's now a two-word alternative answer and for that we should all be grateful.

Love Island.

The ITV2 show is nothing short of a phenomenon, a status that was confirmed when it returned recently with a record 2.9 million viewers and its highest ever peak of 3.3 million.

It was the most watched show in the 9pm slot across all channels, with a 16.4% share, and more than double last year's launch episode audience of 1.2 million.

Not only that, it was ITV2's most watched programme ever and a huge live event on the ITV Hub, with a peak of 480,000 viewers watching via ITV's on-demand service.

The launch episode consolidated to 4.1 million viewers (18.5%), more than double last year’s audience and the biggest on a digital channel since the London Olympics on BBC3 in 2012. Its total audience, including viewers on non-TV devices, was 5.1 million.

Up until 20 June (the most recent figures available as I write) the show was averaging 2.6 million viewers (13.9%) in the overnights and 3.8 million (16.5%) consolidated. Among its target audience of 16 to 34-year-olds, those share figures rise to 41.2% and 45.3% respectively.

Every now and again in the history of a TV show - if it's fortunate enough - there is a moment when it feels like it has crossed over into the mainstream.

It happened to Love Island when former chancellor George Osborne did this, the London Evening Standard editor tweeting in response to suggestions that he might be in line to edit the Daily Mail.

Osborne (who didn't become Mail editor after all) might not be in the ITV2's target audience but it was a sign of how the show that has become embedded in the national conversation.

As did the revelation that more people applied to be on the show than tried to get into Oxbridge. The comparison generated fierce debate online and either told you everything or nothing about the state of the nation, depending on your point of view.

The show's success has also generated a halo effect for its commercial partners. The show’s podcast sponsored by Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, the Kellogg’s Morning After show, topped the iTunes chart and has now hit more than 1 million downloads.

The Love Island app has accumulated more than 2.2 million downloads and racked up huge sales of the Love Island personalised water bottle.

Not bad for a series which, in its original incarnation as Celebrity Love Island, was dropped by ITV after two series in 2006.

It returned on ITV2 in 2015, renamed, rebooted - without the celebrities - and aimed squarely at a 16 to 34-year-old audience. It's not easy reinventing a show - for every MasterChef there must be 10 Top Gears - and yet Love Island never looked back, a genuine word of mouth and, more tellingly, social media hit. 

Love Island's executive producer Richard Cowles, who is also ITV Studios creative director, entertainment, said the show was so successful because it tapped into universal interests at the heart of its target audience.

ITV2's Love Island 2018

"There is probably nothing more important to these people than love and the pursuit of love and all things in between," he told me before the start of this year's series.

"It's the thing they talk about all the time and they have very strong opinions on whether something [or someone's behaviour] is right or wrong."

Like a living soap, every episode ends on a cliffhanger and the real stars of the show are in producer ITV Studios' editing suite.

"Someone in our American team described it as the Deadpool of dating," said Cowles. 

"We're doing for the dating show what Deadpool did for the superhero thing. There is a knowingness to it because we have the canniest audience ever, they know all the tricks."

It also has a symbiotic relationship with the audience, with viewers creating memes and other content off the back of the show on social media, and the production team forensically analysing what viewers are saying about the contestants to feed into what they do next.

Although the show is only on ITV2 for one hour a day it takes on a life of its own on Twitter and Facebook where it exists almost 24 hours a day, virtually (but not entirely) marketing itself. On Instagram it is the most followed UK television show with 1.7 million followers. 

"The key lesson is to listen to [viewers] and engage with them and not treat them as if they are stupid," added Cowles.

"They are a very knowing audience and they can tell if you are trying to overtly sell to them or if you're not speaking in their language. All our digital team are as big a fan of the show as the people watching."

Love Island, which won its first Bafta in May for best reality show, has also become a successful export for ITV, selling to countries including Germany, Australia and Finland. 

Mike Beale, ITV Studios' managing director, Nordics and global creative network, ITV Studios, said the show would be on air "somewhere around the world every single day" until Christmas.

Attempting to introduce the show to the portion of its readership that had not seen it, the Guardian said it was "at its core a simple format where a series of evil producers mess relentlessly with very horny Instagram models".

It's a little more complicated than that, as even the show's detractors would agree, but if that doesn't get you watching, nothing will.

Celebrities sharing their love for the show on social media include Spider-Man star Tom Holland, Scarlett Moffat, Zoe Ball and blogger Joe Sugg.

Some people will never be won over though, including Piers Morgan whose attempt to prove he was more intelligent than the show's contestants backfired spectacularly when they were invited onto Good Morning Britain.

Better luck next time, Piers. 

“People used to say to me: ‘Oh, it’s my guilty pleasure,’” said ITV's Cowles. “And last year they dropped the guilty, and just said: ‘It’s my pleasure.’”

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