Reality (TV) Bites (The Dust)
Reality shows once dominated primetime. What happened?
Web2Carz Senior Writer
Published: August 15th, 2012
eople of a certain age might assume that reality television began with MTV’s The Real World in 1992, but it's been around quite a bit longer. In its broadest sense, the reality genre encompasses game shows and talent shows, but even limiting it to the Survivor-type “real live” shows, it can be traced back to the 1960s. In the 2000s reality became the dominant format for network programs, but this year, only one new reality show, Stars Earn Stripes, is on the Fall schedule.
The format for the modern reality show comes from a 1973 PBS series called An American Family, which followed the travails of the Loud family as they went through a divorce. It was that show that inspired Mary Ellis-Bunim and Jonathan Murray to create The Real World for MTV. The success of The Real World proved to the major television networks that it was possible to produce a huge hit show that was unscripted and could be made very cheaply.
It was the cheapness of reality shows that made them so appealing to network executives.
And it was the cheapness of reality shows that made them so appealing to network executives. Without having to pay actors (cast members on reality shows usually receive only a small stipend), construct multiple sets, or have large film crews, reality shows cost a fraction of what a typical sitcom or drama costs to bring to screen.
By the 2000s it seemed clear that the public’s appetite for reality knew no bounds. In addition to the megahits Big Brother and Survivor, there were The Amazing Race, The Simple Life, The Amazing Race, America’s Next Top Model, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, Cheaters, The Apprentice, The Mole, and many, many more.
But by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, reality television was on the wane. Why did people tire of the format?
Was it was the public’s increasing awareness of the un-reality of the shows (many of which, while not scripted, did have writers, who came up with situations and ways to provoke cast members into confrontations), or the fact that many reality show cast members became professional cast members (appearing on numerous reality shows, having become a celebrity for being on a previous reality show) and started to become too familiar?
Whatever the reason, people soon started abandoning the reality shows—and the networks that aired them—in favor of cable channels that offered original non-reality programs. Shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Weeds, and other networks began siphoning off audiences from the networks. Eventually, the major networks had to begin producing sitcoms and dramas again.