Reality Television An Incomplete History

Since the dawn of time (or at least the dawn of my consciousness) I’ve had a fixation on television. This fascination culminated in the realization that I wanted to be a television writer. As I grew, I saw television evolve with me, from the introduction of the live studio audience in I Love Lucy to the constant pushing of boundaries in shows like All in the Family and Family Guy. Traditionally scripted shows have changed a lot in my time, and the concept of reality television has really taken on a life of its own.

While every event along the reality show timeline can’t be summarized into a few hundred words, the following brief introduction should be enough to help you get a grasp on how the world of reality television came to be what it is today

“The early days of ‘reality’ television were innocent, truly human, and lacked the hard edge and back-stabbing elements so prevalent in today’s programs. It was a softer and gentler era and one that deserves its own place in television history. I am proud to have been a part of it.” – Albert Fisher, President/CEO of Fisher Television Productions Inc. 

Inspirations and Innovators

In the pre-reality-tv era, the airwaves were ruled by sitcoms and scripted shows created by personalities like Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan. This all changed in the summer of 1948, when Alan Flint debuted his show Candid Camera. The predecessor to Punk’d , Candid Camera featured hidden camera pranks. The success of the show even spawned a successful radio counterpart called Candid Microphone.

While most agree that Flint’s Candid Camera was the first reality show, some argue that Ted Mack’s The Original Amateur Hour, which premiered a few months before Candid Camera, could be considered a reality show by today’s standards. Similar to contemporary talent search programs, the show was a huge hit with audiences.

The success of both these early precursors to reality television gave the major networks at the time insight as to what the audiences wanted: to be able to see themselves in what they were seeing on the screen.

Soon after, in 1949, the BBC introduced its amateur dance show called Come Dancing, which became one of the longest running shows ever on television, going off the air in 1998.

“The Original Amateur Hour was hosted by Ted Mack and was about as true to ‘Reality Television’ as you could get. Amateur performers (singers, dancers, musicians, novelty acts, comics, etc.) would perform before a live audience. Home viewers would cast their votes via telephone and/or postcard for their favorites. Winners would come back and try to become a three-time champion and go on to the finals held annually at New York’s Madison Square Garden. ‘Graduates’ from this classic series included Pat Boone, Ann-Margret, Gladys Knight, Robert Klein, and even the Revered Louis Farrakhan.” – Albert Fisher, President/CEO of Fisher Television Productions Inc.

Reality television was soon introduced to the animal kingdom, with narration filled nature shows like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, laying the foundation for full channels like Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel.

While the reality show concept was still new, Andy Warhol turned the genre upside down with the introduction of his documentary Chelsea Girls, a collection of clips featuring his acquaintances at the Chelsea Hotel. While purported as a documentary, this personal film was in fact crafted much how a modern reality series would be, with hours of footage manipulated to create drama and interest.

Chelsea Girls got people wondering “What would happen if there were cameras filming an average person’s everyday life?” The question would be answered by the PBS television series An American Family, a program crafted from seven months of footage of the Loud family. The footage not only covered the separation of Bill and Pat Loud, but also the coming out of their son, making him one of the first gay people on television.

Attracting around 10 million viewers, the show was a cultural phenomenon and even landed on the cover of Newsweek. The reality television format became a new way to see life, just like a drama or a novel, according to cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead.

Over the next several years, reality programming grew, evolved, and mutated. The spread of the format was all-encompassing, from shows such as Real People, which featured individuals with strange talents, to prank shows such as TV’s Bloopers.

The 1988 Writer’s Guild of America strike was the catalyst for the changing world of reality television. Networks wanted to get fresh content on the airwaves and soon realized that the only solution was reality television shows.

Programs like COPS and America’s Funniest Home Videos were generated from viewer-submitted content, and ran during prime time with millions of viewers. The networks realized that reality programming was a cash cow, and became determined to use it as much as they could.

Real World, a show about eight young strangers living together in a house, was another stepping stone in reality television history. The novel show attracted a key youth demographic, which had previously not seen themselves represented on television. Its tried and true formula still holds up, as the show is the longest running show on MTV.

The next evolution in reality programming was the introduction of special interest home improvement and lifestyle shows, adapting to changes in style with easy access continuously fresh content.

Over the years, reality television has gone from a small prank show to a new formula to success. Reality shows consistently achieve ratings without causing the financial stress that is often associated with scripted television.

Current Reality

Over the years, reality television has taken on a life of its own, and infused itself into popular culture.

Reality programming has been responsible for some of the highest ratings that networks have ever received, and makes up half the list of the most watched programs. In fact, there are now entire channels devoted to reality content.

Although reality television has, and will continue to, expand at an almost alarming rate, it has received more than its fair share of criticism.

Denunciation of the Genre

“What you’re watching is an amateur production of nothing.” – Dana Gould, Comedian

Most critics have taken to disparaging reality television for the same reasons they praise scripted television; reality TV has recently drawn fire for unrealistically attractive casts, farfetched concepts, and glorifying negative behaviors, while scripted television has been praised for using the same elements in shows such as Friends, Star Trek, and Dexter.

Another common belief many critics seem to share is that somehow the only people who tune into reality programming are idiots with nothing better to do. However, trends show that affluent and educated audience bases known for watching highbrow channels such as Bravo also like to have access to reality programming.

Product placement on shows such as The Apprentice also irks critics who claim that these brands pervade television. However, they fail to recognize the truth that the same occurs in scripted television, where writers are forced to change stories to work in product placements, a fact which Phil Rosenthal, the writer of Everybody Loves Raymond, attested to.

Critics have taken to painting the genre with a wide brush, while failing to recognize that audiences appreciate the entertainment value provided by reality television, and that if well done, reality television can go head to head with some of the highest-rated scripted shows.

In fact, reality television has often created a positive impact on popular culture. Audiences have been encouraged by programs like The Biggest Loser to make positive changes in their lives, and to learn something and to apply it to their life positively. This is more than can be sad for a lot of scripted television.

Reality television has also increased visibility of y racial minorities and other underrepresented groups such as LGBT individuals through shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race.

While reality programming only seems to receive negative critiques, much of those criticisms are accounted for by the unfair prejudice against the entire genre, and complete disregard of programming that executes well.

Although quite a bit of reality programming on television can be rightfully called mind-numbingly distasteful content, would that be any different from the sitcoms that thrive on sexism and constant repetition of the same plotline?

So critics, I think it’s time to collect yourselves and start playing fair.