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Reality Shows: Real or Fake

Essay by review  •  July 18, 2010  •  Essay  •  2,645 Words (11 Pages)  •  7,906 Views

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What is a Reality Show?

A television reality show features talent culled from the ranks of 'ordinary' people, not professionally trained actors. Reality show producers typically shoot hundreds of hours of footage per episode and use creative editing to create a narrative thread. Subjects of a reality show may be given some rudimentary directions offscreen, but the point is to allow the performers to act and react as normally as possible. A reality show is not to be confused with a documentary, in which the subjects are asked to ignore the cameras and behave naturally. Many reality show producers encourage participants to play to the cameras as characters or use private taped conversations, called confessionals, as a form of narration.

For many years, the television industry favored scripted television programs over the unpredictable and potentially litigious reality show form. An early reality show called Candid Camera, hosted by the unassuming Allen Funt, demonstrated that carefully edited clips of ordinary people reacting to contrived situations could be a ratings success. Early game shows featuring contestants selected from the audience also provided moments of unscripted reality. Groucho Marx's game show You Bet Your Life! featured extended interviews with ordinary contestants, although Marx was thoroughly briefed on their backgrounds before the show started.

Television shows during the 1960s and 1970s were usually scripted, with a cast of professional actors creating the characters. It was believed that a reality show featuring untrained actors working without a guiding script would be virtually unwatchable. There would be no way to create a satisfying storyline ending precisely after the allotted half-hour or hour running time of a typical scripted show. The only network amenable to the idea of a true reality show in the 1970s was the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). A documentary called An American Family followed the real lives of the Loud family as they dealt with the parents' impending divorce.

During the late 1980s, a syndicated reality show called COPS began showing real policemen performing their duties as hand-held cameras rolled. The success of COPS spurred other production companies to create reality shows featuring real footage captured by amateur photographers, local news organizations, and police surveillance cameras. This documentary form of reality show proved to be quite popular, especially among the younger demographics sought by advertisers.

Meanwhile, another form of reality show began to take shape. Producers of The Real World recruited groups of twenty-somethings to live in a furnished apartment while cameras recorded every public moment of their lives together. The footage was carefully edited to create a satisfying arc of episodes, even if the participants appeared to be prodded into certain confrontations at times. Shows like The Real World proved that television audiences could enjoy watching unscripted performers reacting to somewhat scripted circumstances.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking reality show on American network television was CBS' Survivor, debuting in 1999. Survivor featured teams of non-professional actors culled from thousands of audition tapes. Its success prompted network executives to greenlight a number of other shows employing a cast of camera-ready civilians and armies of creative editors. Professional actors, directors, and writers have all voiced strong objections to this new form of reality programming, but a reality show is usually inexpensive to produce and consistently reaches its target audience. There is some evidence that the reality show format is losing some momentum, but finding successful replacement programming has also proven to be difficult.

How Did Reality TV Begin?

If you date the beginnings of realty TV to MTV's The Real World or the CBS network's Survivor, you're off by several decades. There have been a variety of unscripted and live television shows that date back to the 1940s. Among them, Candid Camera, which debuted in 1948, is often thought of as the first example of reality television, where people were unwittingly exposed to pranks or silly situations by host Allen Funt.

Certain competition or game shows were also considered early versions of reality TV, as were live airings of programs like The Miss America Pageant and the Oscars. It doesn't get more real than David Niven's 1974 ad lib comments at the Academy Awards as a streaker crossed behind him on the stage. Most television historians don't consider documentaries or lengthy news stories as reality TV, but again these evoked people's interest greatly. Anthropological studies of tribal groups, or watching the news "unfold" through camera coverage of events, like President Kennedy's assassination, could be called the ancestors of modern reality TV.

Another example of earlier than The Real World reality TV is the program Cops, which premiered in 1989. This is a few years before MTV would take on their ambitious Real World production, and showcased police officers in different cities making arrests or dealing with people behaving in criminal or dangerous fashion. The program is the longest running of reality TV programs, and celebrated its 19th anniversary on the air in 2008.

Yet many people do see the programs above mentioned as predecessors to programs like The Real World first airing in 1992, and then the reality TV boom that occurred in the 2000s with programs like Survivor and American Idol. What MTV's program offered was a look at seven strangers all occupying house space together over a period of several months.

MTV almost didn't start this trend, and early in their conception of the series, they thought about having actors play out scripts that would seem close to reality. Instead the show's creators ultimately opted for providing viewers with video voyeurism, and an opportunity to see the "real lives" of several people. Of course, as with all "reality" TV, these real lives were shown when they were most tense or dramatic; editors went through hours of film to produce what was aired on television, since real life doesn't always make for the most exciting television moments.

The idea of combining competitive elements with reality TV came in the form of a Swedish TV program called Expedition: Robinson, which first aired in 1997. This was three years prior to the first airing of Survivor and in fact, inspired Mark Burnett's Survivor, who had to lease the concept from the creators of the Swedish show. Several other countries also produced similar programs, but the most famous of these in American television is undoubtedly Burnett's

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