Authenticity vs Popularity: The Evolution of Dating Shows over 60 Years

Written by

Rosie Aiston

Published on

February 14, 2024

Categories

Categories

Time to read: 5 minutes

Dating shows – love them or hate them, they are a staple of the television landscape. Beginning in 1965 with American hit The Dating Game, which saw the likes of pre-fame Steve Martin and Farrah Fawcett as guests, the increase of reality TV at the turn of the century has transformed the way that these shows operate. They have now spawned into the opportunity to watch couples meet, date, be tempted and eventually reconcile, as audiences are given 24-hour coverage of the contestant’s lives. What was once a game show format, often having a form of speed dating and perhaps (at most) some information on a first date, has turned into audiences following couples for weeks or months, both in the show, and then on social media once they leave. This means what was once a playful look into the dating lives of others, has changed into a way for people to launch themselves into stardom through social media following, but what does this mean for audiences?

Steve Martin on The Dating Game in 1968

Almost sixty years of dating shows has taken us all the way up to Love Island All Stars, which is due to wrap up on Monday, and arguably is the final boss of reality dating shows. The show takes the popular Love Island format, but instead of throwing in ‘normal’ applicants, it takes some of the shows previous contestants, and gives them ‘a second chance at love,’ having not found it in their original season. On paper, this series should have been a major hit – a reliable format and contestants the audience is already invested in. However, in practice, it perhaps hasn’t lived up to its hype, something demonstrated by its fall in viewing figures from its 2023 Winter and Summer season in its opening week.


Last winter’s Love Island saw an average of 2.9M viewers per episode in its first week, and the summer season saw an average of 2.5M, but the All Stars season only averaged 2M viewers per episode.

There are a few reasons that the show perhaps hasn’t delivered on expectations, one of them being the authenticity of the contestants on the show. In recent years, Love Island has often been criticised for casting people who already have some sort of social following or clout, starting in 2018 when Dani Dyer (daughter of Danny Dyer) was cast, up until last year when TikToker Molly Marsh was added to the summer line up. People take issue with this because the charm of the first few seasons of the show was the ‘everyday’ nature of those participating. The shows initially smaller popularity meant that those on it felt very genuine, and as a result, so did their relationships. As this show grew in popularity however, there was suggestion that many of those joining the cast were only doing so in order to secure themselves a brand deal once they left.

There is no denying that some of Love Island previous contestants have been successful since leaving the villa – Molly Mae is creative director of Pretty Little Thing, Jordan Humes is a model (who actually appears in the eBay ad that runs before the show), and Indiya Polak has just hosted the MOBO awards. However, this has created a Catch 22 for the All Stars line up – the most successful islanders have no reason to return to the show, having made a career for themselves outside of it. Therefore, the contestants that are returning tend to be those who have, perhaps, done less well since their original appearance. Which raises the question are they looking for a second chance at love or a second chance at launching their social media career?

The Traitors averaging 6.7M viewers per episode in All Stars opening week, compared to Love Islands 2M viewer episode average. This viewership battle between Traitors and All Stars meant even ITV, the home of Love Island, was tweeting about The Traitors to try and gain traction.

Other dating shows, in recent years, have also been criticised for their casting decisions, or faking events on screen.  Love is Blind has been accused of staging in the past, after it was revealed on Instagram that one couple had planned not to go through with their wedding weeks before the actual ceremony took place. The 2023 season Married at First Sight UK was also criticised by some for having contestants previously seen on other dating shows (although the show did still do incredibly well).

Dating shows are also now under more scrutiny than ever, with reality shows like The Traitors gaining popularity (Love Island All Stars particularly took a hit at the beginning of its run because of this). The thing that The Traitors is able to do so well, is make contestants feel genuine, which they do by making audiences privy to the contestants lying. Lying is the point the of the game, and its fine watching contestants lie and deceive each other, because you, as the viewer, knows the truth. A little bit of audience deception is okay – “Paul’s not my son… but Ross is” will forever be an iconic piece of reality TV history – but audiences don’t want to feel like they’ve had the wool pulled over their eyes and have never been privy to the truth.

This means that authenticity is important on dating shows for two main reasons; one is that audiences want someone to route for, and the other is that they don’t want to feel lied to. The difference between dating shows of old, compared to now, was that the stakes were so much lower for audiences in past – you spent half an hour getting to know a handful of people, so ultimately, the outcome didn’t feel so personal. Now that dating shows require months of audience investment, viewers want people that they can actually believe in, and not people who they feel they have wasted however many weeks of their lives lying to them about their feelings. As much as watching the drama unfold is always a great part of any reality TV viewing, and dating shows do need those OMG moments, there needs to be real people that you want to succeed at the heart of it. Otherwise, it all just feels a bit, well, sad.

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