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Reality television is a genre of television programming that presents purportedly unscripted dramatic or humorous situations, documents actual events, and usually features ordinary people instead of professional actors.[1] The genre has existed in some form or another since the early years of television (primarily with game shows), but has expanded significantly since the Big Brother first aired in 1999.[1] Documentaries and nonfictional programming such as news and sports shows are usually not classified as reality shows.

The genre covers a wide range of programming formats, from game or quiz shows which resemble the frantic, often demeaning shows produced in Japan in the 1980s and 1990s (such as Gaki no tsukai), to surveillance- or voyeurism-focused productions such as Big Brother.[1]

Reality television frequently portrays a modified and highly influenced form of reality, utilizing sensationalism to attract viewers to generate advertising profits.[2][3][4] Participants are often placed in exotic locations or abnormal situations,[1] and are sometimes coached to act in certain scripted ways by off-screen "story editors" or "segment producers," with the portrayal of events and speech manipulated and contrived to create an illusion of reality through editing and other post-production techniques.[2][3][4]




Precedents for television that portrayed people in unscripted situations began in the 1940s. Debuting in 1948, Allen Funt's Candid Camera, (based on his previous 1947 radio show, Candid Microphone), broadcast unsuspecting ordinary people reacting to pranks. It has been called the "granddaddy of the reality TV genre."[5] In the 1950s, game shows Beat the Clock and Truth or Consequences involved contestants in wacky competitions, stunts, and practical jokes.

In 1948, talent search shows Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour and Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts featured amateur competitors and audience voting. The Miss America Pageant, first broadcast in 1954, was a competition where the winner achieved status as a national celebrity.[6]

The radio series Nightwatch (1954–1955), which tape-recorded the daily activities of Culver City, California police officers, also helped pave the way for reality television. The series You Asked For It (1950–1959), in which viewer requests dictated content, was an antecedent of today's audience-participation reality TV elements, in which viewers cast votes to help determine the course of events.


First broadcast in the United Kingdom in 1964, the Granada Television series 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 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, etc. 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.

In the 1966 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."[7]

The first reality show in the modern sense may have been the 12-part 1973 PBS series An American Family, which showed a nuclear family 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.[8] One Man and His Dog was a British Television series which began in 1976 featuring the participants of sheepdog trials.


Reality television as it is currently understood can be directly linked to several television shows that began in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 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,[9] 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.[10] However, the producers of The Real World have stated that their direct inspiration was An American Family.[11]

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 those 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.)[12]

The Swedish TV show Expedition Robinson, created by TV producer Charlie Parsons, which first aired in 1997 (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.)

Changing Rooms, a British TV show that began in 1996, showed couples redecorating each others' houses, and was the first reality show[citation needed] with a self-improvement or makeover theme.


Reality television saw an explosion of global popularity starting in the early 2000s. Two reality series – Survivor and American Idol – have been the top-rated series on American television for an entire season. Survivor led the ratings in 2001–02, and Idol has topped the ratings five consecutive years (2004–05 through 2008–09). The shows Survivor, the Idol series, The Amazing Race, the America's Next Top Model series, the Dancing With The Stars series, The Apprentice, Fear Factor and Big Brother have all had a global effect, having each been successfully syndicated in dozens of countries.

Currently there are at least two television channels devoted exclusively to reality television: Fox Reality in the United States, launched in 2005, and Zone Reality in the UK, launched in 2002. In addition, several other cable channels, such as Viacom's MTV and NBC's Bravo, feature original reality programming as a mainstay.[13] Mike Darnell, head of reality TV for the US Fox network, says that the broadcast networks (NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox) "might as well plan three or four [reality shows] each season because we're going to have them, anyway."[13]

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, but in fact DVDs for reality shows have sold briskly; Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, The Amazing Race, Project Runway, and America's Next Top Model have all ranked in the top DVDs sold on DVDs of The Simple Life have outranked scripted shows like The O.C. and Desperate Housewives; additionally, many reality shows have been successfully syndicated, including Fear Factor, The Amazing Race, Kenny vs. Spenny, Survivor, Wife Swap and America's Next Top Model. COPS has had huge success in syndication, direct response sales and DVD. A FOX staple since 1989, COPS is, as of 2008, in its 21st season, having outlasted all competing scripted police shows. Another series that has seen wide success is "Cheaters", which has been running for 10 seasons in the US and is syndicated in over 100 countries worldwide.

In 2007, according to the Learning and Skills Council, one in seven UK teenagers hopes to gain fame by appearing on reality television.[14]

In April 2008, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences announced it will give its very first Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program on September 21. "Reality television has become such an integral part of television and our culture, so it only made sense for us to create this new highly competitive category," TV academy Chairmen and CEO John Shaffner said in the announcement.[citation needed]

Inspired by the success of American Idol, Indian TV channel Sony Entertainment Television (India) launched the Indian version called Indian Idol. In 2009 Season 4 concluded.[15]


The genre of reality television consists of various subgenres.


In many reality TV programs, the viewer and the camera are passive observers following people going about their daily personal and professional activities; this style of filming is often 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. In other shows, a cinéma vérité style is adopted, where the filmmaker is more than a passive observer—their presence and influence is greatly manifest.

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 a specific challenge or obstacle 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 different versions produced in many countries around the globe. Another example of a show in this category The 1900 House, involves historical re-enactment with cast members forced 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.
Another subset of fly-on-the-wall-style shows involves celebrities. Often these show a celebrity going about their everyday life: examples include The Anna Nicole Show, The Osbournes, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, Hey Paula!, Hammertime, Hogan Knows Best and now Brooke Knows Best. In other shows, celebrities are put on location and given a specific task or tasks; these include Celebrity Big Brother, The Simple Life, Tommy Lee Goes to College, The Surreal Life, and I'm a Celebrity... Get Me out of Here!. VH1 has created an entire block of shows dedicated to celebrity reality, known as "Celebreality".
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. No outside experts are brought in (at least, none appear on screen) to either provide help or to judge results. The earliest example (and the longest running reality show of any genre) is COPS which has been airing since 1989, preceding by many years the current reality show phenomenon.
Other examples of this type of reality show include the American shows Miami Ink, The First 48, 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.

Competition/game shows

Another subgenre of reality TV is "reality competition" or so-called "reality game shows," which follow the format of a 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, in balloon debate style, 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 some disagreement over whether talent-search shows such as the Idol series, America's Got Talent, Dancing with the Stars, and Celebrity Duets 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; the Idol series also require the contestants to live together during the run of the show (though their daily life is never shown onscreen). Additionally, there is a good deal of interaction shown between contestants and judges. As a result, such shows are often considered reality television, and the American Primetime Emmy Awards have nominated both American Idol and Dancing with the Stars for the Outstanding Reality-Competition Program Emmy.

Modern game shows like Weakest Link, Greed, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, American Gladiators, Dog Eat Dog and Deal or No Deal 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, lead many people to group them under the reality TV umbrella as well as the traditional game show one.[16]

There are various hybrid reality-competition shows, like the worldwide-syndicated Star Academy, which combines the Big Brother and Idol formats, The Biggest Loser and The Pick-up Artist which combine competition with the self-improvement format, and American Inventor, which uses the Idol format for products instead of people. Some shows, such as Making the Band and Project Greenlight, devote 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. For a time, in 2001–2003, 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 For Love or Money, Paradise Hotel, Temptation Island, Average Joe and Farmer Wants a Wife, among others. More recent such shows include Flavor of Love and its spin-offs I Love New York, Rock of Love, and The Cougar.
Job search
In this category, the competition revolves around a skill that contestants were pre-screened for. Competitors perform a variety of tasks based around 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. Popstars, which debuted in 1999, may have been the first such show. 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 (for chefs), Shear Genius (for hair styling), Project Runway (for clothing design), Top Chef (for cooking), Top Design (for interior design), Stylista (for fashion editors), Last Comic Standing (for comedians), The Starlet and Scream Queens (for actresses), I Know My Kid's a Star (for child performers), On the Lot (for filmmakers), The Shot (for photographers), So You Think You Can Dance (for dancers), and MuchMusic VJ Search (for television hosts). 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 include Deadline and The Celebrity Apprentice.
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 around 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. The Big Break was a reality show in which aspiring golfers competed against one another and were eliminated. The Contender, a boxing show, unfortunately became the first American reality show in which a contestant committed suicide after being eliminated from the show. In 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, however, 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.


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 "How Do I Look?" (fashion makeover). The Biggest Loser and Fat March, (which covers weight loss), Extreme Makeover (entire physical appearance), Queer Eye For The Straight Guy (style and grooming), Supernanny, Nanny 911 and World's Strictest Parents (child-rearing), Made (attaining difficult goals), What Not to Wear (fashion and grooming), Trinny & Susannah Undress (fashion makeover and marriage), Tool Academy (relationship building), Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School & Rock of Love Girls: Charm School 2 (manners), From G's to Gents (self improvement) The Girls of Hedsor Hall (etiquette) and The Bad Girls Club & Bad Girls Road Trip (self improvement)


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,[citation needed] debuting in 1979. The British show Changing Rooms, beginning in 1996 (later remade in the U.S. as Trading Spaces) was the first such renovation show that added a game show feel with different weekly contestants.[citation needed] 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.

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.[citation needed] 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."[17]

Social experiment

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 ITV's Holiday Showdown, Oxygen's The Bad Girls Club (lifestyles and actions), 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.

Dating shows

Unlike the aforementioned dating competition shows, some shows feature all new contestants each episode. This format was first used in the 1960s show The Dating Game. Modern examples include Blind Date, Matchmaker, Room Raiders, Elimidate, Next, and Parental Control.

Talk shows

Though the traditional format of a talk show is that of a host interviewing a featured guest or discussing a chosen topic with a guest or panel of guests, the advent of trash TV shows has often made people group the entire category in with reality television. Programs like Ricki Lake, The Jerry Springer Show, Dr. Phil and others generally recruit guests by advertising a potential topic for a future program. Topics are frequently outrageous and are chosen in the interest of creating on-screen drama, tension or outrageous behaviour. Though not explicitly reality television by traditional standards, this (allegedly) real depiction of someone's life, even if only in a brief interview format, is frequently considered akin to broader-scale reality TV programming.

Hidden cameras

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, The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, Just For Laughs Gags", Howie Do It and Rio Ferdinands World Cup Windups. 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.[18] Once the evidence has been gathered, the accuser confronts the cheating partner with the assistance of the host.

Supernatural and paranormal

Started by MTV's Fear in 2000,[citation needed] supernatural and paranormal reality shows 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. Shows such as Fear Factor and Scare Tactics dispense with supernatural overtones and aim solely at inciting fear or aversion in the cast. 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; rapid fire, MTV editing; and non-melodic soundtracks.

In a 2009 editorial, noting the recent trend in reality shows that take the paranormal at face value, New York Times columnist 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.[19]


In hoax reality shows, the entire show is a prank played on one or more of the cast members, who think they are appearing in a legitimate reality show; 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), Space Cadets (which convinced the hoax targets that they were being flown into space), The $25 Million Hoax (where a woman convinced her friends and family that she had won the lottery) and Invasion Iowa (in which a town was convinced that William Shatner was filming a movie there), and Reality Hell[20] (different target and premise every episode).

Other shows, though not hoax shows per se, have offered misleading information to some cast members in order to add a wrinkle to the competition. Examples include Boy Meets Boy and Joe Millionaire.


Political impact

Reality television's global success has been, in the eyes of some analysts, an important political phenomenon. In some authoritarian countries, reality television voting represents 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 shows male and female contestants living together.[21] 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."[22] In China, after the finale of the 2005 season of Super Girl (the local version of Pop Idol) 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?"[23] The Chinese government criticized the show, citing both its democratic nature and its excessive vulgarity, or "worldliness",[24] and in 2006 banned it outright.[25] Other attempts at introducing reality television have proved to be similarly controversial. 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.[26]

As a substitute for scripted drama

VH1 executive vice president Michael Hirschorn wrote that the plots and subject matters on reality television are also 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."[27]

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."[28]


Lighting crews are typically present in the background of reality television shows.
Sound crews are typically present in the background of reality television shows.

Influenced by corporate profit motive

Writers for reality television do not receive union pay-scale compensation and union representation, which significantly decreases expenditures for producers and broadcasters.[2] Reality television programming is often financed by corporations[1][29][30] driven by a profit motive.[2][29][31] Many of the actors in reality television are compensated for their appearances.[18][30][32][33]

Product placement

Product placement, whereby companies and corporations pay to have their products included in television programming for marketing purposes is highly prevalent in reality television.[34][35][36][37]

The following is a list of television shows with the most instances of product placement (11/07–11/08; Nielsen Media Research).[citation needed] Eight out of the ten are reality television shows.

"Reality" as misnomer

Some commentators have said that the name "reality television" is an inaccurate description for several styles of program included in the genre.[2] Irene McGee, a castmember on the 1998 The Real World Seattle, has done public speaking tours about the negative and misleading aspects of reality TV.

Unreal environments

In competition-based programs such as Big Brother and Survivor, and other special living environment shows like The Real World, the producers design the format of the show and control the day-to-day activities and the environment, creating a completely fabricated world in which the competition plays out. Producers specifically select the participants and use carefully designed scenarios, challenges, events, and settings to encourage particular behaviors and conflicts. Mark Burnett, creator of Survivor and other reality shows, has agreed with this assessment, and avoids the word "reality" to describe his shows; he has said, "I tell good stories. It really is not reality TV. It really is unscripted drama."[38]

Misleading editing

In 2004, VH1 aired a program called Reality TV Secrets Revealed, which detailed various misleading tricks of reality TV producers.[39] According to the show, various reality shows (notably Joe Millionaire) combined audio and video from different times, or from different sets of footage, to create an artificial illusion of time chronology that did not occur, and a misportrayal of participant behaviors and actions.

In docusoap programming, which follows people in their daily life, producers may be highly deliberate in their editing strategies, able to portray certain participants as heroes or villains, and may guide the drama through altered chronology and selective presentation of events. A Season 3 episode of Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe included a segment on the ways in which selective editing can be used to this end.[12]


According to VH1's Reality TV Secrets Revealed, the shows The Restaurant and Survivor had at times recreated incidents that had actually occurred, but were not properly recorded by cameras to the required technical standard, or had not been recorded at all. In order to get the footage, the event was restaged for the cameras.

Premeditated scripting and acting

Reality television shows have faced speculation that the participants themselves are involved in fakery, acting out storylines that have been planned in advance by producers.[2] The Hills is one notable example; the show has long faced allegations that its plots are scripted ahead of time. During the second season of Hell's Kitchen, it was speculated that the customers eating meals prepared by the contestants were in fact paid actors.[40] Some participants of reality shows have also stated afterwards that they altered their behavior to appear more crazy or emotional in order to get more camera time.

Daniel Petrie Jr., former president of the Writers Guild of America, west, an organization that represents 9,000 Hollywood film and television writers, stated: "We look at reality TV, which is billed as unscripted, and we know it is scripted. We understand that shows don't want to call the writers writers because they want to maintain the illusion that it is reality, that stuff just happens."[2]

Misleading premise

Even the premise of shows has been called into question. The winner of the first "cycle", in 2003, of America's Next Top Model, Adrianne Curry, claimed that part of the grand prize she received, a modeling contract with Revlon, was for a much smaller amount of work than what was promised throughout the show.[41] During the airing of the first season of A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, in which a group of both men and women vied for the heart of Tila Tequila, there were rumors that its star was not only heterosexual, but also had a boyfriend already.[42] The show's winner, Bobby Banhart, claimed that he never saw Ms. Tequila again after the show finished taping, and that he was never even given her telephone number.[43]

Instant celebrity

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 the Idol series, which has spawned music stars in many of the countries in which it has aired. Many other shows, however, such as Survivor and Big Brother, have made at least temporary celebrities out of their participants; some participants have then been able to parlay this fame into media careers. For example, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, a contestant on Survivor: The Australian Outback, later became a host on morning talk show The View; and Kristin Cavallari, who appeared on Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, has gone on to become a television host and actress. Jamie Chung, a former contestant on The Real World, went on to pursue an acting career, appearing in films such as Sorority Row. Tiffany Pollard, originally a contestant on Flavor of Love, was eventually given four additional reality series of her own on VH1: I Love New York, I Love New York 2, New York Goes to Hollywood and New York Goes to Work. 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. Mike "The Miz" Mizanin, who has appeared on The Real World, and various spin-offs, later became a professional wrestler for World Wrestling Entertainment.

Reality TV contestants are sometimes derided as "Z-list celebrities" or "nonebrities" who have done nothing to warrant their newfound fame.[44] Nonebrities are defined as: "A pointless media figure who would love to rise up high enough to scrape on to the bottom end of the D-list."[44]

As a spectacle of humiliation

Some have claimed that the success of reality television is due to its ability to provide schadenfreude, by satisfying the desire of viewers to see others humiliated. American magazine Entertainment Weekly wrote, "Do we watch reality television for precious insight into the human condition? Please. We watch for those awkward scenes that make us feel a smidge better about our own little unfilmed lives."[45] Media analyst Tom Alderman wrote, "There is a sub-set of Reality TV that can only be described as Shame TV because it uses humiliation as its core appeal."[46]

Television critic James Poniewozik has disagreed with this assessment, writing, "for all the talk about 'humiliation TV,' what's striking about most reality shows is how good humored and resilient most of the participants are: the American Idol rejectees stubbornly convinced of their own talent, the Fear Factor players walking away from vats of insects like Olympic champions. What finally bothers their detractors is, perhaps, not that these people are humiliated but that they are not."[47]

Participation of children

The reality show Jon & Kate Plus 8, which showed a family of two parents (Jon and Kate Gosselin) raising their eight children, caused controversy when, in June 2009, Jon and Kate began divorce proceedings, and it emerged that Jon had been involved with other women prior to the divorce. The episode announcing their separation became the most-watched of the series, with 10.6 million viewers.[48][49]

TLC has announced that Jon & Kate Plus 8 will continue under the new title Kate Plus Eight.[50] Criticism has been raised regarding Kate's intentions of continuing with the show, as well as whether or not the children are being exploited or may be under emotional distress.[51] According to lawyer Gloria Allred:

Every state does regulate to protect the health, the safety and welfare of little child performers [...] And these little ones are only eight years old and five years old, they can’t protect themselves, so the state has to be sure that they are safe in their workplace.[51]

In the case of the show, the children's workplace is their home. Currently there are no clear laws in Pennsylvania (where the Gosselins reside) regarding a child's appearance on a reality show.[52] However, Pennsylvania law permits kids who are at least seven years old to work in the entertainment industry, as long as certain guidelines are followed and a permit is obtained. For example, children may not work after 11:30 p.m. under most circumstances, or perform in any location that serves alcohol.[52]

Kate defends her position that the children are happy and healthy, and not in any danger. In addition, Jon has stated that they are "in talks" regarding ensuring the children's happiness,[51] and that there is no truth to any reports that the children have been hurt by the series.[53] TLC released a statement saying that the network "fully complies with all applicable laws and regulations" to produce the show. The statement also said that "for an extended period of time, we have been engaged in cooperative discussions and supplied all requested information to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry".[52]

In another much-publicized case, issues have been raised about the underlying motives that led to the balloon boy hoax, in which six-year-old Falcon Heene was reportedly coerced by his father to stage for a frantic, live-on-TV chase for an out-of-control helium balloon in which he was suspected to be. The police said that the father engineered the hoax with the hope of generating enough publicity in order to get the family back into the reality-show business, after two appearances on ABC's Wife Swap. In an interview with the Denver Post, [54] child psychologist Alan Zimmerman said:

Using your family or children to please the masses, or producers of mass entertainment who want ratings and a good bottom line, is inherently risky [...] They are by definition a commodity in a profit-oriented business.

The same article quoted psychologist Jamie Huysman as saying, "It is exploitation [...] Nobody wants to watch normal behavior. Kids have to be co-conspirators to get the camera to stay on."

Prior elements 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.

  • Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), a book by George Orwell, depicted a world in which two-way television screens are fitted in every room, so that people's actions are monitored at all times. (The all-seeing authority figure in the book, "Big Brother", inspired the name of the pioneering reality series Big Brother.)
  • Fahrenheit 451 (1953), a novel by Ray Bradbury, portrays a bookless future society, with omnipresent electronic media and wall-sized two-way home televisions. The protagonist's wife is immersed in a live audience participation program.
  • "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 film The 10th Victim (1965), also known by its Italian title, La decima vittima.
  • 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.
  • "The Prize of Peril"[55] (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 German TV movie Das Millionenspiel, and again in 1983 as the French movie Le Prix du Danger.
  • "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 with rifles, mortars, and machine guns 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 show included several jabs at real-world television, such as a praetorian threatening, "You bring this network's ratings down, Flavius, and we'll do a special on you!"
  • 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 French movie Death Watch.
  • Network (1976) was a film predictive of a number of trends in broadcast television, including reality programming. One subplot featured network executives negotiating with an urban terrorist group for the production of a weekly series, each episode of which was to feature an act of terrorism.
  • "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.
  • 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).
  • 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. This episode is often credited as the origins of "voting someone off".
  • 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.

Pop culture references

Some scripted works have used reality television as a plot device:

  • Real Life (1979) is a comedic film about the creation of a show similar to An American Family gone horribly wrong.
  • "Special Service" (1989) was an episode of the remade TV series The Twilight Zone, in which a man discovers that his life has secretly been videotaped and is a huge hit on a network television show.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • EDtv (1999) was a remake of Louis the 19th, King of the Airwaves.
  • In the film She's All That (1999), the girlfriend of one of the main characters is stolen by a former castmember of The Real World (played by Matthew Lillard)
  • Series 7: The Contenders (2001) is a film about a reality show in which contestants have to kill each other to win.
  • Dead Famous (2001) is a comedy/whodunit novel by Ben Elton in which a contestant is murdered while on a Big Brother-like show.
  • "Helter Shelter" (2002) is an episode of The Simpsons in which the family become contestants in "The 1895 Challenge," living for several weeks in a Victorian style house with antique furniture and no electricity. To boost the ratings, they soon find themselves being abused and humiliated by the show's director, who states that he created the show "by watching Dutch television and tweaking the title." The Simpsons has also repeatedly spoofed reality TV and made reference to fictitious reality shows, with such titles as "Tied To A Bear," "Sucker Punch," "Mystery Injection," "Animal Survivor,", "No-Pants Island" and "Fart Date."
  • 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.[56][57][58]
  • Tomb of the Werewolf (2004) is a film about a man searching for treasure while being followed by a reality show film crew, who encounters a werewolf and a vampire instead.
  • "Bad Wolf" (2005) is an episode of the TV show Doctor Who in which the characters find themselves trapped in various real-life reality television shows.
  • 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.
  • American Dreamz (2006) is a film set partially on an American Idol-like show.
  • Chart Throb (2006) is a comic novel, also by Ben Elton, that parodies The X Factor and The Osbournes, among other reality shows.
  • Total Drama Island (2007) is a Canadian animated series about teenagers on a Survivor-like show.
  • "Realistically Speaking 1&2" (2007) is a two-part web-episode of Hero Envy in which one of the main characters allows a reality-TV film crew to document his and his friends' lives in an elimination-style game in exchange for money.
  • "Reality Show" (2008) is a song by T-Pain, from the album Thr33 Ringz, in which he sings to his lover, "Let's make a reality show", to "show 'em how much we in love".
  • Rock Rivals (2008) is a British television show about two judges on a televised singing contest whose marriage is falling apart.

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 People Like Us, Trailer Park Boys, The Office, Drawn Together, Summer Heights High and Reno 911!.

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.[59] 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 spawned three films: Jackass: The Movie in 2001, Jackass: Number Two in 2006, and Jackass 2.5 in late 2007. A similar Finnish 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. Games People Play: New York was released in 2004.

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."[60]

See also

Further reading

  • Reality TV: the Big Brother phenomenon by Colin Sparks, in International Socialism journal
  • Hill, Annette (2005). Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-26152-X.
  • Murray, Susan, and Laurie Ouellette, eds. (2004). Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-5688-3
  • Nichols, Bill (1994). Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-34064-0.
  • Godard, Ellis (2004). "Reel Life: The Social Geometry of Reality Shows". pages 73–96 in Survivor Lessons, edited by Matthew J. Smith and Andrew F. Wood. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc.
  • Lord of the fly-on-the-walls - Observer article: Paul Watson's UK & Australian docusoaps
  • Big Brother - Why Bother? - Graham Barnfield's Spiked commentary
  • Zeven werklozen samen op zoek naar een baan by Raymond van den Boogaard, NRC Handelsblad, September 28, 1996 (Dutch) - about Nummer 28 being the inspiration for The Real World
  • [1] Reality tv continues its downward spiral of morality


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