People who date the beginnings of reality TV to MTV’s The Real World or the CBS network’s Survivor are off by several decades. There have been a variety of unscripted and live television shows that date back to the 1940s. Among them, Candid Camera, which debuted in 1948, is often thought of as the first example of reality television, where people were unwittingly exposed to pranks or silly situations by host Allen Funt.
Certain competition or game shows were also considered early versions of reality TV, as were live airings of programs like The Miss America Pageant and the Oscars. It doesn’t get more real than David Niven’s 1974 ad lib comments at the Academy Awards as a streaker crossed behind him on the stage. Most television historians don’t include documentaries or lengthy news stories in this category, but again these evoked people’s interest greatly. Anthropological studies of tribal groups, or watching the news “unfold” through camera coverage of events, like President Kennedy’s assassination, could be called the ancestors of modern reality TV.
Another example of earlier than The Real World is the program Cops, which premiered in 1989. This is a few years before MTV would take on their ambitious production, and showcased police officers in different cities making arrests or dealing with people behaving in criminal or dangerous fashion. The program is the longest running of such shows and began its 25th season in 2012.
Many people see the programs above mentioned as predecessors to programs like The Real World and the reality TV boom that occurred in the 2000s with programs like Survivor and American Idol. What MTV’s program offered was a look at seven strangers all occupying house space together over a period of several months.
MTV almost didn’t start this trend, and early in their conception of the series, they thought about having actors play out scripts that would seem close to reality. Instead, the show’s creators ultimately opted for providing viewers with video voyeurism and an opportunity to see the “real lives” of several people. Of course, as with all “reality” TV, these real lives were shown when they were most tense or dramatic; editors went through hours of film to produce what was aired on television, since real life doesn’t always make for the most exciting television moments.
The idea of combining competitive elements with unscripted TV came in the form of a Swedish TV program called Expedition: Robinson, which first aired in 1997. This was three years prior to the first airing of Survivor and, in fact, inspired Mark Burnett’s Survivor, who had to lease the concept from the creators of the Swedish show. Several other countries also produced similar programs, but the most famous of these in American television is undoubtedly Burnett’s variation of the Swedish show, which premiered in 2000.
From Survivor, other contest reality shows emerged, and some like American Idol, America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway, and The Bachelor, have been big hits. In fact, many minor celebrities felt that contributing or being the subject of a reality show might bolster their careers, leading to “celebreality” shows like The Anna Nicole Show, The Osbournes, and Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica. Other celebs sought to compete in programs similar to the Survivor or game show format, leading to programs like Celebrity Fit Club and Dancing with the Stars.
A vast variety of reality shows are still on TV, but there is some question about just how real the are. Most combine some real moments with a few fake ones. For instance, not all footage of competitions in Survivor features the contestants — some is recreated afterward to provide aerial shots. “Live” performances on American Idol and especially the judge’s comments may be prepared in advance when the judges watch dress rehearsals. Celebrities who allow camera access often write into their contracts the ability to veto any scene they don’t want shown. It’s semi-real, usually not scripted, but not exactly “real” in the sense of total access to all footage without editing for dramatic purpose.