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Reality television

Reality television is a genre of television programming which generally is unscripted, documenting actual events over fiction. Although it has become highly successful around the globe in the 21st century, the genre has origins in earlier forms.


Origins of 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. The show was notably parodied by Albert Brooks's first film Real Life.

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.

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.

Due to the typically low production values associated with reality television (such as having only a handful of people on set, no set design, and not much post-production), this type of programming is very popular with television network executives wishing to maximize profits.

Types of Reality TV

There are a number of types of reality television programs. In some, 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" or cinema verité. Other programs construct competitions to place people in, blending traditions of sports, game shows, and drama. Often "plots" are constructed programs via editing and constructed situations, with the results resembling soap operas, hence the description docusoap. 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.

Another type of reality programming features 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 another type, the so-called "reality game shows", participants are filmed constantly 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 can play 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.

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.

However, given that producers design the format of the show, as well as control the outcome of some of them, it is questionable how "real" reality television actually is. There is no doubt that producers are highly deliberate in their editing strategies, able to portray certain characters as heroes or villains, and guiding the drama through altered chronology and selective presentation of events. Likewise, shows use carefully designed scenarios, challenges, events, and settings to encourage particular behaviors and conflicts. Yet there has been no clear indication that these programs are fully scripted or "rigged," as with the 1950s television quiz show scandals.

In recent years, the reality TV genre has attracted immense criticism from those who feel that the pervasiveness 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 that The Will had become one of a handful of series in television history to be cancelled after only one broadcast.

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Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04