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The History of Reality TV Goes Back Further Than You Think

Reality TV might not be as new as you think! While the genre certainly exploded after the success of MTV's 'The Real World,' reality TV has been around for a surprisingly long time.
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Reality TV shows are everywhere. From cooking competitions to dating shows, shows focused on famous families, and everything in between, there’s a lot to choose from.

With shows like The Real World, the ‘90s kicked off what would later become an explosion of reality TV, turning it into its own distinct genre. But before we get to today’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Grocery Games, let’s look at how we got here.

Kim Kardashian

What Qualifies as Reality TV, Anyway?

To be a reality TV show, a program has to document supposedly “unscripted” real-life situations. These shows usually star unknown, regular people, although there are plenty of reality shows featuring celebrities these days.

Topics of these series can vary widely. They may feature a competition between contestants, or they could be about makeovers. There are dating shows, home renovations, and shows that simply follow the day-to-day lives of their stars. Clearly, there are plenty of subgenres under the “reality TV” umbrella.

Not everything “real” fits under that umbrella, though. Despite the term “reality” being in the name, reality TV as a genre does not include documentaries, news programs, sports programs, and talk shows. Traditional game shows are often not classified as reality TV, either. While shows like Survivor are competitions involving contestants, they are clearly different from Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune.

We associate reality TV with modern programming, but did you know that this kind of show has actually been around a lot longer than The Real World?

Where It All Started

The first reality TV shows hit the small screen back in the late 1940s. Although Queen for a Day was a daytime game show, it is considered a precursor for modern reality shows. Similarly, the first network game show, Cash and Carry, also helped establish reality-based, unscripted television.

But the very first reality-type show came in 1948, with Candid Camera. This was Allen Funt’s hidden camera show featuring unsuspecting people reacting to pranks. It was based on his 1947 radio show, Candid Microphone, a hidden microphone show. During this same time, we start seeing talent search shows with regular people competing for audience votes.

In the 1950s, game shows started getting a little wild. Contestants were put in wacky situations, with stunts and practical jokes. There was definitely an emphasis on fun and amusing stunts, rather than difficulty. And while these game shows aren’t considered part of the reality TV genre, they did help pave the way for it.

The Very First Reality TV Show

The very first show that could truly be considered the start of the reality TV genre came in 1973. The groundbreaking show was called An American Family. Consisting of twelve episodes, the show first aired on PBS.

An American Family starred the Loud family, an upper middle class family in Santa Barbara, California. Originally meant to document the daily life of the family, it ended up documenting the separation and subsequent divorce of parents Bill and Pat Loud. The intimate and accurate portrayal of a regular American family was something that no one had seen on TV before.

Producer Craig Gilbert used an observational filming style. Sometimes referred to as “fly on the wall,” it turns viewers into passive observers as details unfold before the camera. This approach has remained popular with reality shows ever since.

An American Family made history in more ways than one. The oldest son, Lance Loud, became perhaps the first openly gay person on television. After the show featured his coming out, Lance became a celebrity and an icon in the gay community. Between Lance’s coming out and the breakup of Bill and Pat’s marriage, Gilbert’s “perfect” family laid out a lot of issues that many Americans were dealing with – but weren’t being shown in scripted sitcoms.

During filming, Pat Loud once asked Gilbert what the series was supposed to be about. He responded, “It’s about how you and I and everyone in this room and everyone in this country is fumbling around trying to make sense out of their lives.”

Reality Shows Start to Catch On

Starting in 1979, audiences were treated to Real People on NBC. This reality series featured – you guessed it – “real people” who had unique or unusual jobs or hobbies. Peter Billingsley and Fred Willard were just a couple of the regular hosts. Hosts would introduce the pre-filmed segments, and provide comedic banter in front of a studio audience.

ABC got in on the action with their own reality-based entry, That’s Incredible. Starting in 1980, the show featured people performing stunts or exhibiting unusual talents. You could also catch reenactments of alleged paranormal events or scientific and medical breakthroughs.

Mark Goodson developed CBS’’s That’s My Line in response to the success of That’s Incredible and Real People. It was hosted by Bob Barker. This one also featured regular people with unusual occupations, with interviews and demonstrations.

From here, we see reality TV shows start to branch out. In 1985, Oceanquest followed Shawn Weatherly as she scuba dived in various exotic locales, while 1991’s Yearbook focused on seniors at a high school in Illinois. And everyone’s favorite reality series about law enforcement, COPS, first aired in 1989.

But it was a Dutch show called Nummer 28 that first introduced the format that would become the cornerstone of the reality TV genre. The show brought seven strangers together to live in a house, and the ensuing drama was filmed. The show also featured cast member “confessionals” spread out through the show.

Just one year later, that same concept was used for MTV’s new reality series, The Real World.

Getting Real With The Real World

The Real World producers claim they didn’t pull any inspiration from Nummer 28, but the similarities are definitely there.

In any case, “true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house” first aired on MTV in 1992. The cast was chosen from 500 applicants, and they moved into a duplex in Soho. They were paid $2,600 to live in the loft from February to May 1992 and have their day-to-day lives taped.

And with that, The Real World basically launched what we know of as the modern reality TV genre.

Reviews from critics were dismal. It was phony, dull, painful, and a waste of time. Viewers didn’t agree, though. TV audiences, especially young adults, connected with the show. It was hailed for dealing with heavy issues, such as religion, prejudice, sexuality, AIDS, death, politics, substance abuse, and more.

Reality TV After The Real World

Once we get into the late ‘90s and early 2000s, reality TV becomes a huge success. And while many believed it was a temporary fad that would eventually fade away, viewers kept tuning in.

It is during this time that shows like Big Brother, American Idol, and Survivor pick up speed, turning into successful franchises. There was America’s Next Top Model, MasterChef, Project Runway, and Dancing With the Stars. Several cable networks – Bravo, E!, TLC, VH1, MTV, and A&E – started devoting most of their programming to reality TV series. Shows like The Simple Life started outranking scripted shows.

Related: MTV Dating Shows That’ll Bring Back Those Forgotten, Cringy Feels

It is also during this time that reality shows start getting further and further away from “reality.” We all know that The Girls Next Door wasn’t exactly real – I mean, the girls weren’t even friends in real life. The Hills was filled with scripted drama and re-shoots. The people featured on Breaking Amish weren’t even still Amish by the time filming started. And on Hell’s Kitchen, Gordon Ramsay pretends to be a jerk on camera but is quite pleasant to the chefs off camera.

The Not-So-Real Nature of Reality TV

Of course, those shows aren’t alone in their lack of “realness.” Despite the genre’s name, there’s not a lot that’s actually real. These shows boast of their unscripted nature, but they still utilize plenty of other techniques to get the situations and drama that they want. Hey, the more drama there is, the more viewers tune in, right?

Participants from various shows over the years have come forward to say they were coached on behavior or things to say. There might not be official scripts, but loose storylines get created ahead of time. Participants are put into fabricated situations that may not have otherwise happened. Situations that really did happen might be recreated to get it just perfect for the show.

And of course, the biggest deceit used in reality TV is the misleading editing. That’s why contestants are wearing the same outfit in all of their confessionals throughout an entire season!

Reality TV Today

These days, reality TV is still chugging along. So much for being a temporary fad!

Major franchises like Real Housewives, The Bachelor, and Big Brother are still on-air. Plus, new shows like Nailed It, Lego Masters, and Making It offer fun and fresh takes on reality competition shows.

Keeping Up With the Kardashians may have ended after a whopping 20 seasons, but E! continues their love of reality TV with shows like Relatively Famous: Ranch Rules and The Bradshaw Bunch. And you can’t turn on Food Network without catching a show like Guy’s Grocery Games, Worst Cooks in America, and Beat Bobby Flay.

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that reality TV is here to stay. Do we know it’s not actually reality? Sure. But do we care? No, not at all.

For some extra reality TV fun, check out these ridiculous reality shows that you probably forgot about! I’m willing to bet that you subconsciously blocked a few of them.