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How did Reality TV Begin?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseTour contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon339940 — On Jun 28, 2013

I don't remember the name of it, but I think the first reality TV show was on PBS many years ago. It turned out that the son was gay and the family had to deal with many other issues as well. I would like to know what year that aired.

By sneakers41 — On Feb 13, 2011

Comfyshoes - I really like the makeover reality TV show, “What Not to Wear”. It is really fun watching people go from frumpy to stylish in the same show.

The transformation is really fun to watch. This is also why shows like; “The Biggest Loser” are so compelling because we see very overweight people transform themselves into fit active people right in front of us.

We can identify with the challenges that the contestants face which really makes the show more appealing. It is really inspirational to see how people have been able to lose so much weight.

It gives people that little extra hope that they can lose their unwanted pounds as well because if the contestants can lose a hundred pounds we should be able to get rid of those twenty pounds that are bugging us. It really helps to put things in perspective.

By comfyshoes — On Feb 12, 2011

Mutsy - I think that these shows represent some of the worst elements in television.

It is like that car accident that you can’t stop looking at.

For example, in the Housewives series shown on Bravo, we see firsthand how shallow and self centered many of the cast members are.

Many there appear wealthy but at least three of these cast members filed for bankruptcy. There is very little substance to the programming and the cast always seems to be in so much conflict that at times it is difficult to watch.

The series has been successful because of the drama that it is presented because it is very much like a soap opera. It is amazing how superficial these women are.

For example, one housewife claimed that she could not stay in a 3,500 square foot apartment in Manhattan because it was too small.

Another claimed that she did not like to stay in a hotel because other strangers had slept in the room previously.

Meanwhile the housewife that could not live in the New York apartment is going through a divorce and the other housewife filed for bankruptcy. Although parts of these shows are staged, these cast members have very real problems.

By mutsy — On Feb 11, 2011

BrickBack - I agree with you. I feel that a certain degree of the programming is staged in order to create a more dramatic effect.

For example, Richard Hatch, the first winner of the reality TV show Survivor disclosed in an interview that the contestants on "Survivor" do get fed by the producers although the show makes it look that they have to fend for themselves in order to find food.

This makes the show more dramatic and compelling to watch.

In other shows there always seems to be a scene in which two adversarial cast members meet for lunch only to get into another argument ripe for the cameras adding more drama for the viewers.

I think people watch these shows because it makes their lives seem so much better. There is a certain newfound gratitude about living a normal life that is so much better than what is portrayed on television.

I personally would never fill out a reality TV application.

By BrickBack — On Feb 10, 2011

I think that reality TV has really taken over television. There are so many reality shows that I really wonder how this phenomenon is affecting traditional actors.

For the first time people with no acting training are becoming celebrities just by being associated with a television show that allows the viewer to take a peek at the life the person is living.

There are reality TV casting calls and the most compelling people get chosen to be reality TV contestants.

The reality TV casting always has a component of drama and a cast of characters that seem to always develop some sort of conflict. It makes me wonder how much of this conflict is real and how much of it is staged.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseTour contributor, Tricia...
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