Defining “reality series” loosely as an unscripted continuing series featuring non-actors as themselves, and discounting game-shows, talk shows, etc., what do you think would qualify as the first reality show?
An American Family was “a weekly documentary which followed the real life travails of the Loud family, a mixed up cluster of suburbanites… including an on-camera divorce demand …and the coming-out of one of the children who was gay.” It premiered in 1973. Can you think of anything that aired earlier?
Ironically, the general basis of reality television appeared on an episode of I LOVE LUCY two decades earlier when a department store expressed interest in filming a TV show from the Ricardos apartment in which Lucy & Ricky and the Mertzes (and Little Ricky if he was around yet) would provide the cast. I’m not sure if such shows existed in early television.
The “Up” documentaries that started in the 1960s, with ‘Seven Up’ following the lives of a group of children. They are followed up every seven years, and have tracked their lives in a compelling way. The latest series was called ‘42 Up’.
Drawing a distinction between documentaries (An American Family, Seven Up, etc.) single-day contests designed as promotional events (Battle of the Network Stars) and reality series wherein cameras were simply on hand to film a llimited course of events which were presented without narration written by the producers, I’d say that the first reality series was “The Real World” especially during it’s first four seasons, when there was no overt manipulation of the cast members’ interaction with one another vis-a-vis making them all work together in some fashion.
That may have been the single longest run-on sentence ever written.
Slight hijack. “An American Family” always leads me to remember Albert Brooks’s first film “Real Life”, a parody of the original show. It’s amazing how prophetic that movie has become. Brooks plays the producer desperately trying to inject contrived drama and storylines into the show.
You can’t watch any light entertainment shows these days without ‘reality’ aspects featuring. Games show now share with ‘reality documentary’ TV a demand that the contestant exposes their entire life in the name of entertainment. Why we should be interested in this is a bit of a mystery. Apparently the viewing public need assured that the contestant is a boring, real-life person, just like them.
Time was game shows were happy to introduce a contestant and then get on with it. Now we’ve got to be introduced to their entire family in the audience, followed up with continual and intrusive cuts to ‘mother looking tense’ throughout the rest of the programme. Really, you don’t get to go on these shows any more unless you can supply a background cast of close-relatives to cheer you on and offer banal responses to how they think you’re going to do. Major plus points if you can supply an under eight year old or grandparents who are still mentally active.
If we’re focusing on just the new-school reality shows (say, the past decade or so), then I’d nominate The Real World. It was that show that really launched this wave of reality TV, followed by Road Rules.
The line blurs genre classification, has never been and never will be an exact science. Which reminds me, I have The Television Genre Book on my shelf, let’s see what that thinks.
It has two distinct category’s, Docu-soaps.
It then lists some viewing figures (UK) for these types of shows. And later on
and paraphrasing: With the filmmakers taking a voyeuristic interest in crises, giving priority to drama over serious commentary.
And on Reality Television:
In castaway, a group of volunteers were selected and sent to live on a self-sufficient remote Scottish island for a year, as a ‘psychological experiment’.
And the answer to the OP? From the same:
A comment on the show’s we now associate most with Reality TV Big Brother (Endemol 1999) and Survivor (CBS 2000). These show’s successfully mixed the Reality TV genre with that of the game show, creating a Reality TV competition in which contestants compete for a prize, again blurring the genre boundaries.
A final note, there is now in the UK a satellite and cable channel devoted entirely to Reality Television shows, 24 hours a day. (Google tells me you have one in the US as well, I sympathise)
The viewing figures for the latest series of Big Brother were down compared to previous series, however I’m a celebrity, get me out of here (A survivor variant) recorded phenomenal viewing figures.
Wither Reality TV?
*Stella Bruzzi in The Television Genre Book
** Jon Dovey in the same