Reality television is a genre of television programming in which the fortunes of "real life" people (as opposed to fictional characters played by actors) are followed.
There are three main types of reality television program. In the first, 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". The "plots" which are compiled for the program often resemble soap operas, hence the description docusoap.
Early Reality Television
Though there were earlier precedents on radio and television, the first reality show in the modern sense was probably the PBS series An American Family. Twelve parts were broadcast in the United States in 1973. The series dealt with a nuclear family going through a divorce. The parents had several children and one of them, Lance Loud, was openly homosexual and occasionally wore lipstick and women's clothes and took his mother to a drag show in episode two of the series. Scholars sometimes mention that Lance came out of the closet on TV, but this is technically incorrect--he was simply homosexual without announcement. His family confirms that he had been out for some time.
An American Family was controversial in its time and was excoriated by the press, particularly The New York Times, which published a piece criticizing the series and especially Lance Loud.
In 1974 a counterpart programme, The Family, was made in the UK , following the working class Wilkins family of Reading. Later Australia saw Sylvania Waters in 1992, about the nouveau riche Baker-Donaher family of Sydney. Both attracted their share of controversy.
1950s to Present
Perhaps responsible for inspiring the recent interest in reality television is MTV's The Real World, one of the first reality programs to gain mainstream popularity. A new subset of this type has recently emerged in which the daily lives of celebrities are portrayed. Examples include The Anna Nicole Show and The Osbournes.
In the second type, hidden cameras are rolling when random passers-by encounter a staged situation. The reactions of the passers-by can be funny to watch, but also revealing to the truths about the human condition. Allen Funt, an American pioneer in reality entertainment, led the way in the development of this type of show. He created Candid Microphone, which debuted on the ABC Radio Network in 1947, and the internationally successful Candid Camera, which first aired on television in 1953. He later produced a feature-length reality-film in 1968 entitled What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?. The film was a hidden-camera study of sexuality and mores of the time. For example, in one staged situation, passers-by encountered an inter-racial couple. Modern variants of this, particularly the British Trigger Happy TV, typically have humorous and/or bizarre situations such as actors in animal costumes pretending to copulate on a crowded sidewalk.
In the third type, the so-called "reality game shows", participants are filmed intensively in an enclosed environment while competing to win a prize - thus they are game shows and discussed more thoroughly in that article. The reality game show genre has become pervasive enough to be parodied by Spike TV with The Joe Schmo Show.
One difference that makes these more like "reality television" than other game shows is that the viewing public usually (but not always) plays an active role in deciding the outcome. Usually this is by eliminating participants (disapproval voting) or voting for the most popular choice to win (with some other voting system). Some of the most popular reality-based game shows of this sort are Big Brother, Survivor, and American Idol. There is also a Spanish-language show taped for Latin American audiences, Protagonistas De La Musica, filmed in Miami by Telemundo USA.
However, given that producers can control the format of the show, as well as manipulate the outcome of some of them, it is questionable how "real" reality television actually is.
Another form of Reality TV is the relationship reality show, in which a contestant would often be matched up with a large group of suitors. Over the course of the season the suitors would be eliminated one by one, until the end when only the contestant and the #1 suitor remained, and they were married.
In recent years, the reality TV genre has attracted immense criticism from those who feel that the prevasiveness of the genre on network television has come at the cost of less dramatic programming development. There has also been concern expressed in the media by network executives that such programming is limited in its appeal for DVD reissue and syndication although it remains lucrative for short-term profits. By late 2004-early 2005, networks such as CNN were suggesting that the genre's popularity was waning, with long-running reality shows such as The Apprentice scoring lower-than-expected ratings, and many new shows such as Fox's Who's Your Daddy? (a controversial program in which a female contestant who had been adopted as a child had to guess the identity of her biological father) and CBS's The Will (about a real-life family squabbling over an inheritance) failing. On January 13, 2005, CNN reported (http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/TV/01/13/tv.thewill.canceled.ap/index.html) that The Will had become one of a handful of series in television history to be cancelled after only one broadcast.
- Lord of the fly-on-the-walls (http://www.observer.co.uk/screen/story/0,6903,639922,00.html) - Observer article: Paul Watson's UK & Australian docusoaps
- Reality is the best business model for TV (http://shumans.com/archives/000018.php) - shumans.com article
- Big Brother - Why Bother? (http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/00000006DE05.htm) - Graham Barnfield's Spiked commentary
- TyMeLyNe Life Internet Reality Series (http://www.tymelyne.com/portal%20Folder/reality_show.htm) - Online Hip Hop Reality Shows
- R2TV.com (http://www.r2tv.com/)