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The reason we love dating shows is distinctively unromantic – let us explain

Dating shows compilation.
Dating shows have dominated our screens for years now (Picture: ITV/Channel 4)

Falling in love is one of the most intense experiences we can go through if we are lucky enough. But you know what could be even better? Watching someone else do it.

Okay, maybe it’s not quite the same but it’s definitely up there with enjoyable ways to spend an evening. However, the course of true love never did run smooth and certain aspects of dating shows are starting to give us the ick.

As the TV format gets ready to celebrate its 60th birthday, we take a look at why we watch, if we’re starting to get turned off, and what’s next for our TV pensioner who is soon entitled to their free bus pass…

Let’s start at the beginning – our meet-cute with the genre

The Dating Game, which shares the same format as UK’s Blind Date, came along in 1965 and started to revolutionise TV programming in the US.

Its humble beginnings involved one person asking three other singletons hidden behind a screen to share their pre-written answer to a cheesy question. After eliminating two, they’d meet their selection and head on an all-expenses-paid date or trip to see if they do have anything in common. The answer often was no. Ever since TV producers have been hard at work coming up with new and interesting ways to chuck people together in a bid to find love.

Currently, we have everything from two people tying the knot as strangers in Married At First Sight to My Mum, Your Dad, where children play a hand in their single parents’ love lives.

There have also been some pretty bonkers formats over the years including I Wanna Marry Harry, where a bunch of American women believed they were dating the Prince but actually, it was a lookalike, and Dating in the Dark (does what it says on the tin) which walked so that Love Is Blind could run. And then there is Naked Attraction, where people decide on potential spouses based on their genitalia. Cilla Black certainly would have had a surprise, surprise, if things were as *exposed* on Blind Date.

Although the way they work has changed, these shows all have the same goal – to entertain people while matchmaking.

Anna Richardson
Reality dating shows continually get more bonkers (Picture: Channel 4/ Rachel Joseph)

Why do we watch them?

Dr Ross Garner, who is a Senior Lecturer in Spatial and Material Cultures of Media Consumption at Cardiff University, has a pretty simple explanation that’s as old as time. Sadly, it’s not as romantic as those final dates on Love Island.

‘I probably sound like a massive cynic, but one of the longest-standing pressures that have been placed on – and continues to be placed on – any member of a society has been to find a partner and reproduce.

‘Heterosexual coupling aligns perfectly with the aims of capitalism by ensuring the continuation of a pipeline of people who can maintain the means of production and the status quo if you want the Marxist reading of romance.’

So basically, we enjoy watching people fall in love as we’ve been taught that’s a huge and important part of the reason we’re on earth, at around the same time we learned to walk and talk.

Wedding of Chanita & Jordan on Married At First Sight
The reason we watch dating shows isn’t entirely romantic (Picture: Simon Johns / CPL Productions)

There are a few other things that keep us coming back – just like you can amuse yourself by eavesdropping on a conversation in a coffee shop, dating shows can also satisfy our nosiness.

Dr Ian Goode, Senior Lecturer in Theatre, Film and Television Studies at the University of Glasgow believes the way reality TV ‘legitimises voyeurism’ and ‘places us in a privileged position to witness engineered situations’ gives us a thrill.

‘TV can become a classroom for parts of life that are otherwise far more private. How many times in real life have we seen the actual dating process of anyone else? It allows us to see the range of behaviours, be entertained by those we find weird, and learn those that we think might help us,’ added Forensic Psychologist Dr Simon Duff.

Cilla Black with contestant Crispin. on Blind Date.
We’ve come a long way since Blind Date (Picture: ITV/REX/Shutterstock)

One second you’re laughing at a cheesy pick-up line in a dating show, the next one you’re emotionally invested in a stranger and don’t feel like you’ll ever truly be okay until they’re okay. We know it’s not just us who feel that intensely for reality stars (well, hopefully), and those feelings can derive from how we feel about ourselves.

Dr Duff told us: ‘We root for the underdog. If the struggles are internal, so, confidence or esteem, viewers get behind the characters, probably because most of us question ourselves at times and all of us have dating histories that contain success and failure.’

Seeing people overcome the odds to find the one ‘makes us feel good’ and we will unconsciously look for if they match us on levels of ‘success, skill, and looks’ to determine if we are also worthy of romance.

However, those members of society who are already secure in the knowledge they’ll be getting a Valentine’s Day card next month can be there for different reasons: ‘People who have their romantic needs met in real life will tend not to be drawn to the shows for their dating content, more for whatever entertainment the show might offer.’

‘If it is genuinely romantic most people will feel happiness while watching it,’ he noted of the uncoupled and smug marrieds alike.

Why are we starting to be turned off by Love Island?

Love Island once dominated the TV schedule, but viewers have been dropping off at a similar rate to the speed we lose islanders at the Casa Amor recoupling. 1.5 million people tuned in to watch Jess Harding and Sammy Root win last year, compared to 3.6 million viewers who tuned in Greg O’Shea and Amber Gill’s crowning for the 2019 series.

Sammy Root and Jess Harding
Sammy and Jess’ final was watched by 1.5 million people (Picture: Matt Frost/ITV/Shutterstock)

Dr Goode worries we’ve reached peak reality shows and audiences have become too smart (Go us!).

‘Love Island has become very episodic, formulaic and predictable. We all know the format so it can feel forced and manipulated. Viewers who’ve grown up with reality TV are more switched on, and recognise more when there has been interference from production which can take them out of the viewing experience, and make it less enjoyable,’ he reasoned.

Emma Bunning, who owns celebrity agency On the Box Talent, said the quiet bit out loud: ‘People who sign up for dating shows are doing it for social media followers, to change careers, and to get brand ambassador roles, and the audience know that so they find it harder to believe their quest for love.

‘The contestants know what they’re doing, even down to what to say in research chats, they can police themselves as they know the deal with TV and although it’s better for them, it’s less exciting for everyone tuning in.’

Dr Garner deciphers that Love Island’s viewership is simply growing up, and moving on (Why does this make us feel slightly emotional?), and the people taking their place want something new.

‘Reality TV formats tend to have limited shelf lives, in that they become massively popular with a particular age-based audience for a period of time, but as these people age a few years, the groups that take their place seek something different which define their tastes and identities,’ explained Dr Garner.

Maya Jama
Love Island viewers are growing up (Picture: ITV)

He also believes some of us have concerns about its history.

‘Audiences have been directing important critical questions towards Love Island concerning how it only endorses certain forms of body type in the applicants that it selects, and how this distorts understandings of what young people can, or should, look like when seeking out relationships.

‘When you then add in the controversies concerning mental health and aftercare for those appearing on the show, then the sunny exterior of the show reveals a darker and longer shadow.

‘Additionally, the spectre of the tragedy surrounding Caroline Flack [who died in 2020 – a coroner’s inquest recorded a verdict of suicide] continues to remain in our minds.

‘Whilst other presenters have come in and tried to put their stamp on the series, Flack’s star identity remains for the core audience who helped it gain the status that it now has.’

Despite all its issues, the juggernaut is back (1.5 million is still pretty damn impressive in today’s TV landscape) with the powerhouse Maya Jama taking the helm as host again, but this time they have brought back past contestants for an all-stars version.

Love Island All Stars cast
Love Island All Stars starts tonight (Picture: ITV)

Bunning thinks that’s because the world of TV is simply running out of ideas, but she is hopeful the new twists will regain our interest.

‘Programme developers are having a tough time coming up with new ideas when everything has already been done but this could work,’ shared Bunning.

But not all hope is lost

Not all hope is lost at all, and just like married couples tell their single friends: ‘It’ll come along when you least expect it,’ the same could be said for reality shows.

Last year, the BBC’s I Kissed A Boy was praised for focusing on gay men, and they’ve already announced a lesbian women version.

Pop Culture expert Nick Ede explained why he believes it was so successful: ‘I Kissed a Boy was a huge hit as it centred on gay men looking for love for the first time, and it was done with heart and positivity. More shows will follow that format where different sections of society are offered a safe space to find love.’

I Kissed A Boy
I Kissed A Boy was introduced last year (Picture: BBC/Two Four/iStock)

‘Sexual identity and gender identity are moving quickly and the shows need to demonstrate that they are keeping up with that and not ignoring parts of society if they want to stay relevant,’ explained Dr Goode.

An ITV commissioner once said it would be ‘logistically difficult’ to adapt Love Island for more LGBT contestants, and perhaps that’s just not enough of a reason to not do it in 2024.

Dr Goode has a specific idea about what he thinks is coming next: ‘I predict a show where we see how people hook up with one another in nightclubs and bars then we’ll follow any further meetings.’

However, there is an issue with the format.

‘So many people meet that way and we’ve not seen that play out on TV properly. There’s a reason for that – it’s a difficult environment to capture, but it would be full of drama if they could figure out how to do it.’

Of course, Geordie Shore and its equivalents around the world nailed the nightclub scenes but somehow we don’t think it was long-term relationships they were seeking.

Ede believes things will go in a different direction and we’ll see ‘more extreme and more experimental’ programming.

While Dr Garner predicts a reflection of how people meet now – digitally – and even has a potential working title for any TV execs reading, Dating in the Metaverse.

Olivia Buckland and Alex Bowen
What will be the next Love Island? The jury is out (Picture: ITV/REX/Shutterstock)

As you can see nobody quite knows what the future holds, and Dr Garner points out that if you could actually work out the next big thing you’d have a job offer from every channel and streamer.

We may not know what’s next, but one thing’s for certain, the amount of new concepts born every year is the genre telling us loud and clear: ‘I’m not leaving’ (please read the last three words in Leonardo DiCaprio’s Wolf of Wall Street voice).

‘Due to the amount of competition there is between broadcasters, channels, and streaming services nowadays, and the costs involved in making television shows, there’s very little opportunity for risk-taking,’ explained Dr Garner.

‘Consequently, as dating shows are popular, channels and production companies will continually try to create a show that takes the core elements of the genre and adapt it to their brand identity.’

Like a couple with a mortgage and children, we’re committed for the long-term whether we like it or not. See you on the sofa at 9pm!

Love Island All Stars continues tonight at 9pm on ITV – catch up on ITVX

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