The Web site realityshows.com lists 50 reality shows currently airing on television. These range from well-known shows like American Idol and The Apprentice to more cult-like shows such as Pussycat Dolls and The Two Coreys. Love them or loathe them, reality shows are here to stay.
The relatively recent trend towards so many reality shows can be explained due to the success of Survivor. Once a new show comes on and hits it big, you are guaranteed to see countless different versions of the same thing, as it’s always easier to rip off a successful idea rather than come up with an original one.
Also, reality shows have the added advantage of being relatively cheap to produce. Further adding to their appeal is the usual format of rotating contestants. This way, no one develops into an un-replaceable star that the network might have to pay a large sum of money to keep on the show.
With reality TV being such a big industry, the normal question is – what was the first reality TV show? If you ask 10 different people, you’re likely to get 10 different answers. There’s no definitive definition of reality TV, so it’s hard to pinpoint its birth.
The early days of television when shows were broadcast live certainly has a claim to be reality TV. The nightly news could have a claim, as well. Some people might even go so far as to say that sports are reality TV.
In my mind, the first reality TV show was The Newlywed Game. This was a game show developed by the legendary Chuck Barris and it first aired on ABC in 1966. The Newlywed Game was certainly not the first game show to air on TV. And it wasn’t even the first game show to revolve around contestants’ personal lives, as The Dating Game debuted in 1965.
Rather, what set The Newlywed Game apart was the honesty of the show. While participants in The Dating Game could easily plant a friend in the audience to give them hints as to the attractiveness of the various bachelors or bachelorettes, contestants on The Newlywed Game were on their own.
And without any help from producers or friends, contestants really showed their true selves. Modern day reality TV has people acting like they think people on a reality TV show should. Or as producers of the show think they should. They’re mostly young and attractive and without many morals or inhibitions. They “push the envelope” because that’s what they’ve been conditioned to do by previous reality show contestants.
Meanwhile, contestants on The Newlywed Game were simply themselves. They were attractive and homely. They could be principled or scandalous. Many were shy and had trouble speaking entire sentences while others seemed made for their own TV shows. It was a portrait of America. While a program like Candid Camera would show people acting naturally, it got those results by taping people without their knowledge. It achieved its results in a most dishonest fashion. There was no trickery on The Newlywed Game
The rules were simple. Newly-married couples appeared on the show and agreed to answer questions about their personal lives in pursuit of a prize. The couple that ended the show with the most points won, as emcee Bob Eubanks said on each show, “a prize chosen just for you.”
Each show started with both partners seated together and then Bob Eubanks would ask the wives to leave. He asked each of the husbands three questions and their answers were recorded and later displayed on large blue cards. The budget for the first show was approximately $35, although the complete lack of pretentiousness is part of the show’s charm.
The couples reunited and the wives then answered the same questions. After the wife answered, the husband flipped over the card, which was previously held upside down on his lap, and couples got five points for each matched answer.
Next, they traded places with the husbands leaving the stage and the wives answering four questions. The first three were worth 10 points each and the final question was worth 25 points.
By this point in the show, Bob Eubanks had enough time to get a good read on all of the contestants and he could cajole, empathize or needle – whichever the situation required. The men usually started out tight-lipped, but the women almost always opened up quicker. By the time the couples reunited for the last time, Bob Eubanks was best friends with all of them.
The highlight of the show came when the couples revealed the answers. You got to see the dynamics of the recently-married couples at work. Real dynamics, not ones made for television. You saw joy when couples matched an answer but what you saw when the answers clashed was the key. Some couples were supportive of one another and you could make a reasonable guess that these were the marriages that would last.
Some couples needed to assign blame. It was one thing if the person who answered wrong admitted it themselves, but when the other person went out of their way to show how wrong their partner was, man that was not pretty. I would not go so far as to say that those people would end up divorced, but rather that they would clearly be people you would not want to invite over for a dinner party.
And then you would have couples who would argue even if they matched an answer. They could argue about a previous wrong answer or predict that the spouse got lucky on this one and would miss the next question. Those were the ones whose marriages were not long for this world.
Just as revealing as the answers given by the contestants were the clothes they wore. Many of the men were just as uncomfortable wearing a suit as they were answering questions about their sex lives. Many of the women wore outfits which seemingly indicated that the Victoria’s Secret catalog never found its way to their house.
These were real people who willingly placed themselves in an awkward situation and gave honest answers to embarrassing questions. These were not wannabe models or actors. It was your off-beat cousin that you loved or the uncle that everyone decided it was best to just not talk about around strangers.
There were no alliances, no backroom deals, no promising one thing to a person’s face and then stabbing them in the back when it came time to deliver. There was no eating cow testicles, no trying to race around the world and no trying to make a designer gown in 12 hours with $50.
It was normal people answering questions on TV asked by a stranger that they wouldn’t have replied to if asked by their best friend. And the results were both honest and classic.
Like the episode where Bob Eubanks asked the contestant where the weirdest place they ever made whoopee was.