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Reality television is a genre of television programming in which the
fortunes of "real life" people (as opposed to actors, or fictional
characters) are followed.
There are three main types of reality television program. In the first, the
viewer and the camera are passive observers following people going about
their daily personal and professional activities. The "plots" which are
compiled for the program often resemble soap operas, hence the description
The first reality show broadcast was the PBS series An American Family,
broadcast in the United States in 1973 in twelve parts. The series dealt
with a nuclear family going through a divorce; the parents had several
children and one of them, Lance Loud, was an openly gay young man who
occasionally wore lipstick and women's clothes and took his mother to a drag
show in episode two of the series. Scholars sometimes mention that Lance
came out of the closet on TV, but this is technically incorrect--he was
simply gay without announcement. His family confirms that he had been out
for some time. The show was controversial in its time and was excoriated by
the press, particularly The New York Times, which published a piece
criticizing the series and especially Lance Loud.
In 1974 a counterpart programme, The Family, was made in the UK , following
the working class Wilkins family of Reading. Later Australia saw Sylvania
Waters in 1992, about the nouveau riche Baker-Donaher family of Sydney. Both
attracted their share of controversy.
A prime modern example of reality television is MTV's The Real World, one of
the first reality programs to gain popularity. A new subset of this type has
recently emerged in which the daily lives of celebrities are portrayed.
Examples include The Osbournes and The Anna Nicole Show.
In the second type, hidden cameras are rolling when random passers-by
encounter a staged situation. The reactions of the passers-by can be funny
to watch, but also revealing to the truths about the human condition. Allen
Funt, an American pioneer in reality entertainment, led the way in the
development of this type of show. He created Candid Microphone, which
debuted on the ABC Radio Network in 1947, and the internationally successful
Candid Camera, which first aired on television in 1953. He later produced a
feature-length reality-film in 1968 entitled What Do You Say to a Naked
Lady?. The film was a hidden-camera study of sexuality and mores of the
time. For example, in one staged situation, passers-by encountered an
In the third type, the so-called "reality game shows", participants are
filmed intensively in an enclosed environment while competing to win a prize
- thus they are game shows and discussed more thoroughly in that article.
One difference that makes these more like "reality television" than other
game shows is that the viewing public usually (but not always) plays an
active role in deciding the outcome. Usually this is by eliminating
participants (disapproval voting) or voting for the most popular choice to
win (with some other voting system). Two of the most popular reality-based
game shows of this sort are Big Brother, Survivor. There is also a Spanish
language show taped for Latin American audiences, Protagonistas De La
Musica, filmed in Miami by Telemundo USA.
However, given that producers can control the format of the show, as well as
manipulate the outcome of some of them, it is questionable how "real"
reality television actually is.
Other reality programs include Driving School, Cops, Highway Patrol, Road
Rules, Bachelor and Bachelorette, Married by America, the British series
World's Worst and Pop Stars, and the spinoffs of the latter, Pop Idol,
American Idol and American Juniors.