Reality television is a genre of television programming that documents unscripted situations and actual occurrences, and often features a previously unknown cast. The genre often highlights personal drama and conflict to a much greater extent than other unscripted television such as documentary shows. The genre has various standard tropes, such as reality TV confessionals used by cast members to express their thoughts, which often double as the shows' narration. In competition-based reality shows, a notable subset, there are other common elements such as one participant being eliminated per episode, a panel of judges, and the concept of immunity from elimination.
The genre began in earnest in the early to mid-1990s with The Real World. It then exploded as a phenomenon in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the global success of the series Survivor and Big Brother. These shows and a number of others (usually also competition-based) became global franchises, spawning local versions in dozens of countries. Reality television as a whole has become a fixture of television programming. In the United States, various channels have retooled themselves to focus on reality TV, most famously MTV, which began in the 1980s as a music video pioneer, before switching to a nearly all-reality format in the early 2000s.
There are grey areas around what is classified as reality television. Documentaries, television news, sports television, talk shows and traditional game shows are not classified as reality television, even though they contain elements of reality television, such as unscripted situations and sometimes unknown participants. Other genres that predate the reality television boom have sometimes been retroactively grouped into reality TV, including hidden camera shows such as Candid Camera (1948), talent-search shows such as The Original Amateur Hour (1948), documentary series about ordinary people such as the Up Series (1964), high-concept game shows such as The Dating Game (1965), home improvement shows such as This Old House (1979) and court shows featuring real-life cases such as The People's Court (1981).
Reality television has faced significant criticism since its rise in popularity. Much of the criticism has centered around the use of the word "reality", and such shows' attempt to present themselves as a straightforward recounting of events that have occurred. Critics have argued that reality television shows do not present reality in ways both implicit (participants being placed in artificial situations) and deceptive or even fraudulent, such as misleading editing, participants being coached in what to say or how to behave, storylines generated ahead of time, and scenes being staged or re-staged for the cameras. Other criticisms of reality television shows include that they are intended to humiliate or exploit participants (particularly on competition shows), that they make celebrities out of untalented people who do not deserve fame, and that they glamorize vulgarity and materialism.
- 1 History
- 2 Subgenres
- 3 Criticism and analysis
- 4 Similar works in popular culture
- 5 Pop culture references
- 6 Other influences on popular culture
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
TV formats portraying ordinary people in unscripted situations are almost as old as TV itself. Producer-host Allen Funt's Candid Camera, in which unsuspecting people were confronted with funny, unusual situations and filmed with a hidden camera, first aired in 1948, and is often seen as a prototype of reality TV programming.
Precedents for television that portrayed people in unscripted situations began in the late 1940s. Queen for a Day (1945-1964) was an early example of reality-based television. The 1946 television game show Cash and Carry sometimes featured contestants performing stunts. Debuting in 1948, Allen Funt's hidden camera Candid Camera show (based on his previous 1947 radio show, Candid Microphone) broadcast unsuspecting ordinary people reacting to pranks. In 1948, talent search shows Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour and Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts featured amateur competitors and audience voting.
In the 1950s, game shows Beat the Clock and Truth or Consequences involved contestants in wacky competitions, stunts, and practical jokes. Confession was a crime/police show which aired from June 1958 to January 1959, with interviewer Jack Wyatt questioning criminals from assorted backgrounds.
The radio series Nightwatch (1951–1955) tape-recorded the daily activities of Culver City, California police officers. The series You Asked for It (1950–1959) incorporated audience involvement by basing episodes around requests sent in by postcard from viewers.
First broadcast in the United Kingdom in 1964, the Granada Television television documentary Seven Up!, broadcast interviews with a dozen ordinary seven-year-olds from a broad cross section of society and inquired about their reactions to everyday life. Every seven years, a film documented the life of the same individuals during the intervening period, titled the Up Series, episodes include "7 Plus Seven", "21 Up", etc. (It is still ongoing.) The series was structured as a series of interviews with no element of plot. However, it did have the then-new effect of turning ordinary people into celebrities.
The first reality show in the modern sense may have been the American Broadcasting Company series The American Sportsman, which ran from 1965 to 1986. A typical episode featured one or more celebrities, and sometimes their family members, being accompanied by a camera crew on an outdoor adventure, such as hunting, fishing, hiking, scuba diving, rock climbing, wildlife photography, horseback riding, race car driving, and the like, with most of the resulting action and dialogue being unscripted, except for the narration.
In the 1966 Direct Cinema film Chelsea Girls, Andy Warhol filmed various acquaintances with no direction given; the Radio Times Guide to Film 2007 stated that the film was "to blame for reality television".
The 12-part 1973 PBS series An American Family showed a nuclear family (filmed in 1971) going through a divorce; unlike many later reality shows, it was more or less documentary in purpose and style. In 1974 a counterpart program, The Family, was made in the UK, following the working class Wilkins family of Reading. Other forerunners of modern reality television were the 1970s productions of Chuck Barris: The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show, all of which featured participants who were eager to sacrifice some of their privacy and dignity in a televised competition. In 1978, Living in the Past recreated life in an Iron Age English village.
Producer George Schlatter capitalized on the advent of videotape to create Real People, a surprise hit for NBC which ran from 1979 to 1984. The success of Real People was quickly copied by ABC with That's Incredible, a stunt show co-hosted by Fran Tarkenton.
In 1985, underwater cinematographer Al Giddings teamed with former Miss America Shawn Weatherly on the NBC series Oceanquest. Oceanquest chronicled Weatherly's adventures scuba diving in various exotic locales. Weatherly was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in informational programming.
COPS, which first aired in the spring of 1989 and came about partly due to the need for new programming during the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike, showed police officers on duty apprehending criminals; it introduced the camcorder look and cinéma vérité feel of much of later reality television.
The series Nummer 28, which aired on Dutch television in 1991, originated the concept of putting strangers together in the same environment for an extended period of time and recording the drama that ensued. Nummer 28 also pioneered many of the stylistic conventions that have since become standard in reality television shows, including a heavy use of soundtrack music and the interspersing of events on screen with after-the-fact "confessionals" recorded by cast members, that serve as narration. One year later, the same concept was used by MTV in their new series The Real World and Nummer 28 creator Erik Latour has long claimed that The Real World was directly inspired by his show. However, the producers of The Real World have stated that their direct inspiration was An American Family.
According to television commentator Charlie Brooker, this type of reality television was enabled by the advent of computer-based non-linear editing systems for video (such as produced by Avid Technology) in 1989. These systems made it easy to quickly edit hours of video footage into a usable form, something that had been very difficult to do before. (Film, which was easy to edit, was too expensive to shoot enough hours of footage with on a regular basis).
The TV show Expedition Robinson, created by TV producer Charlie Parsons, which first aired in 1997 in Sweden (and was later produced in a large number of other countries as Survivor), added to the Nummer 28/Real World template the idea of competition and elimination, in which cast members/contestants battled against each other and were removed from the show until only one winner remained. (These shows are now sometimes called elimination shows).
The 1980s and 1990s were also a time when tabloid talk shows came to rise, many of which featured the same types of unusual or dysfunctional guests that would later become popular as cast members of reality shows.
In the United States, reality television had a temporary decline in viewership in 2001, leading some[who?] to speculate that it was a temporary fad that had run its course. Reality shows with low ratings included The Amazing Race (although the show has since recovered), Lost (unrelated to the better-known serial drama of the same name) and The Mole.
However, this proved not to be the case. Survivor and American Idol both topped the US season-average television ratings in the 2000s: Survivor led the ratings in 2001–02, and Idol topped the ratings six consecutive years, from 2004–05 to 2009–10).
Internationally, a number of shows created in the late 1990s and 2000s have had massive global success. At least nine reality-television franchises have had over 30 international adaptations each: the singing competition franchises Idols, Star Academy and The X Factor, and other competition franchises Survivor/Expedition Robinson, Big Brother, Got Talent, Top Model, MasterChef and Dancing with the Stars. Several "reality game shows" from the same period have had even greater success, including Deal or No Deal, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Weakest Link, with over 50 international adaptions each. (All but one of these franchises, Top Model, was created by either British producers or the Dutch production company Endemol.)
The 2000s saw three television channels devoted exclusively to reality television: Fox Reality in the United States, which existed from 2005 to 2010, Global Reality Channel in Canada (2010–2012) and Zone Reality in the United Kingdom (2002–2009). In addition, several other cable channels, including Bravo, A&E, E!, TLC, History, VH1 and MTV, changed their programming to mostly comprise reality television during the 2000s.
During the early part of the 2000s, network executives expressed concern that reality-television programming was limited in its appeal for DVD reissue and syndication. DVDs for reality shows in fact sold briskly; Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, The Amazing Race, Project Runway, and America's Next Top Model all ranked in the top DVDs sold on Amazon.com, and in the mid-2000s, DVDs of The Simple Life outranked scripted shows like The O.C. and Desperate Housewives. Syndication, however, has indeed proven problematic; shows such as Fear Factor, COPS and Wife Swap in which each episode is self-contained can indeed be rerun fairly easily, but usually only on cable television and/or during the daytime (COPS and America's Funniest Home Videos being exceptions). Season-long competitions such as The Amazing Race, Survivor, and America's Next Top Model generally perform more poorly and usually must be rerun in marathons to draw the necessary viewers to make it worthwhile. (Even in these cases, it is not always successful: Dancing with the Stars was picked up for a ten-season run on GSN in 2012 and was run in marathon format, but experienced very poor ratings.) Another option is to create documentaries around series including extended interviews with the participants and outtakes not seen in the original airings; the syndicated series American Idol Rewind is an example of this strategy.
COPS has had huge success in syndication, direct response sales and DVD. A FOX staple since 1989, COPS has, as of 2013, outlasted all competing scripted police shows. Another series that has seen wide success is "Cheaters", which has been running since 2000 in the US and is syndicated in over 100 countries worldwide.
In 2001, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences added the reality genre to the Emmy Awards with the category of Outstanding Reality Program. In 2003, to better differentiate between competition and informational reality programs, a second category, Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, was added. In 2008, a third category, Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program, was added.
By 2012, many of the long-running reality television show franchises in the United States, such as American Idol, Dancing with the Stars and The Bachelor, had begun to see declining ratings. However, reality television as a whole remained highly durable in the U.S., with hundreds of shows across many channels. In 2012 New York Magazine's Vulture blog published a humorous Venn diagram showing popular themes across American reality shows then running, including shows set in the U.S. states of Alaska, Louisiana and Texas, shows about cakes, weddings and pawnbrokers, and shows, usually competition-based, whose title includes the word "Wars".
Duck Dynasty, a reality series featuring the Robertson family that founded Duck Commander, in 2013 became the most popular reality series in U.S. cable television history. Its fourth season premiere was viewed by nearly 12 million viewers in the United States, most of which were in rural markets; its rural audience share has ranked in the 30s, an extremely high number for any series, broadcast or cable. Despite a significant ratings decline in 2014 (which was prompted in part by A&E constantly playing marathons of the show on a nearly daily basis and in part because of negative publicity stemming from founder Phil Robertson's comments in opposition to homosexuality), the series remains one of the most popular shows on television.
The genre of reality television consists of various subgenres. There are eight subgenres of reality television as proposed by Murray and Ouellette (2009). These subgenres are: gamedocs, dating programs, makeover programs, docusoaps, talent contests, court programs, reality sitcoms, and celebrity variations of other programs.
Others such as Hill, Weibull, and Nilsson (2007, p. 18) suggest that five subgenres or categories exist. They suggest the following: infotainment, docusoap, lifestyle, reality game shows, and lifestyle experiment programs as main categories of reality TV. Nabi et al. (2006, p. 433) on the other hand, proposed a categorization based on six main topics: romance, crime, informational, reality-drama, competition/game, and talent. Similarly, Fitzgerald (2003) proposed a similar categorization focusing on talent and survival competitions, personal makeover, home makeover, get-rich-quick schemes, docudramas, and "Mr. Right" programs.
Still others suggest that categorization can be determined by either narrative or performation reality. Narrative reality television is based on “entertaining the viewers by an authentic or staged rendition of extraordinary, real, or close-to-reality events with non-prominent actors, whereas formats providing a stage for uncommon performances with a direct impact on the participants' lives fall into the category of performative reality TV.” From the perspective of Klaus and Lucke,"docusoaps" portray people in their usual living environment and "reality soaps" bring them in a new, uncommon environment." 
A variety of what could be called "adventure" reality television places people in wild and challenging natural settings. The genre includes such shows as Survivorman, Man vs. Wild, Naked Castaway, Naked and Afraid, and Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls.
In many reality TV programs, camera shooting and footage editing give the viewer the impression that they are passive observers following people going about their daily personal and professional activities; this style of filming is sometimes referred to as fly on the wall or factual television. Story "plots" are often constructed via editing or planned situations, with the results resembling soap operas—hence the terms docusoap and docudrama. Documentary style programs give viewers a private look into the lives of the subjects.
Within documentary-style reality television are several subcategories or variants:
- Special living environment
- Some documentary-style programs place cast members, who in most cases previously did not know each other, in artificial living environments; The Real World is the originator of this style. In almost every other such show, cast members are given specific challenges or obstacles to overcome. Road Rules, which started in 1995 as a spin-off of The Real World, started this pattern: the cast traveled across the country guided by clues and performing tasks.
- Big Brother is probably the best known program of this type in the world, with around 50 international versions having been produced. Another example of a show in this category The 1900 House, involves historical re-enactment with cast members hired to live and work as people of a specific time and place. 2001's Temptation Island achieved some notoriety by placing several couples on an island surrounded by single people in order to test the couples' commitment to each other. U8TV: The Lofters combined the "special living environment" format with the "professional activity" format noted below; in addition to living together in a loft, each member of the show's cast was hired to host a television program for a Canadian cable channel.
- Soap-opera style
- Although the term "docusoap" has been used for many documentary-style reality television shows, there have been shows that have deliberately tried to mimic the appearance and structure of soap operas. Such shows often focus on a close-knit group of people and their shifting friendships and romantic relationships. One highly influential such series was the American 2004-2006 series Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, which attempted to specifically mimic the primetime soap opera The O.C., which had begun airing in 2003. Laguna Beach had a more cinematic feel than any previous reality television show, through the use of higher-quality lighting and cameras, voice-over narration instead of on-screen "confessionals", and slower pacing. Laguna Beach led to several spinoff series, most notably the 2006-2010 series The Hills. It also inspired various other series, including the highly successful British series The Only Way Is Essex and Made in Chelsea and the Australian series Freshwater Blue.
- Due to their cinematic feel, many of these shows have been accused of being pre-scripted, more so than other reality TV shows have. The producers of The Only Way Is Essex and Made in Chelsea have admitted to coaching cast members on what to say in order to draw more emotion from each scene, although they insist that the underlying stories are real.
- Another highly successful group of soap-opera-style shows is the Real Housewives franchise, which began with The Real Housewives of Orange County in 2006 and has since spawned nearly twenty other series, in the U.S. and internationally. The franchise has an older cast and different personal dynamics than that of Laguna Beach and its imitators, as well as lower production values, but similarly is meant to resemble scripted soap operas -- in this case, the TV shows Desperate Housewives and Peyton Place.
- A notable subset of such series focus on a group of women who are romantically connected to male celebrities; these include Basketball Wives (2010), Love & Hip Hop (2011) and Hollywood Exes (2012).
- Another subset of fly-on-the-wall-style shows involves celebrities. Often these show a celebrity going about their everyday life: notable examples include The Anna Nicole Show, The Osbournes, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Hogan Knows Best. In other shows, celebrities are put on location and given a specific task or tasks; these include The Simple Life, Tommy Lee Goes to College and The Surreal Life. VH1 in the mid-2000s had an entire block of such shows, known as "Celebreality". Shows such as these are often created with the idea of promoting a celebrity product or upcoming project.
- Professional activities
- Some documentary-style shows portray professionals either going about day-to-day business or performing an entire project over the course of a series. One early example (and the longest running reality show of any genre) is COPS, which has been airing since 1989.
- Other examples of this type of reality show include the American shows Miami Ink, Bikini Barbershop, The First 48, Dog the Bounty Hunter, American Chopper and Deadliest Catch; the British shows Airport, Police Stop! and Traffic Cops; the Australian shows Border Security and Bondi Rescue, and the New Zealand show Motorway Patrol. The US cable networks TLC and A&E in particular show a number of this type of reality show.
- VH1's 2001 show Bands on the Run was a notable early hybrid, in that the show featured four unsigned bands touring and making music as a professional activity, but also pitted the bands against one another in game show fashion to see which band could make the most money.
- Some documentary-style shows shed light on cultures and lifestyles rarely seen otherwise by most of their viewers. One example is shows about people with disabilities or people who have unusual physical circumstances, such as the American TV shows Push Girls and Little People, Big World, and the British shows Beyond Boundaries, The Undateables and Seven Dwarves.
- Another example is shows that portray the lives of ethnic or religious minorities. Examples include All-American Muslim (Lebanese-American Muslims), Shahs of Sunset (affluent Persian-Americans), Sister Wives (polygamists from a Mormon splinter group), Breaking Amish and Amish Mafia (the Amish), and Washington Heights (Dominican Americans).
- The Real Housewives franchise offers a window into the lives of social-striving urban and suburban housewives. Many shows focus on wealth and conspicuous consumption, including Platinum Weddings, and My Super Sweet 16, which documented huge coming of age celebrations thrown by wealthy parents. Conversely, the highly successful Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty are set in poorer rural areas of the Southern United States.
Reality legal programming
Another subgenre of reality television is "reality legal programming." These are programs that center on real-life legal matters.
- Originally, court shows were all dramatized and staged programs with actors playing the litigants, witnesses, and lawyers. The cases were either reenactments of real-life cases or altogether made up cases. Among examples of stage courtroom dramas are Famous Jury Trials, Your Witness, and the first two eras of Divorce Court. The People's Court revolutionized the genre by introducing the arbitration-based "reality" format in 1981, later adopted by the vast majority of court shows. The genre experienced a lull in programming after The People's Court was cancelled in 1993, but then soared after the emergence of Judge Judy in 1996. This led to a slew of other reality court shows appearing, such as Judge Mathis, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Alex, Judge Mills Lane and Judge Hatchett.
- Though the litigants are legitimate, the "judges" in such shows are actually arbitrators, as these pseudo-judges are not actually presiding in a court of law. Typically, however, they are retired judges, or at least individuals who have had some legal experience.
- Courtroom programs are typically daytime television shows that air on weekdays.
Law enforcement documentaries
- Another subgenre of reality legal programming are law enforcement documentaries. Law enforcement documentaries are programs that capture police officers on duty. These shows tend to be shocking in nature as they consist of individuals caught in real-life criminal acts and circumstances, as well as confrontations with police officers. The most successful installment of this subgenre is Cops.
Reality competition/game shows
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- See also: List of reality television game shows
Another sub-genre of reality TV is "reality competition", "reality playoffs", or so-called "reality game shows," which follow the format of non-tournament elimination contests. Typically, participants are filmed competing to win a prize, often while living together in a confined environment. In many cases, participants are removed until only one person or team remains, who/which is then declared the winner. Usually this is done by eliminating participants one at a time, through either disapproval voting or by voting for the most popular choice to win. Voting is done by the viewing audience, the show's own participants, a panel of judges, or some combination of the three.
A well-known example of a reality-competition show is the globally syndicated Big Brother, in which cast members live together in the same house, with participants removed at regular intervals by either the viewing audience or, in the case of the American version, by the participants themselves.
There remains disagreement over whether talent-search shows such as the Idol series, the Got Talent series and the Dancing with the Stars series are truly reality television, or just newer incarnations of shows such as Star Search. Although the shows involve a traditional talent search, the shows follow the reality-competition conventions of removing one or more contestants per episode and allowing the public to vote on who is removed; and the shows sometimes show unscripted moments during rehearsals. Additionally, there is a good deal of interaction shown between contestants and judges. The American Primetime Emmy Awards have nominated both American Idol and Dancing with the Stars for the Outstanding Reality-Competition Program Emmy.
Game shows like Weakest Link, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, American Gladiators and Deal or No Deal, which were popular in the 2000s, also lie in a gray area: like traditional game shows (e.g., The Price Is Right, Jeopardy!), the action takes place in an enclosed TV studio over a short period of time; however, they have higher production values, more dramatic background music, and higher stakes than traditional shows (done either through putting contestants into physical danger or offering large cash prizes). In addition, there is more interaction between contestants and hosts, and in some cases they feature reality-style contestant competition and/or elimination as well. These factors, as well as these shows' rise in global popularity at the same time as the arrival of the reality craze, have led to such shows often being grouped under both the reality TV and the game show umbrellas.
There have been various hybrid reality-competition shows, like the worldwide-syndicated Star Academy, which combines the Big Brother and Idol formats, The Biggest Loser, which combines competition with the self-improvement format, and American Inventor, which uses the Idol format for products instead of people. Some reality shows that aired mostly during the early 2000s, such as Popstars, Making the Band and Project Greenlight, devoted the first part of the season to selecting a winner, and the second part to showing that person or group of people working on a project.
Popular variants of the competition-based format include the following:
- Dating-based competition
- Dating-based competition shows follow a contestant choosing one out of a group of suitors. Over the course of either a single episode or an entire season, suitors are eliminated until only the contestant and the final suitor remains. In the early 2000s, this type of reality show dominated the other genres on the major US networks. Shows that aired included The Bachelor, its spin-off The Bachelorette, as well as Temptation Island and Average Joe. In Married by America, contestants were chosen by viewer voting. More recent such shows include Flavor of Love (a dating show featuring rapper Flavor Flav that led directly and indirectly to over 10 spinoffs), The Cougar, and Love in the Wild. This is one of the older variants of the format; shows such as The Dating Game that date to the 1960s had similar premises (though each episode was self-contained, and not the serial format of more modern shows).
- Job search
- In this category, the competition revolves around a skill that contestants were pre-screened for. Competitors perform a variety of tasks based on that skill, are judged, and are then kept or removed by a single expert or a panel of experts. The show is usually presented as a job search of some kind, in which the prize for the winner includes a contract to perform that kind of work and an undisclosed salary, although the award can simply be a sum of money and ancillary prizes, like a cover article in a magazine. The show also features judges who act as counselors, mediators and sometimes mentors to help contestants develop their skills further or perhaps decide their future position in the competition. Popstars, which debuted in 1999, may have been the first such show, while the Idol series has been the longest-running and, for most of its run, the most popular such franchise. The first job-search show which showed dramatic, unscripted situations may have been America's Next Top Model, which premiered in May 2003. Other examples include The Apprentice (which judges business skills); Hell's Kitchen, MasterChef, and Top Chef (for chefs); Shear Genius (for hair styling), Project Runway (for clothing design), Top Design (for interior design), Stylista (for fashion editors), Last Comic Standing (for comedians), I Know My Kid's a Star (for child performers), On the Lot (for filmmakers), RuPaul's Drag Race (for drag queens), The Shot (for fashion photographers), So You Think You Can Dance (for dancers), MuchMusic VJ Search and Food Network Star (for television hosts), Dream Job (for sportscasters), Work of Art (for artists), Face Off (for makeup artists), Ink Master (for tattoo artists), Platinum Hit (for songwriters) and The Tester (for game testers).
- A notable subset is shows in which the winner gets a specific part a known film, television show, musical or performing group. Examples include Scream Queens (where the prize is a role in the Saw film series), The Glee Project (for a role on the television show Glee) and Any Dream Will Do (the lead role in a revival of the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). The most extreme prize for such a show may have been for 2005's Rock Star: INXS, where the winner became the lead singer of the rock band INXS. J.D. Fortune, who won the show, went on to be INXS's lead singer until 2011.
- Some shows use the same format with celebrities: in this case, there is no expectation that the winner will continue this line of work, and prize winnings often go to charity. Examples of celebrity competition programs include Deadline, Celebracadabra, and Celebrity Apprentice. More game-show-style celebrity "job search" competition programs include the Dancing with the Stars and Dancing on Ice franchises.
- Most of these programs create a sporting competition among athletes attempting to establish their name in that sport. The Club, in 2002, was one of the first shows to immerse sport with reality TV, based on a fabricated club competing against real clubs in the sport of Australian rules football; the audience helped select which players played each week by voting for their favorites. Golf Channel's The Big Break is a reality show in which aspiring golfers compete against one another and are eliminated. The Contender, a boxing show, became the first American reality show in which a contestant committed suicide after being eliminated from the show; the show's winner was promised a shot at a boxing world championship. Sergio Mora, who won, indeed got his title shot and became a world champion boxer. On The Ultimate Fighter participants have voluntarily withdrawn or expressed the desire to withdraw from the show due to competitive pressure.
- In sports shows, sometimes just appearing on the show, not necessarily winning, can get a contestant the job. The owner of UFC declared that the final match of the first season of Ultimate Fighter was so good, both contestants were offered a contract, and in addition, many non-winning "TUF Alumni" have prospered in the UFC. Many of the losers from World Wrestling Entertainment's Tough Enough and Diva Search shows have been picked up by the company.
- Not all sports programs involve athletes trying to make a name in the sport. The 2006 US reality series Knight School focused on students at Texas Tech University vying for a walk-on (non-scholarship) roster position on the school's men's basketball team under legendary coach Bob Knight. In the Republic of Ireland, RTÉ One's Celebrity Bainisteoir involves eight non-sporting Irish celebrities becoming bainisteoiri (managers) of mid-level Gaelic football teams, leading their teams in an officially sanctioned tournament.
One concept pioneered by, and unique to, reality competition shows is the idea of immunity, in which a contestant can win the right to be exempt the next time contestants are eliminated from the show. This concept was conceived by Mark Burnett, the producer of the American version of Survivor, for that show's first season in 1999. On Survivor the rules around immunity are more complex than they have been on most shows since then: a player achieves immunity through finding a hidden totem, but they can keep this fact a secret from other players; they can also pass on their immunity to someone else. On most shows, immunity is instead achieved by winning a task, often a relatively minor task during the first half of the episode; the announcement of immunity is made publicly and immunity is non-transferable. Competition shows that feature immunity include the Apprentice, Big Brother, Biggest Loser, Top Model and Top Chef franchises. In one Apprentice episode, a participant chose to waive his earned immunity and was immediately "fired" by Donald Trump for giving up this powerful asset.
Some reality television shows cover a person or group of people improving their lives. Sometimes the same group of people are covered over an entire season (as in The Swan and Celebrity Fit Club), but usually there is a new target for improvement in each episode. Despite differences in the content, the format is usually the same: first the show introduces the subjects in their current, less-than-ideal environment. Then the subjects meet with a group of experts, who give the subjects instructions on how to improve things; they offer aid and encouragement along the way. Finally, the subjects are placed back in their environment and they, along with their friends and family and the experts, appraise the changes that have occurred. Other self-improvement or makeover shows include The Biggest Loser and Fat March, (which covers weight loss), Extreme Makeover (entire physical appearance), Queer Eye, What Not to Wear and How Do I Look? (style and grooming), Supernanny (child-rearing), Made (life transformation), Trinny & Susannah Undress and Bridalplasty (fashion and cosmetic makeover and marriage), Tool Academy (relationship building) and Charm School and From G's to Gents (self-improvement and manners). The British TV show Snog Marry Avoid?, presented by Ellie Taylor sees members of the public, who usually have a wild dress sense or wear excess make-up and 'fakery', have a makeover to make them look more 'normal' or presentable.
Some shows make over part or all of a person's living space, work space, or vehicle. The American show This Old House was the first such show, debuting in 1979. The British show Changing Rooms, beginning in 1996 (later remade in the US as Trading Spaces) was the first such renovation show that added a game show feel with different weekly contestants. Other shows in this category include Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Debbie Travis' Facelift, Designed to Sell, While You Were Out, and Holmes on Homes. Pimp My Ride and Overhaulin' show vehicles being rebuilt. Some shows, such as Restaurant Makeover and Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, show both the decor and the menu of a failing restaurant being remade. The issue of "making over" was taken to its social extreme with the British show Life Laundry, in which people who had become hoarders, even living in squalor, were given professional assistance. The American television series Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive follow similar premises, presenting interventions in the lives of people who suffer from compulsive hoarding.
As with game shows, a gray area exists between such reality TV shows and more conventional formats. Some argue the key difference is the emphasis of the human story and conflicts of reality shows, versus the emphasis on process and information in more traditional format shows. The show This Old House, which began in 1979, the start to finish renovation of different houses through a season; media critic Jeff Jarvis has speculated that it is "the original reality TV show."
Another type of reality program is the social experiment that produces drama, conflict, and sometimes transformation. Wife Swap which began in 2003 on Channel 4 and has aired for four seasons on ABC is a notable example. People with different values agreed to live by each other's social rules for a brief period of time and sometimes learn from the experience. Other shows in this category include Celebrity Wife Swap, Fox's Trading Spouses, ITV's Holiday Showdown, Oxygen's The Bad Girls Club, and Channel 4's Secret Millionaire. Faking It was a series where people had to learn a new skill and pass themselves off as experts in that skill. Shattered was a controversial 2004 UK series where contestants competed for how long they could go without sleep.
Another type of reality programming features hidden cameras rolling when random passers-by encounter a staged situation. Candid Camera, which first aired on television in 1948, pioneered the format. Modern variants of this type of production include Punk'd, Trigger Happy TV, Primetime: What Would You Do?, The Jamie Kennedy Experiment and Just for Laughs: Gags. The series Scare Tactics and Room 401 are hidden-camera programs in which the goal is to frighten contestants rather than just befuddle or amuse them.
Not all hidden camera shows use strictly staged situations. For example, the syndicated show Cheaters, purports to use hidden cameras to record suspected cheating partners, although the authenticity of the show has been questioned. Once the evidence has been gathered, the accuser confronts the cheating partner with the assistance of the host. In many special-living documentary programs, hidden cameras are set up all over the residence in order to capture moments missed by the regular camera crew, or intimate bedroom footage.
Supernatural and paranormal
Supernatural and paranormal reality shows such as MTV's Fear, place participants into frightening situations which ostensibly involve the paranormal. In series such as Celebrity Paranormal Project, the stated aim is investigation, and some series like Scariest Places on Earth challenge participants to survive the investigation; whereas others such as Paranormal State and Ghost Hunters use a recurring crew of paranormal researchers. In general, the shows follow similar stylized patterns of night vision, surveillance, and hand held camera footage; odd angles; subtitles establishing place and time; desaturated imagery; and non-melodic soundtracks.
Noting the trend in reality shows that take the paranormal at face value, The New York Times culture editor Mike Hale characterized ghost hunting shows as "pure theater" and compared the genre to professional wrestling or soft core pornography for its formulaic, teasing approach.
In hoax reality shows, a false premise is presented to some of the series participants; the rest of the cast are actors who are in on the joke. These shows often served to parody the conventions of the reality TV genre. The first such show was 2003's The Joe Schmo Show. Other examples are My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss (modeled after The Apprentice), My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, Hell Date (modeled after Blind Date), Superstar USA (modeled after American Idol), Bedsitcom (modeled after Big Brother), Space Cadets (which convinced the hoax targets that they were being flown into space), Invasion Iowa (in which a town was convinced that William Shatner was filming a movie there), and Reality Hell (different target and premise every episode).
Criticism and analysis
"Reality" as misnomer
The authenticity of reality television is often called into question by its detractors. The genre's title of "reality" is often criticized as being inaccurate because of claims that the genre frequently includes premeditated scripting; acting; urgings from behind-the-scenes crew to create specified situations of adversity and drama; misleading editing; etc.
In many cases the entire premise of the show is a contrived one, based around a competition or another unusual situation. However, various shows have additionally been accused of using fakery in order to create more compelling television, such as having premeditated storylines and in some cases feeding participants lines of dialogue, focusing only on participants' most outlandish behavior, and altering events through editing and re-shoots.
Television shows that have been criticized for, or admitted to, deception include The Real World, the U.S. Survivor, Joe Millionaire, The Hills, Hell's Kitchen, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, Hogan Knows Best, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette and Pawn Stars. As of 2013, the TV series Storage Wars is the subject of a pending lawsuit, and Keeping Up with the Kardashians part of a divorce deposition, both due to allegations of fraud.
Political and cultural impact
Reality television's global successes has been, in the eyes of some analysts, an important political phenomenon. In some authoritarian countries, reality television voting has been the first time many citizens have voted in any free and fair wide-scale elections. In addition, the frankness of the settings on some reality shows present situations that are often taboo in certain orthodox cultures, like Star Academy Arab World, which began airing in 2003, and which shows male and female contestants living together. A Pan-Arab version of Big Brother was cancelled in 2004 after less than two weeks on the air after a public outcry and street protests. In 2004, journalist Matt Labash, noting both of these issues, wrote that "the best hope of little Americas developing in the Middle East could be Arab-produced reality TV."
In 2007, Abu Dhabi TV began airing Million's Poet, a show featuring Pop Idol-style voting and elimination, but for the writing and oration of Arabic poetry. The show became popular in Arab countries, with around 18 million viewers, partly because it was able to combine the excitement of reality television with a traditional, culturally relevant topic. In April 2010, however, the show also become a subject of political controversy, when Hissa Hilal, a 43-year-old female Saudi competitor, read out a poem criticizing her country's Muslim clerics. Hilal's poetry was well received by both critics and the public; she received the highest scores from the judges throughout the competition, and came in third place overall.
In India in the summer of 2007, coverage of the third season of Indian Idol focused on the breaking down of cultural and socioeconomic barriers as the public rallied around the show's top two contestants.
The Chinese singing competition Super Girl (a local imitation of Pop Idol) has similarly been cited for its political and cultural impact. After the finale of the show's 2005 season drew an audience of around 400 million people, and 8 million text message votes, the state-run English-language newspaper Beijing Today ran the front-page headline "Is Super Girl a Force for Democracy?" The Chinese government criticized the show, citing both its democratic nature and its excessive vulgarity, or "worldliness", and in 2006 banned it outright. It was later reintroduced in 2009, before being banned again in 2011. Super Girl has also been criticized by non-government commentators for creating seemingly impossible ideals that may be harmful to Chinese youth.
In Indonesia, reality television shows have surpassed soap operas as the most-watched programs on the air. One popular program is Jika Aku Menjadi ("If I Were"), which follows young, middle-class people as they are temporarily placed into lower-class life, where they learn to appreciate their circumstances back home by experiencing daily life for the less fortunate. Critics have claimed that this and similar programs in Indonesia reinforce traditionally Western ideals of materialism and consumerism. However, Eko Nugroho, reality show producer and president of Dreamlight World Media, insists that these reality shows are not promoting American lifestyles but rather reaching people through their universal desires.
As a substitute for scripted drama
VH1 executive vice president Michael Hirschorn wrote that the plots and subject matters on reality television are more authentic and more engaging than in scripted dramas, writing that scripted network television "remains dominated by variants on the police procedural... in which a stock group of characters (ethnically, sexually, and generationally diverse) grapples with endless versions of the same dilemma. The episodes have all the ritual predictability of Japanese Noh theater," while reality TV is "the liveliest genre on the set right now. It has engaged hot-button cultural issues—class, sex, race—that respectable television... rarely touches."
Television critic James Poniewozik wrote that reality shows like Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers showcase working-class people of the kind that "used to be routine" on scripted network television, but that became a rarity in the 2000s: "The better to woo upscale viewers, TV has evicted its mechanics and dockworkers to collect higher rents from yuppies in coffeehouses." In addition to bringing in substantial revenues, such programs generally cost less to produce than scripted series.
Reality television has the potential to turn its participants into national celebrities, at least for a short period. This is most notable in talent-search programs such as Idol and The X Factor, which have spawned music stars in many of the countries in which they have aired. Many other shows, however, have made at least temporary celebrities out of their participants; some participants have then been able to parlay this fame into media and merchandising careers. For example, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, a contestant on Survivor: The Australian Outback, later became a host on morning talk show The View. Jamie Chung (from The Real World: San Diego), Kristin Cavallari (from Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County) and NeNe Leakes (from The Real Housewives of Atlanta) all have had acting careers since appearing on reality television. Several cast members of MTV's Jersey Shore have had lucrative endorsement deals, and in some cases their own product lines. Tiffany Pollard, originally a contestant on Flavor of Love, was eventually given four additional reality series of her own on VH1. In Britain, Jade Goody became famous after appearing on Big Brother 3 in 2002; she later appeared on other reality programs, wrote a bestselling autobiography and launched a top-selling perfume line. She later received extensive media coverage during her battle with cervical cancer, from which she died in 2009. Bethenny Frankel, who gained fame after appearing on several reality TV shows, launched the successful brand Skinnygirl Cocktails, and got her own talk show, Bethenny. Two castmembers of non-athletic reality shows, Mike "The Miz" Mizanin (from The Real World and its spin-off, The Challenge) and David Otunga (from I Love New York), became professional wrestlers for WWE. Some reality-television alumni have parlayed their fame into paid public appearances. Numerous spin-offs of these shows have spawned even more celebrities; for example, I Love Money is a spin-off of Flavor of Love, Charm School, I Love New York, Rock of Love with Bret Michaels, Real Chance of Love, For the Love of Ray J, Daisy of Love and Megan Wants a Millionaire in which former contestants on these shows compete for a $250,000 grand prize.
Several socialites, or children of famous parents, who were somewhat well-known before they appeared on reality television shows have become much more famous as a result, including Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Kelly Osbourne, Kim Kardashian, and many of the rest of the Kardashian family.
Reality TV personalities are sometimes derided as "Z-list celebrities", "Bravolebrities", and/or "nonebrities" who are effectively "famous for being famous" yet have done nothing to warrant their sudden fame. Some have been lampooned for exploiting an undeserved "15 minutes of fame". The Kardashian family is one such group of reality television personalities who were subject to this criticism in the 2010s, Kim Kardashian in particular.
In 2006, four of the ten most popular programs among viewers under 17 were reality shows. Studies have shown that young people emulate the behavior displayed on these programs, gathering much of their knowledge of the social world, particularly about consumer practices, from television.
A number of studies have tried to pinpoint the appeal of reality television. Factors that have been cited in its appeal include personal identification with the onscreen participants; pure entertainment; diversion from scripted TV; vicarious participation; a feeling of self-importance compared to onscreen participants; enjoyment of competition; and an appeal to voyeurism, especially given "scenes which take place in private settings, contain nudity, and/or include gossip".
Similar works in popular culture
A number of fictional works since the 1940s have contained elements similar to elements of reality television. They tended to be set in a dystopian future, with subjects being recorded against their will, and often involved violence.
- "The Seventh Victim" (1953) was a short story by science fiction author Robert Sheckley that depicted a futuristic game in which one player gets to hunt down another player and kill him. The first player who can score ten kills wins the grand prize. This story was the basis for the Italian film The 10th Victim (1965).
- You're Another, a 1955 short story by Damon Knight, is about a man who discovers that he is an actor in a "livie", a live-action show that is viewed by billions of people in the future.
- A King in New York, a 1957 film written and directed by Charlie Chaplin has the main character, a fictional European monarch portrayed by Chaplin, secretly filmed while talking to people at a New York cocktail party. The footage is later turned into a television show within the film.
- "The Prize of Peril" (1958), another Robert Sheckley story, was about a television show in which a contestant volunteers to be hunted for a week by trained killers, with a large cash prize if he survives. It was adapted in 1970 as the TV movie Das Millionenspiel, and again in 1983 as the movie Le Prix du Danger.
- Richard G. Stern's novel Golk (1960) was about a hidden-camera show similar to Candid Camera.
- "It Could Be You" (1964), a short story by Australian Frank Roberts, features a day-in-day-out televised blood sport.
- Survivor (1965), a science fiction story by Walter F. Moudy, depicted the 2050 "Olympic War Games" between Russia and the United States. The games are fought to show the world the futility of war and thus deter further conflict. Each side has one hundred soldiers who fight in a large natural arena. The goal is for one side to wipe out the other; the few who survive the battle become heroes. The games are televised, complete with color commentary discussing tactics, soldiers' personal backgrounds, and slow-motion replays of their deaths.
- "Bread and Circuses" (1968) was an episode of the TV show Star Trek in which the crew visits a planet resembling the Roman Empire, but with 20th-century technology. The planet's "Empire TV" features regular gladiatorial games, with the announcer urging viewers at home to vote for their favorites, stating, "This is your program. You pick the winner."
- The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) was a BBC television play in which a dissident in a dictatorship is forced onto a secluded island and taped for a reality show in order to keep the masses entertained.
- The Unsleeping Eye (1973), a novel by D.G. Compton (also published as The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe), was about a woman dying of cancer whose last days are recorded without her knowledge for a television show. It was later adapted as the 1980 movie Death Watch.
- "Ladies And Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis" (1976) was a short story by science fiction author Kate Wilhelm about a television show in which contestants (including a B-list actress who is hoping to revitalize her career) attempt to make their way to a checkpoint after being dropped off in the Alaskan wilderness, while being filmed and broadcast around the clock through an entire weekend. The story focuses primarily on the show's effect on a couple whose domestic tensions and eventual reconciliation parallel the dangers faced by the contestants.
- Network (1976) includes a subplot in which network executives negotiate with an urban terrorist group for the production of a weekly series, each episode of which was to feature an act of terrorism.
- The Running Man (1982) was a book by Stephen King depicting a game show in which a contestant flees around the world from "hunters" trying to chase him down and kill him; it has been speculated that the book was inspired by Robert Sheckley's The Prize of Peril. The book was loosely adapted as a 1987 movie of the same name. The movie removed most of the reality-TV element of the book: its competition now took place entirely within a large TV studio, and more closely resembled an athletic competition (though a deadly one).
- The film 20 Minutes into the Future (1985), and the spin-off TV show Max Headroom, revolved around television mainly based on live, often candid, broadcasts. In one episode of Max Headroom, "Academy", the character Blank Reg fights for his life on a courtroom game show, with the audience deciding his fate.
- Vengeance on Varos (1985) was an episode of the TV show Doctor Who in which the population of a planet watches live TV broadcasts of the torture and executions of those who oppose the government. The planet's political system is based on the leaders themselves facing disintegration if the population votes 'no' to their propositions.
Pop culture references
Some scripted and written works have used reality television as a plot device:
- Halloween: Resurrection (2002) is a horror/slasher film that takes place in a wired house full of surveillance cameras. Each "contestant" is recorded as they attempt to survive and solve the mystery of the murders.
- American Dreamz (2006) is a film set partially on an American Idol-like show.
- EDtv (1999) was a remake of Louis the 19th, King of the Airwaves.
- Louis the 19th, King of the Airwaves (1994) is a Québécois film about a man who signs up to star in a 24-hour-a-day reality TV show.
- Real Life (1979) is a comedic film about the creation of a show similar to An American Family gone horribly wrong.
- Series 7: The Contenders (2001) is a film about a reality show in which contestants have to kill each other to win.
- The Truman Show (1998) is a film about a man (Jim Carrey) who discovers that his entire life is being staged and filmed for a 24-hour-a-day reality TV show.
- Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is a film in which a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is interrogated because he knows all the answers.
- Dead Set is a British TV series featuring a zombie apocalypse affecting the Big Brother house. Part of the film was shot during an actual eviction with host Davina McCall making a cameo appearance.
- The Comeback (2005) satirizes the indignity of reality TV by presenting itself as "raw footage" of a new reality show documenting the attempted comeback of has-been star Valerie Cherish.
- Rock Rivals (2008) is a British television show about two judges on a televised singing contest whose marriage is falling apart.
- Chart Throb (2006) is a comic novel by Ben Elton that parodies The X Factor and The Osbournes, among other reality shows.
- Dead Famous (2001) is a comedy/whodunit novel, also by Ben Elton, in which a contestant is murdered while on a Big Brother-like show.
- Oryx and Crake (2003), a speculative fiction novel by Margaret Atwood, occasionally makes mentions of the protagonist and his friend entertaining themselves by watching reality TV shows of live executions, Noodie News, frog squashing, graphic surgery, and child pornography.
- L.A. Candy (2009) is a young adult novel series by Lauren Conrad which is based on her experiences on Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County and The Hills
Other influences on popular culture
A number of scripted television shows have taken the form of documentary-type reality TV shows, in "mockumentary" style. The first such show was the BBC series Operation Good Guys, which premiered in 1997. Other examples include The Games, People Like Us, Trailer Park Boys, The Office, Modern Family, Drawn Together, Summer Heights High, Total Drama, Parks and Recreation, Reno 911! and Come Fly With Me. The 2013 series Siberia was a rare example of a mockumentary series intended as a drama/thriller and not a comedy.
Some feature films have been produced that use some of the conventions of reality television; such films are sometimes referred to as reality films, and sometimes simply as documentaries. Allen Funt's 1970 hidden camera movie What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? was based on his reality-television show Candid Camera. The TV show Jackass has spawned five films: Jackass: The Movie in 2001, Jackass: Number Two in 2006, Jackass 2.5 in late 2007, Jackass 3D in 2010 and Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa in 2013. A similar show, Extreme Duudsonit, was adapted for the film The Dudesons Movie in 2006. The producers of The Real World created The Real Cancun in 2003.
In 2007, broadcaster Krishnan Guru-Murthy stated that reality television is "a firm and embedded part of television's vocabulary, used in every genre from game-shows and drama to news and current affairs."
The mumblecore film genre, which began in the mid-2000s, and uses video cameras and relies heavily on improvisation and non-professional actors, has been described as influenced in part by what one critic called "the spring-break psychodrama of MTV's The Real World". Mumblecore director Joe Swanberg has said, "As annoying as reality TV is, it's been really good for filmmakers because it got mainstream audiences used to watching shaky camerawork and different kinds of situations."
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