In 1999, ABC brought Regis and game shows back to prime time. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire became a cash cow complete with catch phrase, suspense, and interactivity. We watched until the hot seat cooled and endured the knock-offs and standouts that followed. By 2001, this century’s prime time game show gamut was run so deep into the ground, it should take the Game Show Network 20 years to dig them out. But it showed network executives what Fox and MTV have known for years, viewers like watching real people in extenuating circumstances. And thus reality programming was borne.
Or was it? Reality programs have been around since the early 1950s. Candid Camera originated in 1948 as Candid Microphone, a radio show taped by Allen Funt to broadcast complaints of servicemen in the Armed Forces. From there, the reality genre has gone through several incarnations, time slots, and formats. In the 1980s, networks tested the reality genre in prime time with America’s Most Wanted, Unsolved Mysteries, America’s Funniest Home Videos, and COPS. But for years reality was primarily a daytime mainstay with talk shows, courtroom dramas, and tabloid magazine shows. These days, the reality genre basically breaks down into six categories; strategy/game show, how-to, tabloid, documentary, dramatization, and hidden camera/prank. Depending on how you’ve programmed your DVR, you can find any type of reality show on at any time of day. Reality shows now dominate the airwaves and there is increasing worry that new fiction programs will be voted off.
Why is reality so appealing? Reality as we know it consists of daily minutiae and occasional life-rumbling events. It’s bill paying and traffic jams, picking an impossible piece of lint from your sweater, and dodging phone calls from nosy relatives. Televised reality eliminates the minutiae thanks to an expert team of editors, leaving plenty of non-commercial time for the big stuff.
By now, it’s no surprise that situations and scenes in most prime time reality shows are exaggerated for entertainment purposes. The first season of MTV’s The Real World threw seven strangers into a New York loft for three months. It was a sleepy little experiment with funny looking dogs, political graffiti, and toilet paper humor until they stumbled upon racial tension and a little bit of romance. It feels orchestrated and awkward, but the romance + tension formula works and MTV still holds a slot for the show twelve years later.
We tune in because we’re natural voyeurs. And it’s common knowledge that reality is more interesting when it isn’t your own; even if it is contrived and edited to fit your television screen. Reality television presents the camera-friendly everyman and everywoman to the general public, which was a refreshing change from the impossibly attractive actors living out impossibly perfect lives. In most series, there is an underdog, a villain, and the hero. I haven’t seen a reality game show yet that didn’t end with a winner. There’s always a happy ending for someone, at least for the final five minutes of the season finale.
The competition, the romance, and the drama are interesting for the duration of the series. Unfortunately, our media saturated culture kills the buzz on our fairytale endings with immediate follow-ups with former players. Shows like The Bachelor and American Idol are modern day fairy tales—someone’s dream comes true; the happy couple rides off into the sunset. They can leave you with a positive feeling about humanity and show that good things can happen—if you’re willing to turn it off at the end credits.
As some sitcoms wrap up their runs, we’re likely to see some awkward replacements and a dozen and a half more reality shows before the next big television trend rolls its opening credits. Perhaps Regis will play hero once again with his very own Irish cop drama, “Reege and the Hot Seat.”
originally published in the January-February 2004 issue of Orlando Life magazine.
Content on this site was originally written by Katharine Miller between 2000-2015. Many feature articles and interviews were published in print and on websites that no longer exist. Katharine is reproducing her written material here for portfolio and archival purposes only. Links and credits to clients and original publication will be included where possible.