A Healthy Dose of Reality

These days, it seems that many people complain about the glut of reality programming that has infiltrated our television airwaves. The truth of the matter is reality shows have been with us since the caveman days– or at least since the inception of the RCA floor model.

Back in the 1940’s and 50’s, reality TV came to us in the form of the game show. Programs like “Truth or Consequences”, “What’s My Line” and “I’ve Got a Secret” were riding high. In the late 1950’s a very real scandal involving television quiz shows threatened to bring the TV game show down, but instead it kept the public wanting more.

Talk shows, another form of reality TV, have been around forever as well. Jack Paar and Steve Allen paved the way for other talk fests starring Johnny Carson, Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin– even Oprah Winfrey. Early talk shows gave us a glimpse into the very real lives of very famous guests.

In the 1970’s, PBS debuted what many consider to be the first reality television show. A documentary with a twist, “An American Family” was a voyeuristic glimpse into he daily lives of a regular family, The Louds. The show was considered groundbreaking at the time. However, other reality fare was still making it to the airwaves. Game shows, not just limited to the quiz show format, were more rampant than ever. Shows like “The Price is Right”, “Match Game” and “Password” were popular daytime programs. “Battle of the Network Stars’ came to us periodically as a showcase for the athletic talents of famous TV stars of the time. Considered must-see TV, (where else could you see Gabe Kaplan compete against Tony Randall), these competitions were as real as the ones we see on challenge shows today. There were just no bugs involved. Or cow brains.

In 1981, Lady’s Diana Spencer’s wedding to Prince Charles was broadcast world wide. Touted as “The Royal Wedding” it was watched by millions. So why all the fuss over Trista and Ryan’s wedding a few years ago? After all, everyone likes to be an uninvited spectator at a good wedding.

When MTV debuted “The Real World” in the early 1990’s, television critics lamented about the return of reality television. Although in real life most of us don’t live rent free in a posh loft with six friends, “The Real World” did prove to be a popular formula. Changing locations each season– from New York to L.A. and all the way to Paris– “The Real World” has become a gauge of our times– watch the old seasons and see how much young adults have changed over the years. After a few seasons of “the Real World”, MTV added “Road Rules” to their lineup. Same type of concept as “The Real World”, except this time the kids lived in a Winnebago and traveled the world.

Looking for more reality TV? How about the news? You can’t get any more real than the nightly news-and that has been around since the dawn of television. News coverage took a circus-like turn with the coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial in the mid-1990’s. Featuring its own cast of characters like Kato Kaelin and Judge Ito, and broadcast in its entirety, the Simpson trial was a newshounds dream come true.

In 1999, the TV game show made a prime time resurgence with a series of specials called “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”. Each night, millions of viewers would tune in to watch Regis Philbin grill a contestant on a variety of subjects, with the chance to win the ultimate prize– one million dollars (seems kind of paltry now). “Millionaire” was credited for bringing families together again for a night of television– that hadn’t happened since Junior got his own TV for his room, but everyone knew “Millionaire” was no fun to watch alone.

Soon after the success of ‘Millionaire”, producer Mark Burnett introduced his new show, “Survivor”, a Gilligan’s Island-type of game show– sort of like “Road Rules” but on an island instead of a Winnie. “Survivor” proved to be a major hit, spawning dozens of knock-offs. Reality TV was going strong. About the same time, a new home improvement show called “Trading Spaces” was getting a lot of press. “Trading Spaces” led to an onslaught of new decorating shows, which led to self-improvement shows, which led to dating shows, which led to âÂ?¦ well, you get the picture.

These days, nothing is off limits. Sure, in real life we don’t swap wives or go on three month job interviews with Donald trump. But reality TV is an interesting commentary of our times. And although it seems like the TV networks are saturated with these types of programs, the fact is, from “Trading Spaces” to “Trading Spouses”, reality TV is just more apparent these days because there are simply more TV channels than there used to be. Way more.

So, like it or not, it’s time to accept the fact that reality TV is here to stay. I’ve accepted it. I mean, after all, I am a realist.

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