A history of reality television (part one): The Beginning - VIDEOS
Love it, hate it, or feel indifferent about it, reality television is a staple of American television. It has been since The Real World and Road Rules premiered on MTV back in the 1990s, which started a chain reaction in the broadcast world. Eventually, the network and cable landscapes would be full of shows like Survivor, American Idol, Trading Spaces, and Big Brother. Since then, a season hasn't gone by without a show that emulated those shows, or any of the hundreds of other reality shows that were spurred by these originators.
So, what happened? How could we television viewers have lived with scripted fare for decades without a whiff of "reality" except for what was shown on the network news each night? Well, technically we didn't. Reality programming was there, except it wasn't called "reality programming" at the time. In addition, it was placed amidst a slew of scripted programming so it was considered a rarity. Nevertheless, these show were there and they were the impetus for some of the reality shows that we see today.
So where did reality programming begin? Actually, it didn't begin on television at all, but on the radio.
Gallery: Reality TV History: The Beginning
In 1947, 33-year-old Allen Funt introduced Candid Microphone to the radio-listening audience. Using a hidden microphone, Funt would set up funny and unconventional scenarios for ordinary people to get involved with at his office. As technology progressed, Funt was able to use a portable tape recorder (weighing in at a slight 27 pounds) to venture out into the world to perform his craft for unknowing citizens.
Eventually, Funt brought his program to television. While it was stilled called Candid Microphone when it premiered on the ABC television network in 1948, it eventually became known as Candid Camera as it moved from network to network, finally ending up as a regular show on CBS from 1960 to 1967. When it moved to television, Candid replaced the hidden microphones with hidden cameras and even introduced such trick props like a desk whose drawers would open without even being touched. When the unknowing star seemed to have enough, Funt or one of his team would go to the person and say "Smile. You're on Candid Camera." That's when you really saw the regular people react!
Camera remained on the air in one form or another for nearly five decades, which brought it into the era of present-day reality series. While it wasn't the groundbreaking show that it was in the early days of television, it defined many of the prank-reality programs that have aired since then. Some of those who emulated Camera's antics are MTV's Punk'd, Oxygen's Girls Behaving Badly, and The Jamie Kennedy Experiment.
Other than talent shows like Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour and Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, Camera remained the only reality-based show well into the '60s. It wasn't until the early '70s that television ushered in some additional predecessors to today's reality programming. The first of these shows was the 1973 non-news documentary An American Family. Airing as a 12-episode series on PBS, Family focused on the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California during a period of time where parents Bill and Pat Loud were separated.
Much of what went on during the run of Family drew much discussion and controversy. For instance, one of the couple's five children, Lance, was a 20-year-old gay man who would occasionally dress in drag. In another example, Pat Loud asked her husband for a divorce on camera, which resulted in Bill Loud leaving the house on camera. It was compelling television at the time and drew nearly ten million viewers an airing to the young Public Broadcasting System.
It was also innovative. According to the book An American Family: A Televised Life, the show shed the traditional narration and interviews of previous documentaries. Instead, stories were told through the spontaneous action of the Loud family. On the technical side, stand-alone cameras and microphones were replaced with portable cameras and wireless microphones -- items that are commonly used in reality programs today.
There's no doubt that American Family was the inspiration for the many relationship and family-oriented reality programs that emerged in the '90s and in the 21st century. Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, the producers that created MTV's The Real World, mentioned that Family was the inspiration for creating their show about seven people who are brought together to have their lives taped. Other shows like Little People, Big World, Big Brother and The Real Housewives of Orange County took the concept of Family for their looks about dysfunctional households.
It wasn't until the late '70s that we got another dose of reality in the form of the NBC program Real People. Produced by Laugh-In creator George Schlatter, Real People focused on some of the more offbeat faces of American life. Most of them were slanted to the comedic side, like the man who fell in love with the Statue of Liberty or a woman who took words and pronounced them backwards.
However, at least once or twice an episode, Real featured stories of a more dramatic nature. For example, on a 1980 broadcast, host Sarah Purcell interviewed amputee Terry Fox by running alongside him during his Marathon of Hope. In another installment -- one that I personally remember -- a full-time Santa broke down in tears when telling a story of a heavily-diabetic child who only wanted candy for Christmas.
Real People ran from 1979 to 1984 on NBC and spurred the careers of the before mentioned Purcell, Byron Allen, Mark Russell and Fred Willard. It also led to a slew of imitators, including the ABC series That's Incredible! Airing from 1980 to 1984, Incredible featured real people performing stunts such as catching a bullet between their teeth or juggling knives. It was acts like these that provided the impetus of such future reality shows like Fear Factor or Dog Eat Dog.
The last entry that set the stage for the modern age of reality programming came courtesy of the FOX network and their documentary series COPS. Coming about due to the Writers Guild Strike of 1988, COPS was a series that followed police officers across the United States (and, eventually, the world), during their daily activities. In some of the earliest episodes, segments featured law enforcement officers both on and off the job. As the popularity of the show grew, creator John Langley decided to scrap their home lives and focused on the action segments of the program.
Taking a page from An American Family, COPS featured no narrator and no music. Police officers wore wireless mikes. Handheld cameras were used during the ride- and runalongs of the various law enforcement officers. Sometimes, the COPS team members would even help the officers they were following by assisting in CPR or wrestling a suspect into custody. Besides MTV's The Real World, COPS is one of the longest-running reality series on television with over 700 episodes through 20 seasons.
Candid Microphone information courtesy of the Old Time Radio Show Catalog.
An American Family information courtesy of January magazine.
Additional information courtesy of IMDb and Wikipedia.