I was reading Associated Content CP Brian Joura’s featured article, “The Real Reality: Why The Newlywed Game was the Ultimate Reality TV Show” this evening and got thinking for a moment…when is it that “reality T.V.” even became a term? It is in my opinion that Joura is exactly right to suggest The Newlywed Game could be considered among—if not the—earliest of T.V. reality shows. However, it is also important to note this—The Newlywed Game was then and is still now generally referred to as belonging to the “game show” genre.
So what has happened in the last forty years? When did game shows become “reality” shows? Think for a second…how many “reality T.V.” shows airing today could be placed in other, more traditional T.V. show genre categories? Quite a few. Survivor and The Amazing Race, two of the original “reality T.V.” shows still on the air today, could easily be counted as adventure/game shows. Remember Fear Factor? How is it much different than American Gladiators, which aired back in the early 1990s? Given, Fear Factor is much more hairy than the relatively tame American Gladiators, and no one ever had to eat animal organs on American Gladiators, but both programs, for the most part, could be counted in the same category if necessary: sports contest.
Big Brother was at the top of its game for years. However, when one boils down the concept of the show (a number of people having to live together in a house, trying to outlast each other to win a jackpot of money), is not Big Brother really a sort of social-experiment game? Sure, perhaps Big Brother can be compared to its non-contest cousin, the groundbreaking 1973 PBS documentary An American Family. Indeed, An American Family was a reality show in every respect. Cameras followed the Loud family through their highs and lows for a period of time. However, the Louds were a bonafide family living day-to-day, having to endure real-life responsibilities, hassles, problems, and minutiae. What do the people on Big Brother do? Essentially fight, shout, gossip, and fornicate (nearly) their way to outlasting each other through elimination votes as they vie for a big jackpot of money. Hardly reality. Why, even the early 2000s PBS “House” documentaries (as in The 1900s House and The 1940s House) are more “reality T.V.” than Big Brother. At least those more-recent PBS series required the families to live as their earlier counterparts had to. And it wasn’t always easy for those families to get through several weeks of what often amounted to domestic agony. I wonder what genre Big Brother would have been listed as in T.V. Guide in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s… perhaps “game show”? How about simply “contest”?
Here is a biggie “Reality T.V. show”: American Idol. American Idol is one of those shows that has transcended its television boundaries. Everybody talks about the show. It is constantly part of the discussion on any number of talk shows airing on the four broadcast networks, and the results of American Idol more often than not make the news. Yes…there are some bona fide news programs that have actually announced the final results of American Idol! It is not hard to see how American Idol could be counted as a “Reality T.V.” show by some, because practically anyone can potentially get on the show (only one tiny caveat: you must be in your teens or twenties). Besides, a number of ordinary, kid-next-door types have made it through to the coveted Top-12 and, certainly, have even gone on to win the whole show. However, what is American Idol—really? I will say this: It is not the first show in its category. Any of us who can remember watching television in the 1980s know what Star Search was. How about those who can think back about two or three decades earlier? Does the name Ted Mack ring a bell? Yes, Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour and Star Search were talent shows, and so is American Idol. The only difference is that America Idol has been able to attract an enormously large audience and its “hype” snowball rolled down a pretty steep hill. However, when one peels away all the glitz, glamour, advertising, money, and popular guest performers that have helped make American Idol such a huge success, the program is really nothing more than a musical talent show, plain and simple.
It is fair enough to say that television does evolve, and new genres are created all the time. However, with so many “Reality T.V.” shows truly unreflective of reality (how many of us eat spiders, struggle to survive on an island, or try to win a record deal everyday?), one begins to wonder—when did “game shows” become “reality shows”?
Internet Movie Database. “An American Family.” 5 September 2007. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0211195/