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The Reality of Reality TV
Who needs a script when you can catch a glimpse of real life?
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November 02, 2007 by Walter J. Podrazik

View Evolution of TVPeople dancing. Singing. Cooking. Outsmarting the competition. Performing outrageous stunts. Rehabbing a family home.  These circumstances have connected with viewers of reality-based shows such as Survivor, Extreme Makeover Home Edition, Iron Chef, Dancing with the Stars, Fear Factor and American Idol.

But in reality (ahem), they’re nothing new. The reality shows we know hark back across decades, to such programs as The Arthur Murray Party (for dancing), Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, Shopping with Martha Manning, Truth or Consequences, Let’s Make a Deal and even The Gong Show. Television, it turns out, has long been adept at catching people in the act of being themselves.

Early television turned to reality programming out of necessity. The shows often aired live, the sets were simple, and it was easy to point the camera at a cooking or dancing demonstration or a game of charades.

Even as recording techniques grew more sophisticated, reality programming remained a part of the mix. They were far less expensive to produce than heavily scripted programs with big name stars and elaborate sets. But they also remained because they featured people and activities that connected with the personal experiences of viewers. There were contestants on game shows, plaintiffs and defendants in the courtroom, and friendly hosts offering household tips.

A sense of voyeurism also permeated. On the 1950s series Candid Camera, host Allen Funt secretly filmed people dealing with awkward situations. He ended each with an embarrassing “gotcha” moment, but offered sympathy for the participants who had been fooled.

Television is the first truly democratic culture - the first culture available to everybody and entirely governed by what the people want. The most terrifying thing is what people do want. 
—  Clive Barnes

As the prying eye of TV became more ingrained with the public, the nature of reality shows changed. Rather than being caught off guard by television, people welcomed cameras into their lives.  Some were comparatively benign showcases such as the 1970s series Real People, which packaged lighthearted stories about ordinary folks with some unusual wrinkles in their lives. 

When portable video cameras became consumer items in the late 1980s, viewers pointed the cameras at themselves, sending in silly and embarrassing moments to programs such as America’s Funniest Home Videos

A tabloid sensibility also took hold. In 1989, Fox’s Cops took advantage of portable camera innovations to push reality programming to a more intense level. Crews armed with portable video cameras traveled with local police and taped their pursuits and arrests. There were no reenactments, no somber narratives. They simply caught people at their worst. The most excessive offerings represented the shorthand signature of an emerging new reality genre, embracing a lurid tone of scandalous, crude, and shocking behavior. It all seemed designed to evoke the reaction: They’re going to do THAT on television?!?

There was another change, especially among younger generations who had spent their entire lives embracing a video vision of the world. They accepted the camera—and themselves—as fair game.

In May 1992, MTV launched The Real World, which brought together seven strangers in a trendy Manhattan apartment and recorded their lives together over three months. Material was edited into 13 half-hour episodes that carried an undeniable sense of group drama, dealing with conflicts, issues, and deeply personal moments. The program connected with MTV’s young viewers, who easily recognized similar issues from their own lives. The Real World became one of MTV’s most popular programs, with new groups of strangers brought together in different cities each season.

One of the few good things about modern times: If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us. 
—  Kurt Vonnegut

The formula proved to be endlessly adaptable, and when it debuted in 2000, the CBS series Survivor manipulated it to perfection. Contestants were placed in a remote locale (along with a full production crew) where they endured primitive conditions, with the goal of being the last one to survive and take home a $1 million prize. Survivor was part game, part travel adventure, part sports competition, and very much a personal soap opera. Contestants not only endured physical challenges, they also formed strategic alliances and voted one another off the island.

Eliminating participants one by one has become a reality show draw, whether determined by home audience vote (American Idol), a panel of judges (Dancing with the Stars), or a single individual (The Bachelor/Bachelorette).  It creates a continuing story element with a clear conclusion: There will be a winner.

Viewers recognize the people in these slices of television life and can identify with the choices they face, whether daring to perform before a critical panel, forging an alliance or getting a makeover. Reality series, in effect, continue to touch our lives.

Walter J. Podrazik is co-author of 10 books, including Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television (Syracuse University Press). He is also a media contributor for the Chicago Public Radio program Eight Forty-Eight, and a consulting curator for the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

Text copyright 2007 by Walter J. Podrazik. All rights reserved.

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TV Timeline: 2000-2001
2000
Survivor debuts in the United States.
2001
Millions follow round-the-clock coverage of Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; one TV news by-product is widespread adoption of the crawling ‘news ticker’ at the bottom of the screen.

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