A television reality show features talent culled from the ranks of "ordinary" people, not professionally trained actors. Producers typically shoot hundreds of hours of footage per episode and use creative editing to create a narrative thread. Subjects may be given some rudimentary directions offscreen, but the point is to allow the performers to act and react as normally as possible. A reality show is not to be confused with a documentary, in which the subjects are asked to ignore the cameras and behave naturally. Many reality producers encourage participants to play to the cameras as characters or use private taped conversations, called confessionals, as a form of narration.
For many years, the television industry favored scripted television programs over the unpredictable and potentially litigious reality show form. An early show called Candid Camera, hosted by the unassuming Allen Funt, demonstrated that carefully edited clips of ordinary people reacting to contrived situations could be a ratings success. Early game shows featuring contestants selected from the audience also provided moments of unscripted reality. Groucho Marx's game show You Bet Your Life! featured extended interviews with ordinary contestants, although Marx was thoroughly briefed on their backgrounds before the show started.
Television shows during the 1960s and 1970s were usually scripted, with a cast of professional actors creating the characters. It was believed that a reality show featuring untrained actors working without a guiding script would be virtually unwatchable, since there would be no way to create a satisfying storyline ending precisely after the allotted half-hour or hour running time of a typical scripted show. The only network amenable to the idea in the 1970s was the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). A documentary called An American Family followed the real lives of the Loud family as they dealt with the parents' impending divorce.
During the late 1980s, a syndicated reality show called COPS began showing real policemen performing their duties as hand-held cameras rolled. The success of COPS spurred other production companies to create shows featuring real footage captured by amateur photographers, local news organizations, and police surveillance cameras. This documentary form proved to be quite popular, especially among the younger demographics sought by advertisers.
Meanwhile, another type of show began to take shape. Producers of The Real World recruited groups of twenty-somethings to live in a furnished apartment while cameras recorded every public moment of their lives together. The footage was carefully edited to create a satisfying arc of episodes, even if the participants appeared to be prodded into certain confrontations at times. Shows like The Real World proved that television audiences could enjoy watching unscripted performers reacting to somewhat scripted circumstances.
Perhaps the most groundbreaking reality show on American network television was CBS' Survivor, debuting in 1999. Survivor featured teams of non-actors culled from thousands of audition tapes. Its success prompted network executives to greenlight a number of other shows employing a cast of camera-ready civilians and armies of creative editors. Professional actors, directors, and writers have all voiced strong objections to this new form of reality programming, but the shows are usually inexpensive to produce and consistently reach their target audience. There is some evidence that the reality format is losing some momentum, but finding successful replacement programming has also proven to be difficult.