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Reality TV
aka: Reality Television

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"If reality TV has taught us anything, it's that you can't keep people with no shame down."
Liz Lemon, 30 Rock, "Subway Hero"

"Reality" television is a genre of television programming in which the exploits and (mis)fortunes of "real-life" people (as opposed to fictional characters played by actors) are followed. The native habitat of Reality TV Tropes, if you will. There are three main types of reality TV:

In the first, the viewer and the camera are passive observers following people going about their daily personal and professional activities. This style of filming is often referred to as "fly on the wall". The "plots" which are compiled for the program often resemble sitcoms or soap operas, hence the description "Docu Soap".

Though there were earlier precedents on radio and television, the Ur-Example for this type of reality show was probably the PBS series An American Family. Twelve parts were broadcast in the United States in 1973. The series dealt with a nuclear family going through a divorce. The parents had several children and one of them, Lance Loud, was openly gay; he occasionally wore lipstick and women's clothes and, in the second episode, took his mother to a drag show. 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 confirmed that he had been out for some time. An American Family 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. However, this didn't stop it from achieving ratings in the 10 million range, proving that there was an audience for reality TV as early as The '70s.

In 1974, a counterpart programme, The Family, was made in the UK, following the working class Wilkins family of Reading. Australia saw Sylvania Waters in 1992, about the nouveau riche Baker-Donaher family of Sydney. Both attracted their share of controversy.

In 1989, the fledgling Fox Network began airing COPS as the result of the 1988 TV Strikes (and probably the quickly-filling graveyard that was Fox's sitcom development at the time), which carries many of the hallmarks of modern documentary-style reality TV. COPS has been criticized for focusing on the trashier and more sensational elements of police work; if one image summarizes the legacy of COPS, it would be a white male, possibly shirtless and probably drunk, being pinned down by the police after a short and ill-advised attempt to escape.

MTV's The Real World was one of the first reality programs to gain mainstream popularity, and is generally considered the forefather of reality shows as we know them today. A new subset of this type has recently emerged in which the daily lives of celebrities are portrayed, many of them Famous For Being Famous. Examples include The Anna Nicole Show, The Osbournes and Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

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. In fact, this technique has been used to conduct legitimate scientific and psychological research. But that's not entertaining, so, back to television.

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 inter-racial couple.

In the third type, the so-called "reality game shows" (see Reality Show), 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. The reality game show genre has become pervasive enough to be parodied by Spike TV with The Joe Schmo Show.

One difference that makes these more like "reality television" than other game shows is that the viewing public and/or the contestants usually (but not always) play an active role in deciding the outcome. Usually this is by eliminating participants (disapproval voting, often one per week) or voting for the most popular choice to win (with either the least popular contestant being eliminated outright, or the bottom 2-3 contestants competing head-to-head to see who continues). Some popular reality-based game shows of this sort are Big Brother, Survivor, The Amazing Race, and American Idol. There is also a Spanish-language show taped for Latin American audiences, Protagonistas De La Musica, filmed in Miami by Telemundo USA.

Some of these game shows, such as The Apprentice or The Biggest Loser, also borrow from the first type of reality show by having the contestants live together and showing their interactions outside of the competition itself. Contestant voiceovers and confessionals are common. These shows are generally more personality-driven and are edited to create storylines with heroes, villains, and alliances, even when those friendships have no direct bearing on who stays and who goes.

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. However, a legacy of the Quiz Show Scandals of the late Fifties means that many of these programs have to run under the same rules and regulations as regular old 'host and contestant' game shows, so unless a program is completely fictionalized like Joe Schmo, the producers can't meddle too much unless they want to be dragged before the courts.

For discussion of reality TV, see also Reality Show, Reality Tv Tropes. Two major Hollywood films, The Truman Show and Ed TV, are based on the protagonist's life within a reality show. For fictional shows that go beyond the bounds of what a TV station would really be allowed to do, see Immoral Reality Show.


    open/close all folders 

    Documentary style 
(Some of the shows in this section are arguably true documentaries, in which the producers make a good-faith effort to document their actual subject, not interfering with the events just to make a better story.)

    Historical re-creation 
  • The 1900 House (1999) (UK; living in historical conditions. Also shown on PBS)
  • The 1940s House (2001) (UK)
  • Colonial House (2004) (US; PBS show set in the American frontier of 1628)
  • Frontier House (2002) (US; PBS show set in the American frontier of 1883)
  • Klondike: The Quest for Gold (2003) (Canada)
  • Le Moyen 1903 (2003) (Switzerland/TSR)
  • Pioneer Quest: A Year in the Real West (2000) (Canada)
  • Quest for the Bay (2002) (Canada)
  • Regency House Party (2004) (UK)
  • The Edwardian Country House aka Manor House (2002)
  • The Ship (2002) (UK)
  • Warrior Challenge (2004) (US)
  • Texas Ranch House (2006) (US)
  • That'll Teach 'Em (2003-2006) (UK; set in a 1950s school) and it's remake Il Collegio (2017-) (Italy)

  • 90 Day Fiancé (2014-)
  • The 5th Wheel (2001)
  • Average (2003)
  • The Bachelornote  (2002)
  • Bachelorettes in Alaska (2002)
  • Blind Date (UK) (1985)
  • Blind Date (US) (1999)
  • Boy Meets Boy (2003)
  • Cupid (2003)
  • Series/Daisy of Love (2009)
  • ElimiDATE (2002)
  • Excused (2011)
  • EX-treme Dating (2002)
  • Finding Prince Charming (2016)
  • Flavor of Love (2006)
  • For Love or Money (2003)
  • For the Love of Ray J (2009)
  • I Love New York (2007)
  • I Wanna Marry "Harry" (2014)
  • Joe Millionaire (2003) and The Next Joe Millionaire (later the same year)
  • Labor of Love (2020–, Fox)
  • Love Island (2005-2006, 2015-)
  • Love Island (2019) (CBS, American version of the above)
  • ''Love Is Blind (Netflix, 2020-)
  • Married At First Sight (2014)
  • Married by America (2003)
  • Megan Wants a Millionaire (2009)
  • Milf Manor (2023)
  • Millionaire (2003)
  • Mr. Personality (2003)
  • My Antonio (2009)
  • My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé (2004)
  • Outback Jack (2004)
  • Playing It Straight (2004)
  • Real Chance of Love (2008)
  • Rock of Love (2007)
  • Seducing Cindy (2010)
  • Streetmate (UK)
  • Temptation Island (2001)
  • Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? (2000)
  • Would Like To Meet (UK)

    Law Enforcement/Military 


    Life Change 

    Docusoaps starring celebrities 

    Hidden camera 

    Reality game shows 


    Talent Searches 

    Fantasies Fulfilled 

(Some of the shows in this section are arguably true documentaries, in which the producers make a good-faith effort to document their actual subject, not interfering with the events just to make a better story. Though some situations do seem staged or scripted. Individual episodes are deliberately set up.)



Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Reality Television


Reality TV That Really Matters

Wendy Rieger talks about reality TV.

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