This tacky, provocative show could be the future of Australian TV

The concept is simple: send a bunch of attractive young Australians – hard of body but soft of mind – to a Spanish villa. Add a little alcohol and a lot covert surveillance, and you have this year's trashiest reality show, Love Island.

Quite possibly, the Nine network will fail to recoup Love Island's costs through TV ad revenues. Judged by standard industry metrics, it's a likely flop.

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Except this style of programming could be the future of network TV.

Love Island is an interesting test case because it's broadcast only on 9Go, a station typically crammed with sitcom repeats. (Anything that attracts more than 120,000 viewers to 9Go – or rivals such as 7Mate and Eleven – can, in context, be deemed a "hit".)

Bikinis and board shorts: the Love Island uniform.

Bikinis and board shorts: the Love Island uniform.

Reality TV stalwart: Love Island host Sophie Monk has also appeared on Popstars and The Bachelorette.

Reality TV stalwart: Love Island host Sophie Monk has also appeared on Popstars and The Bachelorette.

Television is not a level playing field. If a program airs immediately after Ninja Warrior, it's guaranteed a huge lead-in audience. If the same program airs on a secondary channel, following a Married With Children repeat, its ratings will be small.

This is why major reality shows always screened on a main channel. Until now.

Commercial networks still depend on mass audiences watching The Voice or Married At First Sight. "But Love Island is very different," says Nine's programming chief, Hamish Turner. "It's specifically targeted to a 16 to 39 age group. It's not a broad destination; what we're delivering is an engaged, younger audience at scale."

It's no secret that free-to-air television has an ageing audience. This creates a dilemma for networks: how to retain older viewers while appealing to 20-somethings who consider "appointment TV" an anachronism?

The solution, it seems, is to a leaf from Netflix's book. Nine doesn't care when (or how) people watch Love Island – as long as they do watch. So far, the results are promising.

The first few instalments averaged 200,000 viewers on 9Go. An even greater number watched online, at their leisure, through the 9Now or Love Island apps. Include live streaming, and some episodes exceed 460,000 viewers.

At first glance, this isn't an impressive figure. But consider this: Love Island attracts more people aged 16 to 39 than Nine's evening bulletin, despite the latter topping 1 million viewers on the main channel.

In the 1990s, Ten's youthful audience made it Australia’s most profitable broadcaster. When subsequent generations embraced on-demand alternatives, Ten’s fortunes sank. Still, the lucrative 16-39 demographic is desirable. (Despite low ratings, Seven renewed Yummy Mummies last year because of its outsized appeal to young people. The second season will be available exclusively on the 7Plus app.)

One media buyer believes Nine could use Love Island as a "loss leader", at least in the short term. Indeed, networks already do this with major sports.

"You have to look beyond the traditional metrics," the buyer says. "Is Love Island lifting 9Go's youth audience? Is Nine monetising its online audience? Are they getting a cut of the YouTube ad revenue?"

According to Turner, the answer to all three questions is yes.

Since Love Island's debut in May, its live streaming audience has tripled. Early episodes are still accruing viewers, suggesting new fans are watching the series from the start. It continues to dominate online ratings, and its YouTube channel has notched up more than 80 million views.

"Looking at these figures, you'd have to say Love Island is performing strongly," says the media buyer. "But the ultimate proof is yet to come. When other networks start copying Nine's strategy – or Nine launches other big programs outside its main channel – that's when we'll know it's a success."

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