Seven Reality Show Archetypes

The world today is defined by lists. From the top ten celebrities, to the highest paid stars in Hollywood, everything can be turned into a list. So why leave reality television out of the fun?

While there’s no official list of reality television subgenres, any producer would define reality television with a certain genre, to help scope out potential. However, there is a lot of potential for disagreement with such assessments, since the judgment is subjective.

While many would argue that there are anywhere from twelve to thirty different types of reality television subgenres, most of these subgenres would be hybrids; combinations of two more subgenres.

After going through several different reality titles, I boiled them all down to the following seven subgenres:

  • Documentaries / Docu-Series
  • Competition/Elimination
  • Makeover/Renovation
  • Dating
  • Hidden Camera/Amateur Content
  • Supernatural
  • Travel/Aspirational

Let’s take a few minutes to consider each of the different formats.

Documentaries / Docu-Series

Out of all the subgenres, the documentary subgenre is perhaps the most general. Documentary shows span from Cribs to COPS to The Real World. The difference between documentaries and a docu-series is that while documentaries are often restricted to one episode, docu-series span a series in its entirety, following a series arc like scripted television.

Most of the highly successful docu-series often draw suspicion based on how real their content actually is. In fact, if something is too drawn together to be true, it probably is. For example, shows like The Hills have been exposed on television by their own stars who were unaware of their involvement in certain plotlines.

Although it’s hard to know for sure how much of reality programming is actually real, it’s important to keep in mind when working on a docu-series that you ensure the story comes together through post production and editing. Clumsy editing work will make the docu-series jarring and give the viewers an uncomfortable experience.

The docu-series/documentary subgenre would also cover most social experiment shows, where different kinds of interactions are observed just for the sake of a new experiment.


Reality shows based on a competition/elimination format are all about getting the annoying housemate voted off, or having the best singer become the new Idol. At least it would be, in an oversimplified world.

Competition shows are about winning something important overcoming other competitors. These shows can be filmed in an episodic format, such as Iron Chef America, or in a series format, such as Dancing with the Stars.

The competition may be between all the other hopefuls, or against time or money. To make it easier, especially for the viewers, the rules to winning are always clearly established at the start of the show.

The key to capturing viewers with this subgenre of show is to consistently and gradually build the suspense until the last possible moment,  ensuring your audience watches the entire show, instead of simply skipping to the end to find out the results.

This subgenre is often collaborated with the docu-series subgenre to form shows which feature social experiments with cast members slowly voted off; popular examples are shows like Survivor and Big Brother.


Transformation is the word of the day both for makeover and renovation shows; it’s just the specific tools of the trade that are different.

From shows such as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which turns decrepit homes into mansions to What Not to Wear, the theme is all about changing stuff up to make everything better. While some examples can get a bit wild, such as plastic surgery and dental work on the original Extreme Makeover, this category is often about building something better.

Some crossovers with this subgenre would include shows like House Rules combining home renovation with a competition subgenre by having three couples compete for a house by seeing who could renovate one the best.


This one is obvious, even if I do say so myself. It’s the traditional boy meets girl story, with the audience hinged on the ‘will they or won’t they’ aspect of the story. Examples of this subgenre show can be found in shows such as The Dating Game, Blind Date, and Love Connection.

This subgenre often hybridizes with the competition subgenre as well, with shows like The Bachelor, featuring one person slowly eliminating a pool of hopefuls until they find “the one”.

Hidden Camera / Amateur Content

Starting with Candid Camera, this is perhaps the longest running reality subgenre. From shows like Punk’d, Scare Tactics, and The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, these shows are all about capturing the reactions of innocent people placed in surprising situations. This subgenre also covers shows which rely on amateur submitted content such as When Animals Attack!

This subgenre has also shown success when hybridized with the competition subgenre; the most prominent example of which is America’s Funniest Home Videos.


While sometimes the shows in the supernatural subgenre may have a hidden camera feel to it, the true subgenre stretches beyond the reactions of the unwitting to shows that focus on things that may not be of this world.

The most common types of show in this subgenre are programs that investigate paranormal occurrences, such as Ghost Hunters, or Paranormal State. The subgenre also encompasses shows such as In Search Of…, which focuses on hunting down famous mythical creatures like Bigfoot.


Since most audiences can’t afford to travel to the Caribbean for a vacation, many of us settle on enjoying these destinations through the our television screens. While travel shows aren’t always aspirational, or vice versa, the categories often seem to work well together.

Some great examples of this subgenre are Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, or Rick Steve’s Europe.

So that’s it, that’s a list of the subgenres found in reality television.