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May 5, 2008

Wikipedia: Reality television

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Reality Television is a genre of television programming which presents purportedly unscripted dramatic or humorous situations, documents actual events, and features ordinary people instead of professional actors.[citation needed] Although the genre has existed in some form or another since the early years of television, the term reality television is most commonly used to describe programs produced since 2000. Documentaries and nonfictional programming such as news and sports shows are usually not classified as reality shows.

Reality television 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 (a modern example is Gaki no tsukai), to surveillance- or voyeurism-focused productions such as Big Brother (TV series).

Such shows frequently portray a modified and highly influenced form of reality, with participants put in exotic locations or abnormal situations, sometimes coached to act in certain ways by off-screen handlers, and with events on screen sometimes manipulated through editing and other post-production techniques.



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.”[1] Debuting 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.[2]

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 in the intervening years, titled 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, etc. The series was structured simply as a series of interviews with no element of plot. However, it did have the then-new effect of turning ordinary people into celebrities.

Andy Warhol’s 1966 film Chelsea Girls showed various of Warhol’s acquaintances being filmed by a camera with no direction given; the Radio Times Guide to Film 2007 stated that the film was “to blame for reality television.”[3]

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. In 1974 a counterpart program, The Family, was made in the UK, following the working class Wilkins family of Reading. Another forebear of modern reality television were the late 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.[1]


Reality television as it is currently understood can be traced directly 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,[4] 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.[citation needed] However, the producers of The Real World have stated that their direct inspiration was An American Family.[5]

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.)[6]

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 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 three consecutive years (2004-05, 2005-06, and 2006-07) and

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.[7] 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.”[8]

During the early part of the 2000s, U.S. and foreign 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, Survivor 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.

In 2007, according to the Learning and Skills Council, one in seven UK teenagers hopes to gain fame by appearing on reality television.[9]

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 Show or Reality Competition on September 21. “Reality television has become such an integral part of television and our culture, so it only made sense for us to creat this new highly competitive category,” TV academy Chairmen and CEO John Shaffner said in the announcement.[citation needed]

Types of reality TV

There are a number of sub-categories of reality television:


In many reality television shows, 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. Often “plots” are constructed via editing or planned situations, with the results resembling soap operas — hence the term docusoap. 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 spinoff of The Real World, started this pattern: the cast traveled across the country guided by clues and performing tasks. Many other shows in this category involve historical re-enactment, with cast members forced to live and work as people of a specific time and place would have; The 1900 House is one example. 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 and Hogan Knows Best. In other shows, celebrities are put on location and given a specific task or task; these include The Simple Life, Tommy Lee Goes to College and The Surreal Life . 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 Miami Ink, American Chopper, The First 48 and Deadliest Catch. 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.

Elimination/Game shows

Another type of reality TV is “reality-competition”, or so-called “reality game shows”, in which 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 either the viewing audience, the show’s own participants, a panel of judges, or some combination of the three. (These programs have also been called “game operas,” a term coined by Steve Beverly, a college professor in Tennessee and webmaster of

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, 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 instead of the traditional game show one.[10]

There are various hybrid reality-competition shows, like the worldwide-syndicated Star Academy, which combines the Big Brother and Pop Idol formats, The Biggest Loser and The Pick-up Artist which combine competition with the self-improvement format, and American Inventor, which uses the Pop 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 spinoff The Bachelorette, as well as For Love or Money, Boy Meets Boy and Average Joe. More recent such shows include Flavor of Love and its spinoffs I Love New York and Rock of Love.
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. If one considers the Idol series a reality-television show, it was the first such “job search” show; Pop Idol premiered in October 2001. 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), Project Runway (for clothing design), Top Design (for interior design), Last Comic Standing (for comedians), The Starlet (for actresses), On the Lot (for filmmakers), The Shot (for photographers) and the 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.
Christina freaking out on camera.  From the pilot of MTV's Fear.

Christina freaking out on camera. From the pilot of MTV’s Fear.

Possibly introduced in the mid 1990’s with Australia’s Who Dares Wins, then in the US with MTV’s Fear in 2000, fear-centric shows place people in situations or locations aimed at generating emotions of fright, panic, or revulsion. Shows in the genre include Fear Factor, Scare Tactics and Celebrity Paranormal Project.
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 favourites. The Big Break was a reality show in which aspiring golf players 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.


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 (which covers weight loss), Extreme Makeover (entire physical appearance), Queer Eye For The Straight Guy (style and grooming), Supernanny (child-rearing), Made (attaining difficult goals), What Not to Wear (fashion and grooming), Trinny & Susannah Undress (fashion makeover and marriage), The Bad Girls Club (lifestyles and actions), and Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School (manners).


Some shows make over part or all of a person’s living space, work space, or vehicle. The British show Changing Rooms, which began in 1996 (later remade in the U.S. as Trading Spaces) was the first such show. 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.

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, shows people renovating a house; media critic Jeff Jarvis has speculated that it is “the original reality TV show.”[11]

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, Room Raiders 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 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 and Trigger Happy TV. The series Scare Tactics and Room 401 is a hidden-camera program in which the goal is to frighten contestants rather than just befuddle or amuse them.


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. Like hidden camera shows, these shows focus on pranks, although in these shows the hoax is more elaborate (lasting an entire season), the participants know they are appearing in a TV show (it is the true nature of the show that is kept secret from them), and the cameras are out in the open. Also, the point of such shows often is 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 (modelled after The Apprentice), My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, Space Cadets (which convinced the hoax targets that they were being flown into space) and Invasion Iowa (in which a town was convinced that William Shatner was filming a movie there).

Other shows, though not entirely hoax shows, 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.

Analysis and criticism

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. Tiffany Pollard, originally a contestant on Flavor of Love, soon afterwards got her own series, the successful I Love New York and I Love New York 2. In Britain, Jade Goody became famous after appearing on Big Brother 3 in 2002. She has since appeared on many other reality programs, and has launched bestselling books and a top-selling perfume line, among others.

Reality TV contestants are sometimes derided as “Z-list celebrities”, who have done nothing to warrant their newfound fame.

Is “reality” a misnomer?

Some commentators have said that the name “reality television” is an inaccurate description for several styles of program included in the genre. 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.”[12]

Even in docusoap series following 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.[13] 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.

Several former reality show participants have spoken publicly about their experiences and the strategies used on reality shows. Irene McGee from The Real World Seattle has done public speaking tours about the negative and misleading aspects of reality TV. In 2004, VH1 aired a program called Reality TV Secrets Revealed, which detailed various misleading tricks of reality TV producers.[14] Among other things, it revealed that 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. Other shows (most notably Joe Millionaire) combined audio and video from different times, or from different sets of footage, to make it look like participants were doing something they were not.

Some shows have faced speculation that the participants themselves are involved in fakery, acting out storylines that have been planned in advance by producers.The Hills is one notable example; the show has long faced allegations that its plots are scripted ahead of time. With Hell’s Kitchen, it has been speculated that the customers eating meals prepared by the contestants are in fact paid actors.[15] Even the premise of shows has been called into question: during the airing of the show 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 stricly heterosexual but had a boyfriend already.[16] 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 phone number.[17] Nevertheless, there has been no direct evidence presented yet that any such program has been scripted or “rigged,” as with the 1950s television quiz show scandals.

The newly launched TruTV in the US promotes “actuality” as opposed to usual reality shows.

As spectacle of humilation

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. 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.”[18] 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.”[19]

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 were formerly taboo in certain orthodox cultures, like the pan-Arab version of Big Brother, which shows men and women living together.[20] 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.”[21] Similarly, 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?”[22] The Chinese government criticized the show, citing both its democratic nature and its excessive vulgarity, or “worldliness”,[23] and in 2006 banned it outright.[24]

As substitute for scripted drama

Screenwriter Sheryl Longin, who describes herself as “a reality show addict”, has written that based on her experiences, “we may be approaching the death of drama.” This is because, she says, seeing real people act naturally matches viewers’ expectations of human body language in a way that not even the most talented actors can achieve: “Not even Sir Alec Guinness could give us the richness of body language and facial cues emanating from eliminated contestant ‘Organic Josh’ on this season’s Design Star. The difference to the brain between watching reality television and scripted drama is like the difference to our vision between High Definition television and 1970’s quality video.”[25] 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.” [26]

Prior elements in popular culture

A number of fictional works since the 1930s 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.

  • Brave New World (1932), a book by Aldous Huxley, depicted the minor character Darwin Bonaparte, a photographer who brings worldwide attention to John the Savage by spying upon him, causing a rush of tourists who press upon John’s home in great numbers, eventually leading to John’s lashing out and suicide at the end of the novel. This foresaw the documentary element of reality television.
  • 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.)
  • “The Prize of Peril”[27] (1958) was a short story by science fiction author Robert Sheckley 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,[28] and again in 1983 as the French movie Le Prix du Danger.
  • 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 spinoff TV show Max Headroom, revolved around television mainly based on live, often candid, broadcasts.

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.
  • Louis the 19th, King of the Airwaves (1994) [2] 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 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.
  • 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,” and “No-Pants Island.”
  • 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.
  • In Stereo Where Available (2007), a novel by Becky Anderson, satirizes shows such as The Bachelor and Survivor, focusing on two teams of women who ruthlessly compete to “win” either of two male contestants.
  • Total Drama Island (2007) is a Canadian animated series about teenagers on a Survivor-like show.

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 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.[29] 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 [3] in 2006. The producers of The Real World created The Real Cancun in 2003. Games People Play: New York [4] 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.”[30]

See also

  • List of reality television programs
  • Bunim/Murray Productions
  • Endemol
  • John Langley
  • Mark Burnett

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


  • Unreality TV – News, gossip and interviews on UK reality TV
  • Available For Panto – Humorous look at reality TV


  • Reality News Online – Recaps, Interviews and News
  • Reality TV Magazine – Reports on US reality TV shows
  • Reality Blurred: the reality TV news digest – Daily summaries of American reality TV news and gossip
  • Reality TV World – Omnibus reality TV news site
  • Reality Shack – Recaps, Interviews and News
  • Reality TV Cafe – Forum and Chat on Reality TV Shows
  • Reality Rehash – Blog with daily updates and discussions on Reality TV
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