How Reality TV Works

Jordin Sparks on American Idol red carpet for farewell season
Jordin Sparks attends American Idol Reality TV finale for the farewell season as a previous winner. Jason LaVeris / FilmMagic

So, you're home on the couch in front of your new plasma screen with a few hours to kill. You start channel-surfing and come across a show with people slurping a concoction of maggots and hissing beetles for a chance to win 50 grand. On channel after channel you see shows with truckers driving across treacherously icy roads in Alaska, two people telling folks what not to wear, and crab fisherman braving a mother of a storm. Now you're asking yourself, when did Elaine, Jerry, George and Kramer get replaced by Lauren, Heidi, Audrina and Brody? Who in the world are New York and Tila Tequila, and why do they have their own shows? Just when did reality TV get to be so popular? And, finally, how do people come up with this stuff -- and how real are these shows anyway?

Reality TV has morphed from radio game show and amateur talent competition to hidden camera stunt show to dating show to documentary-style series. The genre now encompasses unscripted dramas, makeover sagas, celebrity exposés, lifestyle-change shows, dating shows, talent extravaganzas and just about any kind of competition you can think of (and a few that you probably can't). In the fall 2007 season, there were more than a dozen reality shows in prime-time slots on major networks and cable channels. On any given night, you can watch "The Biggest Loser," "Dancing with the Stars," "The Real World," "I Love New York," "Beauty and the Geek," "America's Next Top Model," "Ultimate Fighter," "The Bachelor," "Run's House" or "Project Runway" -- to name just a few.


By definition, reality TV is essentially unscripted programming that doesn't employ actors and focuses on footage of real events or situations. Reality shows also often use a host to run the show or a narrator to tell the story or set the stage of events that are about to unfold. Unlike scripted shows like sitcoms, dramas and newscasts, reality TV does not rely on writers and actors, and much of the show is run by producers and a team of editors. Because of this, it can be a very affordable programming option from a production standpoint -- and it's why networks are scrambling to add reality content in the wake of the Writers Guild of America strike.

The defining aspect of reality TV is probably the manner in which it is shot. Whether the show takes place in a real setting with real people (much like a documentary), shoots in front of a live studio audience that participates in the program, or uses hidden surveillance, reality TV relies on the camera capturing everything as it happens. In this article, we'll learn about what constitutes reality TV today, the types of reality programs, when they got to be so popular -- and if they're all as "real" as they claim to be. But first, let's take a look at how it all started.


Reality TV Evolution

"Queen For a Day" was an early reality show.
Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/ Getty Images

Before there were shows like "Ice Road Truckers" and "A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila," there was "This is Your Life." It originally broadcast on the radio in the late 1940s and made the switch to television in the early 1950s. "This is Your Life" was reality TV because it presented the story of a real person's life -- and relied on the participation of real people, who were shot in front of a live audience or filmed on location. It didn't matter if the subject was Joe Schmo or Johnny Cash -- they were all surprised by host Ralph Edwards and his camera crew (they famously surprised Cash on stage in the middle of a concert).

"The Original Amateur Hour" crossed over from radio in 1948. This talent show featured acts that performed for a voting audience. The act with the most votes was invited back the next week. This might sound familiar -- "The Gong Show," "Star Search," "American Idol," "America's Got Talent" and "Dancing with the Stars" are all based on this formula.


Another 1950s radio crossover was "Queen for a Day." It involved four female contestants who competed for household appliances by describing how difficult their lives were. The studio audience determined the queen via an applause meter. Current reality shows like "10 Years Younger," "A Makeover Story" and "Deserving Design" are its direct descendants.

Art Linkletter and Allen Funt brought practical jokes, stunts and hidden surveillance to TV in the '50s. Radio's "Candid Microphone" became "Candid Camera," with Funt hosting and performing practical jokes. The gags and stunts were contrived, but the unsuspecting targets' reactions were very real. Audience members on Linketter's "People are Funny" participated in outrageous skits and gags. "Fear Factor" later took this idea to the nth degree, and "Candid Camera" passed the torch to "Girls Behaving Badly" and "Punk'd."

Other early reality shows included "I'd Like to See" (1948) and "You Asked for It" (1950), which required audience members to write in or vote for what they'd like to see on the show. The picks were often filmed in a documentary or clip-type style -- shot on location and presented to the audience with a narrator. Shows like "Real People" and "That's Incredible" incorporated similar techniques and were popular in the late 1970s and early '80s.


Groundbreaking Reality Shows

Many consider "An American Family" to be the first reality show.
John Dominis/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

While much of reality TV in the 1960s and '70s continued to revolve around game shows and amateur talent, there were some changes. Merv Griffin created several new game shows, including "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune." Chuck Barris also arrived on the scene, inventing a whole new type of game show. "The Dating Game," which premiered in 1965, was shot in front of a live studio audience and featured three bachelors or bachelorettes vying for a date with a contestant on the other side of the set. It has spawned dozens of dating shows. Capitalizing on the success of "The Dating Game," Barris went on to produce other reality shows, including the popular amateur talent series "The Gong Show."

Another type of reality show premiered in 1973 -- a 12-episode documentary series called "An American Family." It captured the day-to-day lives of the Loud family over a seven-month period. "An American Family" was groundbreaking, showing the Louds' marital problems and not shying away from the eldest son Lance's openly gay lifestyle. TV Guide considers it the first reality show.


In 1988, TV writers staged a 22-week strike that greatly affected network programming. Several networks were already committed to running one reality show in their season's lineup, but channels like Fox resorted to reality TV during and after the strike. During this season, Fox premiered "Cops," which became one of TV's longest-running shows (it aired until 2020). The show follows police from around the country, filming real response calls and arrests. "America's Funniest Home Videos" and "America's Most Wanted" also premiered around that time and are still going strong.

The next big shift in reality TV came in 1992, when MTV premiered "The Real World." MTV paired an ex-soap opera scribe, Mary-Ellis Bunim, with Jonathan Murray, who had a background in news and documentaries, and commissioned them to write a hip soap opera for the MTV generation. They did, but when they flew it by the studio execs, it was branded too expensive. So Bunim and Murray asked if they could try it without a script and actors. When MTV gave them the green light, they auditioned hundreds of 18- to 25-year-olds and put together a cast of seven. Then they filled a New York City loft with cameras, producers and editing crews and filmed the group for three months. The immediate (and ongoing) hit spawned "Road Rules" -- and countless "Real World/Road Rules Challenge" shows.

Eight years later, "Survivor" would change the landscape of network TV. Read on to learn more.


The Survivor Craze

Contestants get ready for a challenge on Survivor: Cook Islands in 2006.
Bill Inoshita/CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images

In 2000, CBS picked up a new reality show called "Survivor." The decision might have had something to do with another looming writers' strike, the success of similar shows in Europe, or the ever-rising cost of producing sitcoms and dramas -- or maybe it was a combination of all of these things. No matter the reason, it ended up being one of the most successful TV moves in recent history. The "Survivor" concept had been created by British producer Charlie Parsons almost a decade earlier, but it was Mark Burnett who brought it to American television. Burnett had unsuccessfully shopped the idea to several networks (including CBS) before CBS picked it up.

"Survivor" assembles 16 to 20 strangers (plus host Jeff Probst, camera crews, producers and various administrative personnel) on a remote island with little to no food or supplies. The contestants are divided into "tribes" upon arrival, and the show revolves around the competition created by a series of challenges. The contestants vote one person off the island every week until only two remain, one of whom wins $1,000,000.


Burnett is considered by many to be the instigator of the reality TV show revolution, but he continues to refer to "Survivor" as an "unscripted drama" -- not necessarily a reality show. The first season aired in the summer of 2000 and garnered one of the largest audiences in CBS's history. Other networks took note and soon, clusters of reality shows began appearing on every channel.

Some of the shows that followed in the wake of the "Survivor" success were "Big Brother," "The Mole," "The Amazing Race" and "The Bachelor." But how "real" are they? We'll try to get to the bottom of it on the next page.


Reality Show Structure

Amazing Race contestant Terry Cosentino shoots a flaming arrow in Mongolia.
Robert Voets/CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

So, just how real is reality TV? While it certainly varies from show to show, consider this: All of the concepts were created by someone (usually the producer), the people who populate the show were auditioned or hired in some way, and, while the footage may be real, it is usually extremely edited. For example, the first season of MTV's "The Real World" was shot over a three-month period, ostensibly 24 hours a day -- this would add up to about 2,160 hours of footage. But only 13 half-hour episodes aired (technically, each episode was 22 minutes plus commercials), or approximately six and a half hours.

In 2001, first-season "Survivor" contestant Stacey Stillman filed a lawsuit against producer Mark Burnett and CBS, claiming that Burnett rigged the show by talking two other contestants into voting her off the island. Stillman said that Burnett wanted to keep 72-year-old contestant Rudy Boesch on the island to maintain an older viewing demographic


A number of contestants on shows like "The Apprentice," "The Bachelor" and "Joe Millionaire" have claimed that their actions were taken out of context and presented in misleading ways.

Reality shows typically don't have scripts, but there is often a shooting script or an outline that details aspects of an episode or part of the show. For example, on shows like "The Real World" and "Big Brother," which take place in confined quarters, the outline might give directions for which rooms or cameras to focus on. It might set up a specific challenge for the contestants on "Survivor" or "The Amazing Race." A shooting script could also create conflict between some of the participants (by pairing specific people as roommates or partners on "The Real World" or "Beauty and the Geek"). In extreme cases, a shooting script might include a storyboard -- a visual representation of the concept that physically illustrates what will occur in a scene.

Ultimately, reality producers and editors have a lot of control over what happens on the show, just by the sheer fact that they've put the people together in certain situations, and they're controlling what footage gets aired and what doesn't. They can also use a device known as frankenbiting to edit together conversation excerpts or sound bites to create a whole new dialogue or conversation. Frankenbiting -- and a savvy editor -- can essentially create alliances, crushes, fights and relationships. Footage that was captured days apart can come to appear as one scene or situation.

Another thing that separates reality TV from scripted dramas and sitcoms is the use of actors. Reality TV shows are supposedly populated by real people -- average Joes, geeks, the girl next door -- not actors. But, after the initial seasons of "The Real World," "Survivor," "The Bachelor" and "American Idol," it quickly became apparent that a lot of the real people auditioning for these shows were out-of-work or would-be actors trying to get screen time. But as long as it's entertaining, no one seems to be complaining -- people will keep coming back for more.


Reality TV FAQ

Why is reality TV so popular?
Part of reason reality TV is so popular is viewers' connection to the participants. Reality TV shows make it seem possible for anyone to become famous and get on TV, which can lead to new levels of success.
Is reality TV real or scripted?
Reality TV is advertised as "real", but it's often pretty fake. Typically, show producers control the narrative and encourage participants to act in certain ways. Some reality shows include actors (or wannabe actors) who aren't "real" like other participants. And in many reality shows, producers will "frankenbite" clips to fake statements and comments from participants for increased drama.
Why is reality TV bad?
Reality TV does have a dark side. Shows and producers can exploit reality TV participants, and they often don't correctly show how situations play out. Participants also have little to no control over how they appear or are portrayed on TV.

Lots More Information

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