The term “reality television” is used to refer a wide spectrum of programs. To understand how and when reality television started, we first need to understand what we exactly call reality TV. Its definition is ever expanding. Today, games, competitions among other things, apart from the regular sneak peek into somebody’s life, is called reality TV.

Keeping Up with the Kardashians - Season 9
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Using that as the yardstick, we can trace the origins of reality television to the late 1940s with Ted Mack’s The Original Amateur Hour. It can be called the predecessor of all shows the likes of American Idol. Candid Camera was also released later in the same year and is generally quoted as the progenitor of reality television. But frankly, it all depends on your definition of reality TV, and what you consider to qualify for a reality TV show. Ted Mack’s The Original Amateur Hour was a reality competition style show. Following in the footsteps of Ted Mack’s The Original Amateur Hour and Candid Camera, Queen for a Day was another show that made a cross over from radio to television. This show spawned a number of other shows, such as A Makeover Story. The following decade saw a slew of game shows on television, including the legendary Jeopardy!, and Wheel of Fortune, among many others.

As you move forward, you will find certain landmark shows like An American family. In the 1970s, this 12-part documentary slowly started to shape the genre. The Loud Family in Santa Babara soon became hugely popular with the American audience. The national crisis of the time also made the viewers to identify with what the family was facing and everyone saw a part of them in the different family members. That was the time when the whole concept of following people and producing entertainment out of human interactions and relationships came to gain traction. Drama became the formula for success. This also led to the revival of The Dating game, which premiered in 1965 but only aired again in 1978, after the success of An American Family.

Reality tv shows like Survivor make contestants do some pretty hectic tasks
Reality tv shows like Survivor make contestants do some pretty hectic tasks

In 1989, an unexpected event gave birth to one of the biggest shows in the genre, Cops. The event was the strike of the Writer’s Guild of America and the FOX Network needed a new show. A concept that did not require any writers, was God sent. The first episode of the show was shot in the Sheriff’s office at Broward County, Florida and the rest as they say is history. Cops went on to become one of the longest running shows in television history. For 25 long seasons, it aired on FOX and when the network dropped the show, it was taken up by Spike, which has now aired three of its new seasons. The latest one came out in June, 2015.

Cops followed policemen as they performed their duties
Cops followed policemen as they performed their duties

Speaking about long-running reality shows, America’s Funniest Videos is a reality show too. It debuted in 1989 on the ABC Network and was an instant success. There is no doubt that it is also one of the oldest programs on television, and now, it has even received a green signal from ABC for a 26th season as well. The show features real life funny incidents, as recorded and sent by Americans from all over the country.

In 1992, MTV, broadcasted the show, The Real World. The show was to be done the traditional way. However, at the moment when the channel deemed it too expensive a project, the creators decided to lose the writers and actors. They went ahead with the concept of the problems and issues faced by the youngsters, but this time they picked real people. Youngsters were auditioned and seven were chosen to live in an apartment in New York and were taped 24X7 with their conversations and actions being recorded at all times. This was the beginning of reality television as we know it. In its 26th season currently, the show has become the longest running program on the MTV Network.

The real world explosion

Then, as you enter the new millennia, shows such as Survivor began to carve a niche of their own. As discussed earlier, reality TV is constantly evolving. The networks are always coming up with new concepts, merging together different ideas and trying other ways to find the success formula for the next big reality show. Earlier, competitions used to be about performances, but such competitions have been steadily losing their focus on talent. The audiences were even given a peek into off-screen drama and behind the scene specials. There was the competition of course, but a parallel love story among the contestants, or their fight against the odds to emerge as winners was also not off bounds. Then, a complete reversal of the concept can also be seen in the Big Brother house. This show is all about human interactions and emotions, but an element of competition is added to keep the audiences glued to the show.

Survivor, the predecessor of such shows, had all these elements. It was the product of a new thought process to amplify the drama, and what better way to do it than to put people under stress. Survivor required the contestants to live in tribes in a deserted island without any food and supplies. Unknown or uncomfortable conditions, were the best way to bring out extreme emotions and the animal instinct in people, leading to a cut-throat competition, which would eventually translate to great television. That is exactly what happened. CBS aired the first season of Survivor in 2000 and recorded the highest viewership in the network history. Many shows followed suit such as The Amazing Race, The Mole and so on.


As this genre became bigger, issues related to it also came to the fore. A major complaint that emerged was that the shows were not entirely truthful and, at times, even scripted to intensify the situation and get more action out of it. For instance, Stacey Stillman, a contestant on the first season of Survivor, sued the producer and the network. She claimed that the makers of the show had colluded with other contestants to vote her out.

There were also complaints from the participants on popular shows like The Apprentice, regarding misrepresentation of facts. They had a problem with the channel showing their footage in out of context situation, just to add spice to the show. It became clear that the concept of reality TV placed a lot of power in the hand of the creators. They can fine tune and present the facts as they please. They can show the statements of contestants, out of context. They can also place unrelated footage together to create a story that does not exist. Reality TV has huge impact on people because it is supposedly happening for real. This is what differentiates it from regular television and also plays a part as to why reality TV ticks.

Donald Trump stepped down as the host for the apprentice

The other interesting development that took place in this was the emergence of shows that employed writers and actors but were filmed to appear like reality. These generally tend to be comedy shows and, sometimes, depict behind the scene actions on reality television. The Office, Reno 911, Drawn Together and so on, belong to this genre.

Reality television has an interesting history that is interlocked with the evolution of the society. You will find lots of this type of entertainment when you sign up of one of these home entertainment packages. From An American Family to Big Brother, from Candid Camera to America’s Funniest Home Videos, there is a lot that has changed, as have the people participating and watching them. That is why, this ever-evolving genre will always find a way to survive and thrive forever.