Reality television has been around for almost as long as television itself, and some of the most popular early television shows were reality based. Many of today’s reality television shows are just new takes on concepts that started in the early years of television, or even on radio. So let’s take a brief look at how reality television started, and how it evolved into the popular shows we love today.
Though there is no agreement on what can be called the first reality show, “The Original Amateur Hour” hosted by Ted Mack gets a lot of votes. The show debuted in 1948, and was the continuation of a radio talent show that aired from 1934-1945. The show featured amateur singers, dancers, musicians, comics and novelty acts who competed for a chance to go on to finals held at Madison Square Garden. Viewers voted by telephone or postcard, and the winners had a chance for fame and fortune—sound familiar.
Another show often considered to be the first reality television show is Alan Funt’s “Candid Camera,” which Funt adapted from his radio show “Candid Microphone” in 1948. The show involved concealed cameras that filmed ordinary people in unusual situations, like trying to pull a $100 bill from under a car tire. When the joke was revealed, victims would be told the show’s catchphrase, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.” The popularity of both or these early reality shows made it clear to the networks that viewers enjoyed watching ordinary people that were just like them.
In 1973, a PBS documentary series called the “An American Family” brought a new concept to reality television: What would happen if television camera’s followed ordinary people through their daily lives. The show’s creators were inspired by Andy Warhol’s 1966 documentary style film “Chelsea Girls” which followed the daily lives of various artists living in and around the Chelsea Hotel. For the television show, they filmed the everyday lives of an American family over the course of seven months, and they ended up with more than enough true-life drama to create a captivating twelve episode series.
Other shows that focused on the lives of everyday people were also popular; including the series “Real People” that featured people with unusual skills or talents, and “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes” which established that America loves seeing celebrities in more candid moments too. At this point, reality television was steadily gaining in popularity with the American audience.
Then, in 1988, a five month strike by the members of the Writers Guild of America changed television forever. Because the drama and comedy show writers weren’t around to create fresh content for their shows, the networks had to turn to reality television to get fresh content on the air. Shows created at that time, such as “COPS” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” became very popular, and they gave an ever increasing numbers of ordinary people their 15 minutes of fame. And, not only were the networks thrilled with how popular these shows were becoming, they were also interested in creating more reality shows because they were a lot cheaper to make than the scripted show that had large production costs and highly paid stars.
As the number of channels on television continued to grow, so did the number of reality shows. Shows were created to appeal to all the different interest groups that watched the various new channels. MTV created “The Real World” in 1992, by adding a new twist to the concepts created in “An American Family”—they filmed eight young strangers living together in one house. Other basic cable channels developed reality shows based on their viewer’s interest, such as cooking contests and home improvement challenges.
The big networks noticed that they were starting to lose market share to these channels so they started airing even more ambitions reality television shows such as CBS’s “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race.” And that definitely paid off as some of those shows—such as FOX’s “American Idol”—became the top shows on television. Today, half the shows listed in the latest Nielson weekly Top 10 shows for network primetime broadcast in the US are reality shows; which makes it clear that reality television is here to stay.
Reality TV: An Insiders Guide to TV’s Hottest Market, by Troy DeVolld