History of Reality TV

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

"Survivor II" and "Temptation Island" lead the reality show pack

by Beth Rowen

This article was posted on July 21, 2000.

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One would have to live, well, on a deserted island in the South China Sea, not to be swept up by the recent wave of reality television. Indeed, millions of Americans have caught Survivor mania. The show's success has led to a string of knock-offs and has ensured that reality programming is here to stay—at least until the next big thing comes along.

While Survivor has become a cultural phenomenon and the second installment, set in the Australian Outback, is destined for boffo ratings, it remains relatively benign and family friendly. Fox's latest entry, Temptation Island, however, is anything but family friendly. Indeed, the show that could be dubbed "Prostitution Island" is so morally corrupt that several advertisers, including Best Buy, Quaker Oats, and Sears, have pulled their commercials from the controversial and utterly entertaining show.

Tempting Premise of Temptation Island

Temptation Island features four non-married "committed couples" who spend two weeks in dreamy Belize. The catch is that couples were separated, and the women were sent to a well-equipped camp with 13 attractive, buff single men who were chosen for their potential to tempt the women. The men were dispatched to a similar camp with 13 attractive, buff single women who were chosen for their potential to tempt the men. There is no monetary compensation for the couples or their tempters. The contestants were driven by nothing else than self-promotion.

One couple was recently removed from the land of debauchery when it was revealed that they have a one-and-a-half-year-old son. Fox clearly did not want to be held responsible for the break-up of a family.

Family Drama on PBS

Even PBS has joined the game, although its entry, 1900 House, was a bit more highbrow (and entertaining) and not at all cutthroat. The Bowler family of England moved into a home furnished with all the fixings (or lack of) dating back to, you guessed it, 1900.

But a closer look reveals that reality television is not a new phenomenon. PBS debuted An American Family, an unsettling, yet fascinating documentary series, in 1973. The members of the Loud family opened up their home and lives for seven months to producer Craig Gilbert, who shot 300 hours of footage. Only 12 of those hours made it to television. An astonishing 10 million viewers watched the marital breakup of Bill and Pat Loud and the coming-out of their son Lance. The family complained that the hours chosen for broadcast misrepresented their lives. Ten years later, Gilbert's two assistants produced a sequel for HBO.

Enter The Real World

An American Family was undoubtedly an inspiration for The Real World, now in its ninth season. (Its spin-off, Road Rules, continues road-tripping.)

Real World housemates enjoy a fleeting fame. There's no monetary reward (other than living in ultra-cool digs rent-free), so why else would more than 35,000 twenty-somethings audition to have their lives exposed for better or for worse? Worse, by the way, means lofty ratings for MTV. After all, who'd watch week after week if everything remained copacetic among inhabitants?

Fox Cornered the Reality TV Market

Indeed, ratings, not quality, matter most to network executives. Until CBS' recent emergence as the reality TV network, Fox had cornered the market. The network had perennially relied on nobrow verité to lure viewers. Long before Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, the network's bread-and-butter was the likes of Cops, which followed cops on the beat, staking out suspects, and making busts. The show debuted in 1989 and remains on the schedule. In addition to its regular timeslot, the show's often used as filler programming when Fox cancels other series (and that's by no means an aberrance).

Ratings also reveal that America wants America's Most Wanted. The show, another Fox staple, dates back to 1988, and ranked first in its timeslot in the summer of 1989. Host John Walsh, whose son Adam was kidnapped and murdered, presents information about fugitives and reenactments of their crimes, with the intention of tracking down the suspects. To its credit, the show has helped apprehend 618 criminals.

But It Was CBS That Started It All

CBS experimented with this format more than 30 years earlier, with Wanted, which ran from October 1955 through January 1956. Host Walter McGrew outlined the crimes of fugitives and interviewed their relatives and law enforcement officers working on the cases.

But the granddaddy of the reality TV genre is Candid Camera, which has been on television on and off since 1948 (yep, almost since the dawn of the medium itself). The show actually has its roots in radio. Allen Funt originally taped and broadcast the complaints of fellow servicemen on Armed Forces Radio and took his idea to network radio in 1947 as Candid Microphone. The television version followed a year later. Funt was still active in the show when he died in 1999. His son, Peter, has taken over for him on the CBS series.

Funniest Home Videos?

While Candid Camera "caught people in the act of being themselves," America's Funniest Home Videos caught parents shamelessly exploiting their tumbling toddlers and costumed cocker spaniels for the chance of winning $10,000. The show, which debuted in 1990, has spawned several spin-offs, all equally contrived.

Given television's long history of reality-based programming, why all the fuss now? Two factors immediately come to mind: money and fame. The money part is obvious motivation. The sole Survivor survivor takes home a million bucks (apparently it's worth money to dine on rats and beetle larvae). Then there's the fame part. The shows have made instant celebrities out of regular men and women who would've likely endured in anonymity forever if they hadn't made the cut. Will their lives change? Maybe for a little while, but can anyone name anyone from the first Real World?

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