Reality television is defined in many ways. The closest, if not the clearest definition given to this genre, is that it is a show with no scripts and no real actors but only ordinary people placed in different and sometimes, funny situations. No one has come close to tracing back its true origin, though some claimed the genre already existed back in the early years of television.
However, the first television show made known as reality tv was Candid Camera (Rowen, 2000).
It first came out in 1948 and the idea of the show sprang from its creator and host Allen Funt’s similar radio show, Candid Microphone, in 1947. Labeled as the granddaddy of reality tv, the show played pranks on ordinary American people and have quite enjoyed showing their funny reactions on television. The entertaining and comical format of Candid Camera was a big break from the gore and pain viewers used to watch during the years of war. Similar radio shows also made it to the television in the 1950s. Truth or Consequences, like Candid Camera, surprised contestants by putting them in situations where they never knew what would happen to them. Both shows have been successful in catching people unaware and surprised.
Brief history of Reality TV
Perhaps the first contemporary reality show aired was An American Family. It was a documentary of the Loud family, Bill, Pat, and their children (Reality TV, Introduction, 2006). Week after week viewers have followed the family’s travails and witnessed the dramatic secrets within the family unfold. The most sensational footage of the family’s drama was the divorce of Bill and Pat and the decision of their son, Lance, to admit in public that he was gay. It was that particular shocking television moment that the show was finally named a reality tv.
During the late 1980s, a new type of reality television emerged. Cops became a hit because it showed real police officers on duty arresting criminals. The show, which aired in 1989, followed cops on duty as they track down suspects and chase after drank drivers. Cops was the first show to use camcorder, its small and light built making it easier to be on the cops trails the entire time. Despite the presence of violence on some episodes, viewers watched the show because it served as an emotional protection for them, being fully aware those criminals and society’s lawbreakers were being caught.
The early 1990s brought different formats of reality television. These include game shows, talent competitions, dating contests, home and self-makeover, job competitions, and talk shows. The idea of placing complete strangers in one house stemmed from The Real World, an MTV production, in 1992. The participants were monitored through microphones and cameras set up all around the apartment where they lived (The Real World: New York, 2006). Similar to the experiences of the Loud family in An American Family, The Real World had its shares of twists and turns, with the relationships of participants either gone pleasant or sour as they lived their own lives in each other’s company
The presence of reality tv shows in Europe, Australia, and Canada has also established the genre’s acceptance and success in the world. Not only were they able to have their own versions of reality tv from America, but they were also able to create original formats of reality programming. Changing Rooms, a British show, which started in 1996, initiated the first home makeover/improvement.
A group of professional and amateur designers re-designed and re-organized a family’s home with help from the homeowner’s friends and neighbors. Viewers have enjoyed the delight and disappointment of the homeowners as they saw for the first time their newly renovated home. The show’s success led to the franchise of the format by tv networks worldwide, among the famous ones was the American shows Trading Spaces. Australia had their own show based on the televised life of the Loud family. In 1992, Sylvania Waters came out with the Baker-Donaher family’s private lives and personal controversies shown not only in Australia but in the UK as well.
During the turn of the century, new reality tv shows debuted which brought huge unexpected changes in television industry (Reality Television (US), 2004). The outset of Survivior, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and Big Brother amazed the entire globe with its interesting format and fresh episode concepts. As the war in terror brought by the September 11 attacks in New York terrified the world, these shows, like Candid Camera, provided a perfect diversion from the everyday scenes of capturing terrorists in television. People have also grown tired and weary of the endless drama portrayed in daily sitcoms and soap operas. The funny lines of comedy series no longer amuse them. Thus, they craved for something much more different, fresh, and original.
There were predictions made that the excitement over this genre would soon fade out but the success of these shows was a painful proof for the drama and comedy producers that reality tv is here to stay (Reality Shows Changing, 2003). The negative, and even severe impacts of this occurrence was felt most by television writers and actors, whose careers relied more on the scripts written and the fees paid for them.
Television producers have felt these talented people’s strife, but in order for a network viewership to rise, difficult changes have to be made. The audience, after all, is the primary life of a television. They have to be supplied with shows and stories captivating enough to grab their attention for the next six to twelve months. The only possible solution to the decline of soap operas and television series was reality tv.
Survivor originated the theme of competitiveness. There were no individual dreams to pursue in the show, as The Real World portrayed. Rather it was a test of physical strength and endurance to win a million dollars (Boarts, 2002.). Participants were willing to overcome and win the challenges, which include eating insects and raw animal meat. The title itself conveyed the whole concept of the show. Only one winner would survive all the challenges, squabbles, and eliminations created on their stay in an isolated place.
After the arrival of Survivor, television producers created more reality game shows, with each program’s format based on the winning prize. Dating competitions such as The Bachelor, Joe Millionaire, and The Bachelorette captured viewers because of its love theme.
Participants determined to find love and money at the same time took their chances on the show to compete against each other. There were surprising twists too, for not only was it a competition for them but also a test of loyalty, faith, and love. The most controversial dating show was Temptation Island, a competition of relationship’s commitment. Viewers have been witness to several couples’ infidelities and breakups during their stay in an island.
Talent shows have also increased. American Idol, a singing competition, became such a phenomenon that countries from almost every continent in the world have produced their own local Idol shows. Dancing competitions such as So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars have been hits, too. In the year 2003, not only were singing and dancing shows have attracted producers. Those who have the skills and talents for modeling, business, and fashion design have been given a chance to shine on the shows like America’s Next Top Model, The Apprentice, and Project Runway, respectively.
The format of Candid Camera was also not completely forgotten. MTV created their own version with Punk’d, with a goal of making practical jokes on famous actors, athletes, and performers. Girls Behaving Badly targets ordinary people and is hosted by a group of talented women. One funny show, which the audience found entertaining, was Scare Tactics. Viewers laughed hard at the reactions and expressions of people as scary pranks were being played on them.
Perhaps one of the most successful reality show was Big Brother. The European audience had a first taste of the show on television in 1999. A group of people in Holland was confined in one house and their every word and action were heard and seen by the public 24 hours a day. These were ordinary people trying to compete and make allegiance with each other (Schechter, 2002).
Their greatest challenge for being in the show was their secludedness from the outside world. No television sets, radio, computers, telephone, and newspapers were placed inside the house. The only thing they have is each other’s company and a 24-hour stay inside the house for the next 100 days. There were different contests provided for the participants, or housemates, inside the house. Everyday, viewers watched the funny and interesting things that transpired among the housemates.
Each season of Big Brother entertained the viewers as relationships, romantic and hostile, formed. The relationships were important for a housemate to stay longer in the house. This could save them from elimination, which the audience had the right to vote the person they wanted out of the show. The show’s audience has spread across the world, as different countries eventually bought a format of the show for their own version of Big Brother.
Reality TV today
Today, as we look at our television and notice a majority of reality shows in every network, it comes as no surprise why this genre have been here for so long now. We could include ourselves in the fanatic viewers who never got tired of stalking their favorite reality shows on television. We might not admit it to ourselves, but there is something entertaining in watching people compete, and even fight against each other to win an ultimate prize.
In addition, we get a free laugh over their innocence and misfortunes. The younger generations would also honestly claim that reality is like the new thing, a trend that must be followed and pursued. Soap operas and comedy series, which were such hits before reality tv, were now considered old, to the point of being boring, lengthy and dragging.
Television networks and producers saw these needs in us. They studied ways and different concepts in order not to lose viewership (Reality Television Economic Factors, n.d.). They pursued reality tv and were happy with the results. Not only have they gained back the interest of viewers but they have also discovered the inexpensiveness in spending for these shows and the sudden attention given by the advertisers. High ratings and high advertising were a perfect combination for a successful long-term television show.
Downside of Reality TV
However, there was always a downside for the emergence of reality tv. As television critics constantly pointed out, reality tv is first and foremost an invasion of privacy, which every participant on the shows have a right to. As Federmann (2000) wrote, the only important thing that mattered to the creators of these shows is the amount of money they could get out of ordinary people’s unscripted and televised lives.
There is no value in these shows, both for the winners and losers of every competition.
Everybody who joins these game shows get out of it emotionally beaten up and used by the networks. Losers get the shame and winners’ celebrity status would eventually fade out.
No one really gets the blame of the negative consequences of these reality shows. Viewers love to watch it, and as long as there were supporters like these, television networks would never stop creating new game shows for public viewing. Not only that, the participants of the shows also play a great factor in the life of reality tv. The undeniable attraction for money, fame, and success drive them to compete and to survive, sometimes for the risk of getting injured, humiliated, and manipulated.
Despite the critics bash on the bad effects of reality tv, there would always be shows that teach good values and human sensitivity (Burgess, 2004). They could be funny at times, but somewhere along the road, human dignity stands out
Should there comes a time when this genre of television starts to decline, people could always go back to traditional television format that they were used to before the emergence of reality tv. There would always be a list of talented writers and actors who are more than willing to be a part once again of documentaries, films, soap operas, and comedy series.
Boarts, C. (2002) Taking a look at four popular reality TV shows. [online]. Available [Accessed 16 October 2006].
Burgess, S. (2004). Forced to Watch: Reality TV. [online] Thetyee.ca. Available from: <https://thetyee.ca/Entertainment/2004/01/26/Forced_to_Watch_Reality_TV/>.
[Accessed 18 October 2006]
Federmann, G. (2000). Darwinism in Reality-Based TV Shows. [online]. Available from: < http://www.nyu.edu/classes/keefer/nature/feder.html>. [Accessed 16 October 2006].
Music Television. (2006) The Real World: New York [online] Shows. MTV Networks. Available from: < http://www.mtv.com/shows#/ontv/dyn/realworld-season1/summary.jhtml>. [Accessed 18 October 2006]