Today, reality TV shows are an enduring part of the current television entertainment landscape. Every major network features reality shows during the primetime viewing period, and over the past 20 years, many of these shows – such as “Cops,” “The Real World,” and “Survivor” – have turned into iconic elements of American pop culture.
What they all have in common is a show format that does not feature writers or actors – instead, they focus on what happens to “real people.” This also means that the “cast” changes from season to season, and sometimes even from show to show. The classic reality TV show, of course, is the competition-style show, in which a group of strangers must solve challenges or win prizes.
The reality TV concept actually dates back to the late 1940s. Many critics point to Ted Mack’s “The Original Amateur Hour” in 1948 as the first-ever reality TV show. This was actually a competition program for regular Americans with unique talents. In fact, the variety show later became a staple of American TV, introducing viewers to people who weren’t actors or actresses.
Other popular programs that laid the groundwork for the modern reality TV show included “Candid Camera” and “Queen for a Day.” At the core of these shows was the dramatic tension that might be possible by filming regular people in regular situations.
Early game shows – such as “The Dating Game” in 1965 – also introduced the idea of regular people taking part in competitions as part of a televised experience. This led to the later appearance of other game shows, such as “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” which turned everyday Americans into household names overnight.
One notable show in the 1970s was the 12-part reality documentary “An American Family,” which followed the upper middle class Loud family in Santa Barbara, California and the subsequent break-up of the family. This opened up the idea that viewers might be willing to follow the story of people over a longer period than just a single show. It also introduced the importance of social context and social issues for helping a reality TV show resonate with the audience.
It was in the late 1980s, however, that reality TV shows really started to hit peak popularity. In 1989, the show “Cops” was a surprising success. The Fox network needed a new show, given the strike of the Writer’s Guild of America, and decided to go with a show that didn’t need any writers. “Cops” lasted for 25 seasons on Fox. 1989 also saw the appearance of “America’s Funniest Videos” on the ABC network, which encouraged millions of Americans to send in funny videos of real-life incidents.
1992 saw the arrival of MTV’s “The Real World,” which became the basis for many “unscripted” reality shows to come. The show followed the lives of seven young adults living in a New York City apartment, focusing just as much on the off-screen drama as the on-screen drama. Over each season, the location of the show would change.
It’s here that reality TV acquired many of the features that are recognizable today – especially the intense focus on human relationships and the dramatic tension that might be possible to encourage (or even manufacture) through the use of television cameras. Instead of reality shows being about skill or competition, they became more about drama and storytelling.
In 2000, “Survivor,” one of the all-time most popular reality TV shows, launched. This reality TV show almost singlehandedly shaped the reality TV landscape for the next 15 years. It led to the emergence of popular shows such as “The Amazing Race” and “The Apprentice.”
Reality shows continued to experiment with ways that live footage could be combined with archived or behind-the-scenes footage to move the story along and make viewers more interested in the “characters” on the screen. At some point, critics began to complain that the line between “reality” shows and “scripted” shows was blurring. In some cases, such as “Reno 911” or “The Office,” actors were filmed as if they were appearing in reality.
Clearly, the reality TV genre is one that is constantly changing and evolving. Over a nearly 60-year period, reality TV has changed from the simple variety show and game show format to the modern version of competitions and challenges featuring strong storylines and compelling characters. Now, you can stream all kinds of reality TV shows to your cell phone, TV, tablet or laptop.