Reality TV is a vast and ever evolving genre of television with ancestors reaching back to the radio days.  I emphasize the word BRIEF in this episode because this genre encompasses so many sub-genres, that we can only focus on only a few of them.  

In broad terms, reality TV refers to a show where people are placed in a situation and observed.  TV shows that fall under that definition are:

  • Talk shows/ Interviews
  • Documentaries
  • Real World Events
  • Police/ Emergency Dramas
  • Live quiz/ Talent Competitions

This is a type of television that is always ripe for discussion because of it's links to sociology, philosophy, and morality.  It was created to provide audiences with drama, comedy, suspense, and escape, but simultaneously pushes or sometimes redefines the boundaries of moral and social rules.

It can also bring into question what our idea of "reality" is.  How do we know these are "real" people that are not being directed off camera?  What would I do in their shoes?  These are questions I would like you, kittens, to ask yourselves throughout the film clips shown in this episode.

For now, we are tasked with grasping the evolution of the reality TV show throughout the decades.  Let's start with some context:

  • 1939- Television was invented
  • 1953- Color is added to broadcast television
  • 1960s- There is a television in almost every home in America
  • 1970- Television is the primary source of information

With that in mind, let's become acquainted with some of the godfather's of this genre.


Candid Camera

The first attempt at capturing "reality" on television happened in 1948, with a show called Candid Camera.  Created by Allen Funt, he had actually tried this concept out on the radio two years earlier with a show aptly titled Candid Microphone.  Because of the restrictions of filmmaking and broadcast equipment, this early rendition of a reality TV show brought participants in the a studio where an artificial reality had been created in order to observe their reactions.  It relied on secretly placed cameras as to not tip off participants that they are being watched.  The idea was, the more genuine the reaction, the funnier it might be!  Believe it or not, this show ran from 1948- 2004.

CURIOUS: While this show uses silly gags to put people in mildly embarrassing situations, why do you think there is a thrill in seeing a pure reaction?  What might have this been like for audiences in 1948?  

Seven Up!

Another long running (it's still airing!) series from the UK is called Seven Up!, which first aired in 1964.  Directed by Michael Apted, and then Paul Almond, this show chose 21 children at the age of seven throughout England's geography, social, and economic classes to revisit every seven years with a camera crew for a new interview.  The original theory behind making this documentary, was that children born in England were unable to grow to a different social/ economic class.  It was also to get a glimpse of who would be the adults in the year 2000.  However, because the show aired every seven years, the audience began to involve themselves into the lives of these children thus affecting the experiment to greatly to form a conclusion.  Now it is just some great sociological entertainment!  Stay tuned for 63 Up! in 2019.

The Dating Game

One of Chuck Barris's many game show creations, The Dating Game first aired in 1965 and captured our attention until 2000.  An analogue version of OK Cupid (and without photos) this show hid the bachelor/ bachelorette from three contestants vying for his/ her heart.  The main contestant had to choose their best match based on voice and answers to questions.  Contestants started out as average people, and spanned to celebrities, and even at one time a future convicted murderer!  Like Candid Camera, this show allows the audience to be in on information that the contestant on screen is not aware of.  This tactic allows the audience to immerse themselves more fully into the experience than a scripted television show which contributed to this genre's quick rise in popularity.



Reality TV was taken to a new level in 1973 when PBS first aired An American Family.  This show is often thought of as the first reality TV show because it is the first version that is closest to what we are most familiar with today.  On An American Family, audiences were able to follow a seemingly normal upper class family called the Louds in Santa Barbara, California.  Never before had the daily lives of ordinary people been put on display.  This was not only groundbreaking for television, but also for documentary filmmaking.  Throughout this series, audiences witnessed the parents Pat and Bill Loud, go through a divorce, their son Lance come out as a homosexual, and all the tension in between.  Audiences were captivated not only because of the emotional drama, but because it showed audiences a version of their OWN reality.  Made during a time of national turmoil surrounding cultural, political, and economic issues, An American Family gave Americans the courage to question the massive institutions of marriage, capitalism, and the American Dream.


After An American Family aired, Margaret Mead was quoted in TV Guide saying that this show no longer fit the genre of documentary.  She felt that it had moved from observation, to a version of storytelling that is compellingly new.

CURIOUS:  Do you feel that this is a more accurate version of reality?


The 1980s- 90s

By this time, cameras had become increasingly more light weight and now took video cassette instead of film.  These cameras had become more affordable, therefore more popular outside of the film and television industry.  The world had entered for the first time, an age where most people were equipped to document their own lives.

This brought a new style of reality TV with it.  Shows like Unsolved Mysteries (1987), America's Most Wanted (1988), and Cops (1989) captured audiences attention because of the hunger for gritty realism introduced by An American Family.  The television station ABC, took advantage of the amount of VHS cameras now owned by consumers, and in 1990 aired America's Funniest Home Videos.

Being brought into low income neighborhoods, following car chases, and basically bad looking footage are tactics that the show Cops used to allow audiences to feel that what they were watching was real, and also play up the seedy themes of the show.

MTV's The Real World, which first aired in 1992, was a smash hit because it combined features of many of the before mentioned reality shows.  They used secret camera placement first seen in Candid Camera, strove for tense relationships seen in An American Family, and added a competition element seen before in many quiz shows.  Their new addition of a "confessional" or a chance for all contestants to give personal accounts of what was happening in this house filled with rambunctious, out of control 20 somethings.

Many US reality shows were being based off shows airing in Europe, who had done far more research in this category.  For example, the legendary US show Survivor was actually based off a Swedish TV show called Expedition Robinson.  Similarly inspired by Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, both these reality competitions use the format of being stranded on a deserted island to test contestants' physical strength, relationship abilities, and resourcefulness.


These days we are very familiar with the reality TV show that takes hundreds of hours of footage of an event and manipulates it into 30 or 60 minute segments.  Whether it is a competitive talent show like Project Runway or The Voice, or observing celebrity families like The Osbournes or Nick and Jessica, reality TV is edited to present more of a soap opera type story.  

Let's consider how reality TV shows today are created:


Contestants are chosen that seem as though they mirror today's society.  Usually there is an even number of men to women, and at least one homosexual.

People are chosen for the promise of conflict and drama. 


It is no secret that mainstream society responds best to fighting or sex.  This is the formula for success used in most shows across the board.  This strategy also helps editors consolidate thousands of hours of footage through weaving a dramatic story line that might not have been as prevalent during the actual event.  This tactic has been called "enhanced reality". 

Robert Redford's 1994 film Quiz Show, touches on the manipulation of contestants on the popular intelligence show Twenty- One.


Alan Funt of Candid Camera, felt his show taught the lesson "to resist unjust or ridiculous authority".  

Is it possible for a show of entertainment to influence Americans to question the Vietnam War, Watergate, and blacklisting?


  • Reality shows like Extreme Home Makeover, while also shedding light on those less fortunate, also helps families in need of improved living situations.
  • Educational reality shows such as those shown on Discovery and History channels, directly educate while also makes audiences feel confident in questioning and unashamed to not know.
  • America's Most Wanted has actually led to the capture of 842 actual criminals.


  • Sensationalized and over exaggerated footage gives us a false sense of reality.
  • The over abundance of reality show topics is giving an importance to every subject- less specialization
  • Lack of artistic integrity- more of a formulaic style of filmmaking

Understanding how reality television has affected our society throughout history, and it's linkage to technological advances, where do you see reality tv going in the future?

Will it serve the same purposes as before with the inventions of social media and widespread camera access?