Did you catch the Love Island UK final earlier this week? You didn’t?! You mean to say you missed the crowning of this year’s winners, who of course, as everyone knows, were … [furiously Googles] Jess and Sammy?!

At this stage, even pointing out Love Island’s decline from its late 2010s peak feels a little tired, every broadsheet having long since published their “where did all go wrong” piece (here’s ours). Still, it was hard not to gawp at the ratings for Monday’s finale, which averaged out at a middling 1.5 million viewers, dramatically down on 3.4 million who tuned in at the same stage in 2022. Perhaps even more catastrophically for a show that trades in the currency of “buzz”, anecdotally there is a feeling that next to no one has been talking about this latest season. This despite a washout July that should have seen its sun-kissed escapism clean up with soggy, sofa-bound viewers.

Love Island’s travails puts it in the curious company of another once formidable, now down-on-its-luck franchise: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU too has seen drops in its viewer numbers in recent times, with none of its movies (with the exception of Sony’s semi-affiliated Spider-Man films) cracking the coveted billion-dollar mark at the global box office since pre-pandemic times. And, like Love Island, the buzz around Marvel’s many properties is minimal in 2023: its much ballyhooed TV spin-offs, with the exception of early winners WandaVision (pictured below) and Loki, have been a total misfire, culminating in historically poor reviews for its latest series Secret Invasion. Elsewhere, fans and critics have griped about its blockbusters’ gloopy, seemingly unfinished CGI.

But Love Island and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe have more in common than just their waning popularity. Both franchises built their success by managing to court audiences outside their natural constituencies. Just as Love Island lured in viewers who were normally agnostic about dating shows, so Marvel managed to make superhero movies seem like something that were acceptable for grownups to line up and see. I’ve never particularly been an avid viewer of either but have felt obliged -professionally, and so as not to feel out of the loop socially – to keep on top of both of them.

But just as Marvel and Love Island’s success came from courting viewers outside their core audiences, so too have the respective downturns of both franchises come from an assumption that those new viewers were there for the ride no matter how much product they were force-fed. In the case of Love Island, that came in the form of winter series that gave the impression of an exhausting, never-ending all-nighter, reducing the “event” quality of those flagship summer seasons.

Marvel meanwhile has expanded its universe outwards to the point of viewer exhaustion, with a new TV show dropped into those few gaps between its endless tentpole movie releases. Worse still, the MCU’s interlocking serialised storylines demand unceasing loyalty from its audience: you need to watch the She-Hulk series to fully understand the latest Thor film and so on. Which is fine when the storylines are compelling enough to convince casual viewers to keep up, but when new films or series are little more than plot-servicing exposition-dumps, you’re likely to see viewers rapidly zoning out.

Still, for all the self-inflicted injury, it might be the case that Love Island and Marvel are victims of a vibe shift in their respective corners of pop culture. Both have had pretty remarkable runs of success, managing to feel dominant and monocultural for extended periods of time – nearly a decade for Love Island, 15 years for the MCU – in an ever-fragmenting era for popular culture. But, ultimately, it’s impossible to surf the wave of fickle consumer taste for ever.

For proof of that, Love Island can look to another once-dominant reality series, Big Brother, trapped in a death spiral, constantly trying to reinvent itself to keep up with its audience. (That makes I’m A Celebrity’s two-decade success all the more remarkable, though crucially I’m A Celeb – usually on for one month once a year – hasn’t overextended itself like other reality shows.)

The MCU thought they could overwhelm fickle consumers by creating a universe where superheroes had enveloped every genre – horror, comedy, paranoid thriller – but that confidence seems to have been misplaced. Instead they are now having to contend with a new landscape, where superheroes might not be the only show in town. While we shouldn’t assume too much from the dual successes of Barbie and Oppenheimer – which might just be a peculiar moment for cinema rather than a sea change – it does feel like something different might emerging (though not necessarily something better).

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All of this isn’t to say that either franchise is completely doomed. Love Island remains a pretty solid ratings earner for ITV, especially given it sits on a forgotten Freeview channel. Marvel’s box office numbers are still bigger than most – just not as big as they were (a bit of a problem when so much spending is poured into each MCU movie). Even if both don’t regain their zeitgeist-straddling dominance over their respective covers of culture, they could remain successful just by sitting there indefinitely, pleasing their bases. But for the rest of us, the days of having to know what the Quantum Realm is or who snogged who at Casa Amor might just be over.

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 In this week’s newsletter: The dating show conquered TV by attracting a broad audience to a niche genre, before novelty wore off and quality began to drop – sound familiar?  Read More