The History of Reality TV

Even though the term reality television is largely used to identify shows that have emerged since the year 2000, the history of reality TV goes back farther than you might think.

Reality TV is on the Rise with More and More Shows

This is in large part due to the broadness of the term ‘reality television’ and the many ways in which aspects of reality and daily life are integrated into what people like to watch on television. Since its conception, television has been portraying the lives of people through dating shows, contests and pranks, giving reality television a much broader history than most people might think when considering modern reality television and its boom in popularity in recent years.

In looking back through the history of reality TV it is interesting to see where the foundation for modern reality television began. One of history’s most famous reality TV programs emerged in the late 40’s, when Allen Funt brought Candid Camera into the lives of millions of people. This show, which highlighted funny pranks and humorous situations being pulled on the unknown masses was an instant hit with audiences and remained on-air for years. Today, versions of prank-style reality programming still exist in America’s Funniest Home Videos, MTV’s Punk’d and prank-style features on a variety shows such as late night talk shows, Comedy Central’s The Man Show and many more. Humor at the hand of an unknown bystander has its roots along side the root of television itself, in a reality television format that has proven to consistently deliver for audiences and is one that continues to be loved, used and watched by many.

Aside from jokes and hijinks, contest-style reality television shows have proven a crowd favorite throughout the history of television. Programs such as The Miss America Pageant, which first aired in the early 1950’s has continued to remain one of the largest themes in reality TV even today. Family Fued, Star Search and Amateur Hour just to name a few, are talent based reality television programs that were early favorites which continue to be modeled in today’s favorite reality programs as well. Now, these contest-based shows range thematically from Survivor, The Amazing Race, Project Runway, Deal or No Deal, Top Chef and a slew of many others.

Contest-based reality TV has been a tried and true format for entertainment throughout the years and continues to be so with more and more reality shows offering prizes to ‘Average Joe’ competitors. American Idol is one such contest-style reality show that has not only become one of the most popular reality based television shows in history but consistently pulls in some of the highest ratings in television among both reality based and fictional television programs. These competition-style reality programs, which began in the 50’s, have been a successful model for modern reality TV as we see it today.

In the 70’s shows that outlined a more somber view of people’s lives began to gain in popularity with programs like PBS’s An American Family, a program that showed a traditional American family that was going through the stressors of a divorce. This reality style format is more reminiscent of the reality television that we see today which tries to go behind the scenes of a situation that is popular, or of great interest to audiences. Within this same time period The Dating Game, Newly Weds and other relationship style reality programming was introduced, proving just how interesting audiences found the lives, love lives and dating struggles of their peers. These early formats, or the fundamental behind these formats rather, gained a lot of ground during the 70’s and 80’s bringing shows like MTV’s Real World and COPS, two shows which are considered pioneers in the history of reality television, to the forefront. These to shows although very different in tone and style, represent two arenas of reality television that have since become incredibly popular.

In a way very voyeuristic, MTV’s Real World began to a large degree the modern world’s fascination with watching the lives of everyday people interacting with one another and fueled this interest in reality television. It can be argued that shows like Big Brother, The Mole, Road Rules, The Osbournes and infinitely more are spin offs of MTV’s successful first attempt at reality TV of this sort. COPS outlined the behind the scenes nature of an industry, another hugely popular realm of reality television that has become increasingly popular. Today there are shows such as Dr. 90210, Sun Set Tan, Emergency Vet, Miami Ink, West Coast Choppers, American Casino, Deadliest Catch and many more where cameras follow professionals in an industry while they complete their work.This documentary style reality TV is some of the most popular as people continue to be fascinated with the how, why and what that goes on behind the scenes.

While in recent years the number of reality television programs has increased incredibly compared to what was being watched in years past, many of the formats are the same. From the time television was born, people were fascinated with seeing everyday people fight, claw, cry, laugh, love, struggle, work and find their way – all to the delight of the viewer. As you can the history of reality TV has really paved the way for many of today’s most popular television shows.

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