Present almost at the creation of television broadcasting in the late 1940s, reality TV has developed along with the medium and has changed as the nation changed. From the surprised Americans caught in their most embarrassing moments by Allen Funt’s Candid Camera in 1948, to the downto- earth Loud family of An American Family in 1973, to the rat-eating competitors of Survivor in 2002, reality, or unscripted, TV has amused, surprised, and mortified millions of viewers through the years. The changes in program content reflect the changing times: What viewers want to know about the participants as well as what participants allow to be known about them has increased over the years.
For example, post–World War II Americans—new to the nightly entertainment that network television could provide—found the vulnerability of Candid Camera participants caught in just a few minutes of embarrassing film to be sufficiently amusing. Different situations with different participants, often in different cities, were aired each week—the audience had no way of knowing what would be shown or who would be on the show. Participants stumbled into embarrassing situations rigged by producers; for example, an unwitting victim might struggle to get a faulty gas pump working, all while the cameras are rolling. Candid Camera was goodnatured humor, because as Funt said, “[it] caught people in the act of being themselves.” While participants might be momentarily embarrassed, their privacy and dignity were protected and no one was hurt. Candid Camera competed with half-hour sitcoms and variety programs reminiscent of old vaudeville shows. The country was just getting used to television, and Americans wanted the entertainment that came into their homes to be pleasant, uncomplicated, and not at all controversial.
The relative quiet of the 1950s, with its emphasis on shared conservative values and the sense of moral superiority that came with making the world safe for democracy, came to an abrupt halt when the decade ended. The sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, feminism, and drug use were the hallmarks of the 1960s. It was a time of protest against just about everything. Baby boomers, the first generation born after World War II, were just coming of age, and their “tell it like it is” mantra encouraged people to hold nothing back— to debunk old myths and find new truths—in an effort to redefine American culture. As Americans became more sexually open and violent in their behavior, television programs became more sexually explicit and violent as well. By the end of the sixties, openness replaced modesty as a virtue, and independence was more important than privacy.
By the early 1970s viewers who were used to watching Vietnam War footage on the six o’clock news as they ate dinner were ready for more from television—more reality, more invasiveness. An American Family, filmed in 1973 by noncommercial public television (PBS), brought TV cameras into the home of Bill and Pat Loud and their family and watched them for seven months as they went about their daily lives. Ten million viewers saw their marriage breakup and heard their son Lance announce for the first time that he was gay. Viewers were willing to accept (some even hoped) that they might be surprised or appalled by what they heard or saw—in part, that was why they were watching. Reality TV let the viewers get to know and identify with the Louds on a long-term basis. Moreover, the Louds had agreed to be filmed, indicating a willingness to be exposed in ways that participants of Candid Camera could not have imagined. An American Family—unscripted, unrehearsed reality TV—was broadcast as a documentary by a nonprofit network. When the Louds allowed An American Family Revisited to document their lives ten years later, it was broadcast on a cable network with millions in paid advertising at stake, and the new show garnered an even larger audience than the original American Family. “An American Family is widely recognized as the mother of all reality TV shows,” claims Jeffery Rouff, a media scholar at Dartmouth University and author of An American Family: A Televised Life, a book about the show. By the time a major network developed and produced the Survivor series nearly thirty years later, reality TV shows were on almost every channel.
During the first years of the twenty-first century, viewers by the millions were tuning in to watch participants argue, struggle, eat bugs and rats, and reveal the most intimate details of their lives. Reality TV had changed again—this time into a contest where participants competed against each other to win love or money. Competitiveness and materialism were the watchwords of this newest incarnation of reality TV. It reflected, in part, the increased competitiveness in American society. As the new millennium began, it appeared that there was less of everything to go around—fewer good jobs, fewer affordable homes, and, especially, less lasting love. Against this backdrop, the struggles of contestants on reality TV shows to get the girl or win the money made perfect sense. Survivor participants secluded on an island were willing to do, say, or eat just about anything to win the one million dollar prize.
Reality TV in the twenty-first century, said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, represents “a new way of telling a story which [is] half fiction—the producers and creators set up a universe, they give it rules, they make a setting, they cast it according to specific guidelines as to who they think are going to provide good pyrotechnics. But then they bring in non-actors with no scripts and allow this kind of improvisation like a jazz piece to occur.” As reality TV has evolved, Candid Camera’s harmless embarrassments were superseded by the shameless marital arguing of An American Family and ultimately the painful humiliation of those who lost on Survivor.
In the past half century, as American television drama has become more violent and sexually explicit and comedy has become edgier, reality TV has also evolved into a genre that many media experts believe presents ever meaner, more competitive, and more hurtful versions of “reality” to an ever-expanding audience. However, many viewers enjoy reality TV. Psychologists offer several interesting reasons for the popularity of the shows: Viewers identify with the ordinary people who are chosen as participants and then become famous; viewers are titillated by the voyeuris- tic thrill they get from “peeking in”; and they enjoy the competitive nature of the shows—there are always winners and losers. Participants, on the other hand, are attracted to the instant fame that highly rated reality TV shows offer. As one potential participant said, “I just want to get on television. I’ve had a desire to be famous all my life.”
Television networks also like reality TV because it makes them wealthy. Shows with high ratings—reality TV shows were named as twenty of the top twenty-five highest rated shows in 2002—earn millions of dollars in advertising for networks. Moreover, because reality TV shows are unscripted, networks realize huge savings because they do not have to pay writers. For example, it costs about $750,000 per episode to produce a reality TV show; popular sitcoms can run up to $3 million. In fact, producers credit the writers’ strike in the spring of 2001 with giving reality TV a boost. Without writers for sitcoms and dramas, producers turned to reality TV shows.
Despite their lucrativeness and popularity, many analysts find current reality TV shows ethically and morally reprehensible. Early reality TV series were good-humored and harmless, they believe, but shows like Survivor and its contemporaries are not. Participants can be harmed physically performing various stunts or humiliated and emotionally abused when they fail to win. Further, reality TV shows often glorify superficial characteristics such as physical beauty over spiritual strength and thus set a poor example for teenagers, with whom the shows are especially popular. According to network statistics, twelve- to seventeen-year-olds say that three of their four favorite shows are reality TV shows.
While television producers acknowledge the cyclical nature of television programming—nothing is popular forever—they say they are counting on these youthful viewers to help maintain the viability of a genre that has been popular since the 1940s. “Reality TV allows you to keep your air fresh. It allows you to expand what viewers come to expect from the network,” according to Jordan Levin, entertainment chief for the WB network. The current contest-based reality TV shows—Survivor, The Bachelor, and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? among them—appear to have the potential for longevity. “I think it’s now beyond a trend,” said Robert Thompson, arguing for the permanence of the new reality TV. “It’s now a form, just like soap operas, doctor shows, or legal shows. I doubt you, me, our children or our grandchildren will know a time without it.” Critics of the new reality TV, however, are hoping that its popularity dwindles. Many, like John Rash, senior vice president and director of broadcast negotiations at the Campbell Mithun advertising agency, yearn for “a return to highly innovative, hard-hitting documentaries and news programs. These were once the hallmark of network TV and have been nearly abandoned,” he said.
Whether reality TV ultimately fades into television history or continues to evolve with the medium as a unique genre, for over fifty years it has offered interesting, often controversial entertainment. Authors in At Issue: Reality TV, debate the social, psychological, and ethical impact of reality TV as they explore this fascinating aspect of American entertainment culture.