From surviving “Cops” to surviving “Survivor.” From “Toddlers & Tiaras” to toddlers and their "Teen Mom." And from “Miss USA” to “American Idol” to “Dancing with the Stars” to “The X Factor.” Reality television has sprouted, bloomed, and reproduced throughout both network and cable programming. Its cheap thrills continue to attract producers and audiences alike.
Films like 1998’s The Truman Show and 1999’s Edtv seemed to have predicted this countrywide epidemic that currently consumes our television attention.
But where did this bastard child that we call reality TV really come from? Did it evolve from the television documentary and docuseries formats? Or did it just one day appear like a spec of cancer on an x-ray when it popped into a decision maker’s mind starved of creativity? Can its origin even truly be defined?
Time magazine writer James Poniewozik previously broke reality TV into two subgenres: “the big competition-event show” and the “naked voyeurism” show; series like “American Idol” and “The X Factor” obviously falling in to the former and “Jersey Shore” and “Big Brother” in to the latter.
Taking a step back, the genre does not play out like some random series of events after all. Driven by a cutthroat Darwinistic approach, even the most bitter of critics cannot deny its structured timeline.
Like any scripted programming, reality TV has adapted to viewers’ tastes, needs, and pervish fantasies in order to earn a secure place on your DVR.
Taking a closure look at this timeline – going back to the beginning – will prove that the current state of the genre was shaped by the programs it produced and by people’s response to them. About every ten years, a major shift occurs, keeping the genre fresh. It also proves, whether you like it or not, that reality TV is here to stay.
Shark Week – In 1987, spiraling off the success of the long running Jaws franchise, the Discovery network - then in its early years - made the decision to dedicate an entire week to sharks in order to attract summer viewers the following year. Today, Shark Week holds the record for the longest running cable event of all time.
“Cops” – Many consider this show the grandfather of all modern day docudramas. In fact, there is quite a lot of history involved with how the show came to be. In 1988, the Writer’s Guild of America was on strike and FOX was starved for original material. Needless to say, a show that required no writers tasted pretty good and alas… "Cops" was born. In 2012, the show is currently in its 24th season.
“The Real World” – In perhaps what was initially an interesting experiment of placing seven people from different backgrounds in the same house and “seeing what happens,” one detail was overlooked: All those people were horny young adults who wanted to have sex with each other. But the smut stuck and today “The Real World” is still relevant enough to generate viewers for a 28th season.
1993 - 1994:
The Food Network and HGTV – In the mid ‘90s, reality television programming turned away from its “look at them!” trend to a “look at me!” theme.
The invention and ongoing success of channels like the Food Network and HGTV during this time seemed to prove the “Me Generation” movement had officially begun and programming started being applicable to viewers in a more direct way than ever.
“Survivor” – It’s probably no coincidence that the beginning of the Harry Potter craze started at the same time that the first season of “Survivor” aired. Weirdly, both tell the same basic tale: Normal people are put in an extraordinary situations and achieve greatness.
Though you may not have realized it at the time, if you were a fan of both Harry Potter and “Survivor,” you were living the same repackaged dream through two different mediums – the fictitious world of wizardry and the fantasy, but still the actuality of reality TV.
This was the year of the competition show. ABC and FOX started bringing this movement to America in the form of “The Bachelor” and “American Idol.” Shows like these took the concept of broadcast competitions like “Miss USA” from decades ago and played the idea out in an extended, series format.
What made “American Idol” so successful was that Harry Potter effect again. The dream of an average Joe accomplishing stardom on top of the competition aspect was the ultimate combination. Over the course of 39 episodes, a person can go from a nobody to an international star.
The success of this initial attempt at the competition show created to a new subgenre of the judge paneled performance shows, which – despite how original they claim to be – went on to influence shows like “Dancing with the Stars,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” “The X Factor,” “The Voice,” and “America’s Got Talent.”
2003 – 2004:
Just like the focus on "me" shift ten years earlier, reality TV was in another transition come the mid-2000's. With shows like MTV’s “Made” catching on, the networks began jumping on to the bandwagon of shows that asserted a statement of “let me help you with your problems."
And when the networks want in, you know there’s money to be made. ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” are symbols for this movement.
Along with helping others, the mid-2000's seemed to take an interest in the bizarre: People and professions of the world that no one ever knew existed.
Leading this movement were groundbreaking docu-style shows “Dirty Jobs” and “The Deadliest Catch,” whose craftiness has proven to been one-of-a-kind ever since. Soon Mike Rowe became as household a name as Tim Allen and Bill Cosby.
2007 - 2010:
Mishmash is one way to describe the late 2000's. Show’s like “Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica,” “The Osbournes,” and the birth of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” seemed to have suggested that docuseries gone celebrity was “in.” Meanwhile the popularity of the then new “Jersey Shore” seemed to re-highlight a voyeuristic format that “The Real World” began.
New shows like “16 and Pregnant” and “Toddlers & Tiaras” showcased that people still had a need to watch the unfortunate and the bizarre. And then oddball hits like “Tosh.0,” seemed to further confuse things.
So what was happening during this period? Were network execs burning out, on drugs, or just plain screwing with us?
The truth is probably a lot more involved than a simple explanation can offer. In fact, the way in which television was being delivered was in a transitional period as well. Internet TV was on the rise with companies like Hulu and YouTube. All the sudden the networks had competition.
More options meant shows could appeal to a more niche target audiences. With the extra places to watch TV, audiences were split into smaller groups and television distributors seemed be trying to hang on to shrinking attention spans.
As reality television matured into it's young adulthood, the late 2000's could certainly be considered it's confused, teenage phase.
A new breed of television show will attempt to allow viewers to play puppet master with the arrival of ABC's “The Glass House." The show puts the audience in charge of a house of 14 contestants, all attempting to win an ultimate payout of $250,000.
Along with weekly challenges, viewer voting, and even live Internet feeds of the house, this seems like a network's first full swing at putting the audience in a "producer" role. But with the series opening to soft numbers, "The Glass House" is no "American Idol."
Still, with this being the only true groundbreaking concept of the decade so far, as we approach the mid-2010's you can't help but wonder if this is the direction reality television - and possibly television in general - is headed. Viewer-determined outcomes could expand beyond the competition show. Soon we could be deciding whether Kim will date Kanye, or what Snooki will name her new baby.
If the 20+ years of reality TV have taught us one thing, it's that our opinions as viewers matter. If we want to determine show outcomes then, sure enough, we will. Otherwise, we could lose interest and stop tuning in altogether. And that is an episode of reality TV history that no producer, network, or cast member is prepared to take on.